Contact Center Agents: Send Them Home

We're all being impacted by the coronavirus. As employees across the globe move to work from home and limit social contact, contact center workers should be no different. Yes, customer service is critical and essential, and, in many sectors, customer service demand is increasing, which might seem like a good reason to classify those workers as essential in-office employees. However, the close quarters, shared workspaces (and, in some cases, keyboards and headsets), dependence on hourly pay, and reliance on public transportation that are the reality of many contact center employees are a dangerous combination: Just 10 days ago, South Korea reported a surge in coronavirus cases after the country seemed to be slowing infection rates, with more than 90 cases linked to a Seoul-based call center near a large public transportation hub.

As a customer service or customer experience manager, making such a decision—especially when it isn't necessarily supported by management—can be tough. This is particularly the case if you're in an area that hasn't seen a huge impact from the pandemic yet, or where government officials aren't delivering consistent guidance. In making your case to management, here are a few things to keep in mind:

In the age of social networking, management that forces employees to work in unsafe conditions can suffer a significant brand hit that can be costly to repair if the information goes viral. This is early days, but the potential for legal exposure is a risk as well.

Moving contact center employees to remote work options now is likely less costly and disruptive than waiting until a move is forced, either by government order or an outbreak in your area or your offices.

The availability of enabling technologies for not just telephony and case tracking but text analytics (for remote quality monitoring at scale), collaboration and scheduling (for managing teams), and remote training are more cost-effective and accessible now than ever.

The incidence and cost of agent absenteeism is likely to increase in the short-term, foreseeable future, and this will occur at an even greater rate for companies that keep on-premises contact centers operational. Finding and training new agents is more costly than retaining existing ones.

Finding Enabling Technologies

For companies that haven't yet moved their on-premises contact center technology to the cloud, now is a great opportunity. Cloud solutions have long made sense for contact centers because of their relative cost, flexibility, usability, and support for access from anywhere. Numerous vendors including Salesforce, ServiceNow, Zendesk, and Genesys, are offering free or discounted solutions for companies that need to rapidly transition to remote contact center agents. I've found that the telephony part and related legacy apps are often the anchors keeping companies from moving to cloud. From a pure numbers perspective, unless you're not paying maintenance fees on your on-premises call center telephony, you're likely to save money annually by moving to the cloud given current pricing, or at least break even.

Training Agents

Helping agents move to remote work is more of a human training issue than a technical training one. Ensuring effective scheduling and collaboration tools are in place will help keep them engaged and drive effective coaching and knowledge sharing. Keep in mind that those with children who have now become home schooling teachers as well as agents will likely need greater flexibility, support, and advice on how to best manage ongoing productivity and customer-facing communications in the face of unintended disruptions.

Communicating with Customers

Letting customers know about the changes you're making and acknowledging that the result might be some short-term disruptions as you make the transition should be a key part of your strategy. The smart ones will thank you for it.

Enabling contact center agents to work remotely isn't just the right thing to do right now. It's a smart business decision that can help your customer service organization take advantage of more modern, cost-effective technologies, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and boost your company reputation by showing you care not just about customers, but all people.

Rebecca Wettemann is CEO and principal at Valoir (, a technology industry analyst firm focused on the connection between people and technology in a modern digital workplace.