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Adam Aftergut

Working from Home: How Blurred Boundaries Affect the Contact Center

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Part three of a three-part series by Adam Aftergut, Product Marketing Manager at NICE, on the root causes of work-from-home challenges faced by contact center agents and their employers…

As we detailed earlier in this series on work-from-home challenges, changing boundaries are having an impact on staffing and performance in the contact center. In addition to a new separation between the employee and the workplace, there’s also a blurring of boundaries in the employee’s workday: With many agents now working from home, the boundaries between work and home life have gotten a lot fuzzier.

While many agents enjoy the ability to work from home, it nevertheless creates new challenges. Living spaces have been converted into makeshift offices and interruptions are unavoidable, making it difficult or impossible to truly focus. Over time, distractions and a lack of structure can affect productivity – in fact, 78% of business leaders think hybrid and home-working models have a negative impact on productivity. Over the long term, a lack of boundaries can hamper work-life balance and ultimately also increase burnout, which has a detrimental effect on employee engagement.

Overcoming the challenges this blurring of boundaries causes for agents also overcomes them for the contact center, and vice versa, ensuring that operations run smoothly. Here’s how.

Employers need staffing agility; employees need flexibility

With many families working and learning from home simultaneously, call volumes are less predictable and don’t conform to previous contact patterns, which means that employers need to be very agile in their workforce management capabilities, tools and policies. At the same time, agents working from home need greater scheduling flexibility to deal with unexpected interruptions and obligations in the home environment – but they can also have an easier time pivoting from free time to work time in order to cover unconventional shifts. A failure to recognize these changes runs the risk of greater staffing gaps for the operation and increased employee frustration.

How technology can help you solve this challenge: Contact center leaders can leverage Intelligent Intraday Automation® for more elastic staffing. A solution that continuously analyzes fluctuating staffing needs, identifies shift change opportunities and communicates them to agents can help contact centers prevent overstaffing and understaffing. The agent can interact with such a solution in multiple ways, including through a portal for automated self-service schedule changes and automated “push” offers of preapproved schedule change opportunities sent via text message, email, in-app messaging or displayed as alert popups on the agent’s desktop.   

Employers need occupancy; employees need to avoid distractions and interruptions

Contact centers need to maintain occupancy levels, a key metric that shows the percentage of time employees are occupied, performing call center activities.  However, remote employees are more easily interrupted or distracted at home.

A University of California Irvine study found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task following an interruption. This means that home-office distractions can lead to lower agent productivity, effectiveness and service quality. Agents are then unable to meet performance goals, and customer experience suffers.

How technology can help you solve this challenge: Automated KPI-based notifications alert supervisors and agents via text, email, in-app notifications or desktop alert popups when the team or individual agents have hit occupancy and other key goals – regardless of where employees are working from. Alerts and calls-to-action can be used to notify agents that they’re overrunning scheduled activities or have an upcoming event, prompt agents to switch tasks (which can improve focus while adjusting occupancy) and more.

In addition, automated self-scheduling for agents enables employees to achieve unique schedule adjustments that reduce the disruptions inherent in a work-from-home routine, while still ensuring net staffing. One such example of this is NICE Employee Engagement Manager’s (EEM’s) automated self-swap functionality. Rather than having to work through a distraction, such as a repairman working in the home or a child practicing piano, the agent can simply use a preapproved self-swap to move his or her hours around rather than having to take time off or reduce the number of hours they’re scheduled to work.

Employers need consistent team performance; employees need work-life balance

For effective customer service, contact centers need to ensure that their frontline teams operate with consistency and reliability, especially during times of instability. Supervisors and workforce management personnel need to be able to quickly communicate with agents and depend on their commitments. However, when agents feel overworked and overburdened due to a blurring of the lines between their personal and professional lives – and studies have found that the average workday has increased by 48.5 minutes since the widespread move to remote work – burnout sets in and customer service suffers. Unfortunately, just one in three employees say their employers have increased flexibility in recent months to deal with burnout, according to an Eagle Hill Consulting survey.

How technology can help you solve this challenge: Burnout soars when agents have many consecutive days of intense work without breaks or are unable to manage their work-life balance and find themselves pulled into work frequently. Automated self-scheduling, including adjustments like automated shift trades, can help. If opportunities for voluntary time off (VTO), paid time off (PTO) and self-swaps – which are preapproved based on the contact center’s needs – are unavailable in EEM,  there is still the possibility of automated shift trades, which have a neutral impact on net staffing. EEM thus provides a multilayered set of options for agents to achieve work-life balance through highly flexible and patented self-scheduling capabilities while optimizing net staffing.

In addition, communication controls help agents set boundaries between their personal and professional lives to ensure that work does not encroach. Agents can select days and times they can be contacted with scheduling offers, performance notifications and the like. They can choose both when they are willing to be contacted while “off the clock” and how (e.g., email or text message, in addition to in-app messaging and alert popups). If an agent feels the need to completely disconnect from work in order to refresh, EEM’s communications can be silenced during personal time.

Different perspectives, common solutions

With workday boundaries blurred and personal and work responsibilities increasingly intermingled, achieving both productivity and work-life balance can feel like an obstacle course each day. Over time,  the cumulative effects of work repeatedly encroaching on an agent’s personal life can cause burnout. Giving employees a sense of control with automated self-service scheduling increases their satisfaction, and doing so with an intelligent solution ensures alignment with the contact center’s operational needs to consistently improve both day-to-day and long-term operational results.

NICE Employee Engagement Manager (EEM), a key component of the NICE Intelligent WFM Suite, enables contact centers to preserve work-life boundaries in a remote employee’s workday while meeting the needs of the contact center.  The broad capabilities of EEM’s intelligent automation engine not only improve staffing levels intraday and near-term but also drive a wide variety of employee actions for improved performance. Learn more about how EEM helps contact center teams adapt to changing boundaries in the work-from-home environment.

For a more complete understanding of the work-from-home challenges faced by the contact center, see the previous two installments in this series here and here.

Do you need help in generating more efficient schedules and automating the challenge of optimizing your net staffing?

Download our complimentary eBook:  Intelligent Automation and Simulation in WFM for Dummies

This book will help you understand how using machine learning based simulation can help create schedules based on true multi-skill efficiencies based on ACD routing rules and skills not just static percentages. It will also help you see how you can automatically and proactively create offers for voluntary time off and overtime based on skills to the exact right agents, thus solving the age-old issue of net staffing optimization.

Working from home: How separation affects the contact center

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By Adam Aftergut, Product Marketing Manager, NICE

Part two in a three-part series on the root causes of work-from-home challenges faced by contact center agents and their employers…

As we noted in the first essay in this series on work-from-home challenges, fundamentally changing boundaries are having an impact on staffing and performance in the contact center. The most obvious and inherent shift is the physical separation between employees and their workplace in remote work models. In the contact center, that separation has created challenges that may seem unrelated upon first blush but are in all actuality two sides of the same coin.

While many employees view working from home as a perk, remote work nonetheless brings with it some operational challenges that weren’t present in the brick-and-mortar workplace. Remote agents often have less visibility into scheduling and performance as well as fewer opportunities for in-person recognition and professional development. These issues, in turn, translate directly into business challenges for their employer, with a direct effect on service levels, customer experience and efficiency.

Overcoming work-from-home challenges for agents also resolves them for the contact center, and vice versa, enabling seamless operation regardless of the distance between them. The following three critical work-from-home challenges are inextricably linked to the physical separation between the employee and their workplace.

Employees need schedule visibility; employers need agents to be reachable.

Many remote workers lack mobile access to their schedules, which leads to tardiness and more missed shifts, lowering adherence and increasing staffing variances. Moreover, the lack of remote agent views of schedule change opportunities (e.g., Extra Hours or Voluntary Time Off) impedes the resolution of intraday staffing variances.

In addition, in the fast-moving contact center, the surroundings and tempo keep employees on task, aware of the general arc of the day and in close touch with supervisors who can intervene or provide a gentle nudge as necessaryThese cues help agents know where they need to be, whether they’re late, what events are upcoming and whether they should move to a new activity, among other things.

How technology can help you solve this challenge:  A scheduling portal for automated self-service in a native mobile app or web-based application allows agents to access and update their schedules while remote. The portal’s intelligent automation technology also enables preapproved schedule change opportunities, giving agents unmatched transparency of their scheduling options and enabling instant changes by agents, all while ensuring that staffing needs are met. Automated push offers of schedule change opportunities also help supervisors ensure staffing optimization for contact center operations.

Employees need personalized recognition; employers need teams that are motivated.

The nature of work-from-home arrangements eliminates informal opportunities to connect with and motivate teams. When workers are remote, it is also harder to quickly recognize top performers and reward effective practices in real time. In fact, a Gallup poll found that three quarters of employees did not receive recognition or praise for doing good work in the last week, leading to lower quality and higher absenteeism.

The motivational challenge for contact centers in remote work environments is two-fold: identifying and rewarding high performers. Personalized and instant recognition of their progress, and rewards for their successes, help agents feel they are on a path toward definite goals. When employees are working on site, supervisors can easily share praise or set up a brief ad-hoc meeting during in-office hours. Agents, for their part, can shadow or receive on-the-fly input from co-workers. Other types of recognition for performance, such as preferential scheduling options, are dependent on being able to inform the agent in a timely manner.

How technology can help you solve this challenge: Automated KPI-based notifications alert supervisors or agents when the team or individual agents have hit key performance goals, such as a daily adherence target. These notifications provide instant recognition for agents and contact center teams when their performance is noteworthy, providing motivation, recognition and reinforcement. In addition, they can move agents through a multi-step progression of goals. By helping supervisors see who is performing well in the moment, they also shed a light into best practices.

Employers need to provide development opportunities; employees need self-improvement options.

In the remote workplace, employees can be harder to coach or train due to the lack of in-person guidance and timely feedback, including indications of the impact of coaching sessions. Supervisors who wish to promote self-directed corrective measures in response to negative KPI trends are faced with the challenge of notifying agents working from home promptly. As a result, performance improvements take longer and occur in less significant increments.

In addition, agents working remotely who wish to manage their own professional self-improvement are often limited in their options to receive the best information on their performance. This may be due to poor remote access or visibility, a dependence on supervisors or a lack of real-time data.

How technology can help you solve this challenge: Agents receive timely, targeted and personalized alerts of KPI trends via native mobile and web-based applications as well as via automated emailing and text messaging, identifying areas for improvement before CSAT takes a hit.  These KPI alerts can also account for correlated KPI trends, such as a spike in average handle time preceding a drop in service levels. Supervisors are also automatically informed of an agent’s metrics – if intervention is needed, the focus of improvement efforts is clear and transparent to both the agent and the supervisor.

Different perspectives, common solutions.

Each of the work-from-home challenges caused by physical separation can be viewed from two perspectives – that of the employer and that of the employee. However, if you solve the challenge for one stakeholder, then you’ve often also solved it for the other.

NICE Employee Engagement Manager (EEM), a key component of the NICE Intelligent WFM Suite, enables contact centers to bridge the gap between remote employee and workplace. The broad capabilities of EEM’s intelligent automation engine not only improve staffing levels intraday and near-term, but also drive a wide variety of employee actions for improved performance.

Learn more about how EEM helps contact center teams adapt to changing boundaries in the work-from-home environment.

The next installment in this series on work-from-home challenges takes a deeper look at another way in which professional boundaries are changing – the blurring of the distinction between work and home.

Do you need help in generating more efficient schedules and automating the challenge of optimizing your net staffing?

Download our complimentary eBook:  Intelligent Automation and Simulation in WFM for Dummies.

This book will help you understand how using machine learning based simulation can help create schedules based on true multi-skill efficiencies based on ACD routing rules and skills not just static percentages. It will also help you see how you can automatically and proactively create offers for voluntary time off and overtime based on skills to the exact right agents, thus solving the age-old issue of net staffing optimization.

The root cause of work-from-home challenges

960 640 Adam Aftergut

By Adam Aftergut, Product Marketing Manager, NICE

Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Bank) moved more than 9,000 call center employees from 15 cities in the US and Canada to a work-from-home (WFH) model in the weeks following widespread shutdowns due to COVID-19. Company leaders told Bloomberg that the bank, which serves 26 million customers, helped ease the massive transition by giving workers who suddenly found themselves juggling work and new distractions in the home an extra 10 personal days and the ability to change schedules and do split shifts.

Like TD Bank, many organizations found that the overnight transition to employees working from home created new challenges related to staffing (who is working and when) and performance (how they’re working). In the contact center, these challenges can be traced back to a single root cause: changing boundaries.

Fundamentally, boundaries are changing for employees and teams in two key ways: 1) a separation between the employee and their workplace; and 2) a blurring of boundaries in the employee’s workday.

Remote work, by its very nature, is accompanied by a physical distance between the employee and his or her workplace. Many workers view the ability to work remotely as a job perk, with more than half seeking the arrangement as a way to improve work-life balance, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Moreover, researchers have found that remote work, when done right, can even improve employee productivity, creativity and morale. However, the relative isolation from colleagues makes communication and collaboration more difficult, and can intensify feelings of loneliness, according to an annual survey of remote workers carried out by Buffer and AngelList.

In the contact center, this separation poses several critical WFH productivity challenges:

  • Visibility: Employers need to maintain open lines of communication with their employees, which starts with being able to reach them. To make that possible, WFH employees need visibility and active contact options.
  • Motivation: For sustained motivation, agents need to feel that they are on a path toward definite goals, with timely, personalized, and real-time recognition of their progress, and rewards for their successes.
  • Development: Employers need to periodically help their employees develop professionally or to correct non-productive behavior with targeted interventions or guidance; this enables employees to self-improve while working at home.

Agents and their supervisors are also facing new challenges due to the blurring of the boundary between work and home. As the dining room table doubles as an office, it can be hard for employees to separate their personal and professional lives.

“In this new work-from-home reality that we’re living in, it’s particularly challenging for segmentors, people who like to keep a sharp line between work and home,” Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard told Forbes.

On the one hand, remote work can lead to the expectation that an employee will be available at all times. On the other, disruptions run rampant; researchers have found that it can take an employee an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully resume the previous task following a disruption.  As contact centers moved their agents to a WFH model, we saw a 400% increase in the use of self-service scheduling to better balance work and home commitments, while meeting the needs of the organization.

In the contact center, the blurring of the distinction between work and the rest of life when agents work from home directly causes challenges in three key areas:

  • Staffing agility: Employers need to be able to respond quickly to changing customer demand, while employees need more flexible scheduling options and the tools to make last-minute changes.
  • Occupancy: Employers need to maintain optimal occupancy levels, a key KPI for many contact centers, while also ensuring that agents are focused on the task at hand. Yet, employees are more easily interrupted and distracted while working at home.
  • ConsistencyEmployers need to ensure that teams operate with consistency and reliability, especially during uncertain times. WFH employees tend to be less consistent and more unreliable due to the needs of the home, as well as to a higher rate of burnout. A recent report found that one-fourth of US employees are currently experiencing burnout, much of which can be linked to the lack of work-home boundaries.

Our professional boundaries have changed indelibly. And we can expect the challenges this has created to persist: 74% of CFOs who were surveyed recently said they intend to make remote work permanent for some employees, according to Gartner. These challenges can be addressed from the perspective of the employer or the agent, as resolving them for one invariably resolve them for the other.

Learn more about how to address WFH challenges in the two upcoming blogs in this series on their root causes, the separation between employees and their workplaces and the blurring of boundaries in during the home-based workday. You can also find out more about how TD Bank helps its contact center agents independently manage their schedules by reading our case study.

Do you need help in generating more efficient schedules and automating the challenge of optimizing your net staffing?

Download our complimentary eBook:  Intelligent Automation and Simulation in WFM for Dummies.

This book will help you understand how using machine learning based simulation can help create schedules based on true multi-skill efficiencies based on ACD routing rules and skills not just static percentages. It will also help you see how you can automatically and proactively create offers for voluntary time off and overtime based on skills to the exact right agents, thus solving the age-old issue of net staffing optimization.