Work-from-Home Is Here to Stay: Four Ways Your Contact Centers Can Succeed

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, 89 percent of businesses worldwide either encouraged or made it mandatory for their employees to work from home. Suffice to say, business as usual was no longer usual.

This trend has continued into 2021, and, despite rapid vaccine roll-out, it seems work from home is here to stay in a big way. But while many contact centers flourished in a near-fully-remote setting last year, that was not a certainty at the start of the pandemic.

As the world shut down, contact centers with business continuity plans (BCP) and programs to maintain employee productivity (i.e., work-from-home capabilities) quickly flourished, demonstrating their agility and the benefits of preparation. Specifically, success rates were higher or lower largely based on whether proper plans were in place. 

To better understand the state of the industry, we conducted a survey of contact center decision-makers in April 2020 to understand how they were managing the transition to remote work and what allowed them to proceed successfully. Surprisingly, only 25 percent of respondents said they had a BCP in place supporting work from home for all employees. An additional 50 percent said they had planned for only some of their employees to work remotely, primarily managers. While this snapshot from early 2020 is now dated, we identified four keys to contact center success from 2020 that continue to merit attention in 2021.

Data and Access to It Is King

Contact center agents need quick and easy access to customer data and interaction history via tailored desktops that pull together disparate data sources and guide them through a variety of role-specific customer interactions. Contact center leaders also need access to data in the form of visually rich and intuitive dashboards or business intelligence reports so they can understand the performance of individual agents, teams, and the company. The easiest and most efficient way for all constituencies to access and make use of data on-demand and regardless of access point location is through the cloud.

During the pandemic, cloud access itself and planning for modified agent workflows has proven to be a fundamental need for work-from-home enablement and success. This continues to be important, whether your contact center relies on secure corporate VPNs to allow agents access to their systems or the public internet with data visibility filters based on agent role and need. Our survey found that contact centers with differentiated cloud accessibility for agents based on role and responsibility were more likely to be working at or near normal capacity and reported minimal service interruptions and obstacles to adapting to working from home compared to contact centers with either only VPN access or only public cloud access.

In short, contact centers that thoughtfully used the cloud were better able to adapt quickly and provide agents, managers, and leaders with access to the data needed to do their jobs.

Digital Customer Engagement Channels Shine

One of the biggest winners, and saviors, of the shutdown was digital engagement. In the contact center world, digital channels such as email, SMS, and web chat truly excelled as a means of communication with consumers and were a hit with agents as well. Digital channels help customers engage on their channels of choice, multitask, and deal with potentially noisy home situations and offer the same benefits to agents without reductions in customer satisfaction. In fact, by strategically using digital capabilities, agents can also deflect call volume.

More than a quarter of survey respondents felt complementary automation or bots within digital channels would benefit their work-from-home setups. This is likely due to the ability of bots to field less sophisticated but repetitive customer inquiries (e.g., balance amount), freeing agents to handle more sophisticated issues. Additionally, in the face of potential staffing shortages, bots and other automation can provide service when live agents cannot, including outside of standard working hours. Momentum toward bots and virtual agents has only accelerated since the start of the pandemic.

The Future of Workforce Optimization is Digital

Contact center leaders now have access to many digital workforce optimization capabilities that better suit the realities of working from home and do not rely on outdated manual processes. Our survey respondents did report gaps in agent performance when agents used the phone while remote. Not entirely surprising, since there was no contact center manager walking the floor listening to conversations. To allay these issues, contact center leaders should employ speech analytics to monitor 100 percent of calls to understand call sentiment, identify customer intents that can be used to identify business risks and opportunities, and maximize the likelihood of positive customer experiences.

Moreover, organizations should be empowering agents to succeed outside of the office through digital training options, including self-paced e-learning modules that help agents improve their skills and help managers ensure quality. Finally, encourage agent-to-agent chat for team collaboration and knowledge sharing. This also serves to build team camaraderie and agent morale.

Better Leadership

Leadership is paramount at times of upheaval, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. To ensure contact centers are successful in the new normal, an emphasis on cloud, digital channels, and practical artificial intelligence is essential. While the influx of and reliance on these technologies in a remote setting has undoubtedly complicated some areas of work-life within the contact center, it has also unlocked new potential in others. The technology isn't enough, however, to truly succeed. Strong leadership needs to be put in place to enable the important strategic and related tactical decisions that need to be made, including program prioritization, success metric identification, and ongoing administration. In particular, help is needed to more effectively communicate, monitor, manage, and assist remote agents to keep quality up where it belongs.

Work from home is here to stay. While not everyone will be working from home, many employees and organizations have found that the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Remote work can now be viewed as a strategic business initiative, opening talent pools, increasing workplace productivity, improving employee morale, while also offering a creative cost-savings tool. When we look at companies that have been successful during the shutdown, those with strong leadership and well-developed plans have risen to the top.

Louis Summe is co-founder and CEO of LiveVox.