Off Center
 
Those of you familiar with my writing know that I am a big proponent of telecommuting. A work at home arrangement fosters high employee engagement and productivity, is a “greener” staffing method than traditional approaches, and for years has enabled me to work naked in July and August without upsetting anybody except my wife and, occasionally, the UPS guy.    

While telecommuting brings with it many potential benefits – especially for contact centers – it also entails several challenges, not the least of which is defending against feelings of isolation and alienation on the part of the home worker. True, a careful selection process (i.e., choosing employees who have a proven ability and desire to work with minimal supervision and clothing) will help to minimize such problems; however, even some of the best telecommuting candidates can struggle to make a successful transition from the contact center to the home.

To help ensure that your home agents remain happy and productive in their underwear without pining for the office environment, follow these leading practices:


Recreate key physical components of the contact center environment in the home.  There are several simple and effective ways to simulate the office environment to help wean home agents from the physical contact center site. First, install a water cooler in each telecommuter’s home office surrounded by life-size cardboard cut-outs of three or four of their peers with whom they can pretend to discuss current events, sports and office politics. Such a simulation tactic not only helps home agents avoid feelings of isolation, it gives them people to punch when they are stressed out during peak periods without risk of disciplinary action or dismissal.

Other effective ways to “contact center-ify” telecommuters’ homes include replacing all lamps and light fixtures with overhead fluorescent lighting; adorning walls with motivational posters featuring a person in a business suit standing atop a mountain peak; removing all windows; filling their office with helium balloons; and placing a “please wash hands before returning to work” sign in the bathroom.

Make a video of their onsite peers. This is a great way to keep home agents in the loop and to remind them that they are not alone in handling call after call after call. After call.

In the video, be sure to capture the general malaise, anxiety and depression so prevalent in your center to ensure that home agents don’t feel like they are missing out on anything by working remotely. A shot of an onsite agent cutting himself following an abusive
customer call, or a shot of one crying following a feedback session will do wonders in terms of keeping your home agents from feeling alienated from the rest of the team.

Hold monthly supervisor/agent sleep-overs. While there is a vast array of communications technology – i.e., phone, email, IM, Facebook – that supervisors can use to stay connected with home agents, nothing beats quality face-to-face time. Some centers invite their home agents into the contact center on occasion to foster such human interaction; others send supervisors directly to the home agent. But the truth is, having a supervisor spend a couple of hours with a home agent once a month or so simply isn’t enough to make up for lost time.

That’s why I highly recommended frequent supervisor/agent sleep-overs, during which remote staff and their immediate superior can truly connect and compensate for all the days they have worked apart. This tactic may sound completely insane to you, but that is simply because my progressive management sensibilities are more finely tuned than yours.

For the best results, supervisor/agent sleep-overs should last two to three days and nights; anything less makes it too easy for agents to hide in the linen closet. In addition to observing home agents while they handle contacts, supervisors should spend time offline with their agents to really get to know them – their hopes, fears, aspirations, dreams and, importantly, where they keep their cereal.

7/22/2010 08:49:18 pm

Greg:

Appreciate the humor. Keep up the great work. Many of your ideas do truly make us think of innovative strategies to keep our agents engaged.

Regards,

Jared

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7/22/2010 10:27:11 pm

Thanks Jared. Yes, there are some nuggets of truth buried beneath the satire and parody!

For more "serious" contact center management tactics and insight, be sure to check out my upcoming ebook, FULL CONTACT, which is due out this fall.

Best of luck!

Greg

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7/22/2010 10:49:56 pm

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7/22/2010 10:51:37 pm

Hey Greg,

I'm going to have to disagree with the sleepovers from a benefits perspective...who wants to pay for all of those babies :) Great column!

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7/23/2010 02:48:00 am

Glad you enjoyed it, Dan. Babies? These would just be innocent slumber parties where agents and supervisors have pillow fights and tell ghost stories.

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Michael Pace
7/23/2010 05:07:10 am

Greg,

I am also a huge proponent of the teleagent/homeagent philosophy. I personally need to be in the office, and I am sure most of your coworkers were estatic with your choice to work from home. It takes a special kind of person.

In '98, when I worked for a well-known jewelry retailer, we implemented a home agent program; complete with ISDN lines and dial up. Believe it or not, it worked great. In fact, as of 7/2010 all 8 agents are still with the company and loving working from home.

I think many employers get hung up on the risks of telecommuting, especially in regulated industries. With the right policies, guidelines, carrots and sticks, it can be a very easy program to manage.

Mike

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7/24/2010 11:13:31 pm

Thanks for your import, Mike -- and don't think I didn't catch your litter barb about my coworkers celebrating my absence from the office! Good one!

You are dead on about how many managers get scared off by the (mostly imagined) risks associated with home agent initiatives. Most are missing out on an opportunity to dramatically improve operations and engagement. Just check all the research and talk to managers who have gone the home agent route!

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8/5/2010 06:08:16 am

Hey Greg,

It's so true that home agents have to guard against feelings of isolation and alienation. Many of our customers have seen great success with their home agents by keeping them engaged with what's happening in the call center.

Your post inspired me to come up with a couple satirical engagement suggestions of my own for our corporate blog- www.insideinova.com. My favorite is instead of giving bonuses or raises, send home agents a set of their own cubicle walls to display in their home.

Keep up the great posts!

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8/5/2010 07:06:45 am

I like your idea for a cubicle-for-performance incentive program, Camille. Good stuff!

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