Five Critical Success Factors for Work-at-Home Agents

By Michele Rowan

Technology and employee demographic shifts are changing the way work is done in America, and some of the most compelling evidence can be found within the work-at-home arena. When we compare highly utilized telework business processes and practices today with those of even three years ago, little remains constant. Five critical success factors for working at home deserve serious consideration for organizations that are starting such a program or moving to the next level of expansion.

1. Understand what is possible. Companies that are just now implementing their work-at-home programs have an advantage over more mature models. Newcomers have the benefit of using the latest technology and can often bring innovative processes to market that reflect their employee and customer preferences. These processes are more efficient and economical.

For example, with one-on-one coaching sessions, the responsibility shifts from the coach to the employee. The employee drives the process, starting with choosing the channel for the meeting, scheduling it, and leading the performance discussion with a shared view of calls and scorecards.

Once or twice a year, organizations should benchmark against others within and without their business segment. Sending new team members for external education and exposure is an effective conduit for collecting best practices and broadening individual and corporate thinking.

2. Create an online community for employee collaboration and peer recognition. Cultural connectivity in an office environment is unavoidable simply through physical locale. To foster this connectivity, organizations make concerted efforts to project their values and beliefs via face-to-face meetings, town hall meetings, collaboration, recognition programs, and rewards.

Work-at-home scenarios duplicate this, except that face-to-face visual access is limited. Many contact center organizations frequently use video in virtual meetings, but others are not able to due to the size of the contact center and the impact on bandwidth.

Established, published, two-way virtual meetings starting with tactical daily huddles and continuing through executive forums should be frequently scheduled throughout the contact center organization as a baseline for establishing cultural connectivity.

Innovative organizations are creating forums for recognition and knowledge transfer in the form of an online virtual help desk –a community comprised of team members who log in and share inquiries and knowledge during their shift. Peers share knowledge, acknowledge contributions, and network with each other, creating a stronger community than the previous policy of one-to-one assistance. Monitored by subject matter experts, escalated issues are picked up quickly and then shared.

3. Hire the right people. Whether hiring new people for home-based positions or moving in-house employees home, identifying the right fit is critical. Attributes distinctive to the work-at-home model include technical aptitude, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work in an isolated environment.

Working with an established assessment company – one with a work-at-home assessment tool – is a best practice. Extensive job simulation is required for external applicants who don’t have an understanding of the role.

When moving in-house employees home, the best practice is to post the job with the distinctive competencies required. Ask employees who are interested to assess themselves against the criteria. Developing a self-assessment tool is extremely useful for employees to self-qualify (or not) before HR begins their process.

4. Train and communicate effectively. My company recently conducted two surveys about communications and training. In both studies, nearly three-fourths of the organizations polled reported that employees lacked time to dedicate to daily reading and training updates. Given this, it is no surprise that CSAT scores are less than expected.

Here’s the catch – off-phone time for training is expensive. It’s shrinkage. It’s the valve that is closed first with business downticks.

Today’s technologies automate the delivery of communications to contact center employees (email, bulletins, training, and off-phone work) and organize the content based on business rules customized by work group. Integration with the ACD and WFM systems reduces shrinkage by aggregating small amounts of unproductive time across the network and redistributing it. The cost of automation is minor compared to the improvement in productivity and is one of the easiest business cases to construct.

5. Prepare your support staff. Coaching and training in the absence of a face-to-face presence is a necessity, requiring different competencies. Running a team meeting in a conference room, offering training in a physical classroom, or holding a one-on-one exchange with an employee virtually versus in-person demands different skills. Verbal communication, the ability to invite interactions, and measuring engagement and understanding all shift to alternate platforms in the virtual world.

Mastering technologies that frontline staff can utilize, along with honed skills utilizing technologies that coaches and trainers use, are core competencies. Platform skills, operating in a paperless environment, and strong multitasking skills are required.

Many businesses skip this step, assuming support staff will somehow adapt without preparation. It’s a costly mistake.

Investing the time at the beginning – in terms of business-process mapping, competency requirements, skills inventory, and professional development – will drive staff confidence and satisfaction while mitigating the risks of poorly executed training and support.

Michele Rowan is president of At Home Customer Contacts Strategies and former VP of performance management for Hilton Hotels, where she led the strategy and implementation for the company’s 1000-plus home workers program. Through workshops, Web training, and customized on-site consulting, Michele has worked with over 500 companies on work-at-home implementations.

[From the February/March 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]