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The Rise of the Barefoot Agent

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at-home agent
Image: Michael Traitov -
There have been several discussions about what the ‘new normal’ will look like after this pandemic. I believe many of the emergency measures that were adopted in March and April will remain in place for a long time. There’s been considerable attention toward knowledge work being conducted from home. Here, I want to take a look at a more specific role, the contact center agent, and explain why I believe agents-at-home will also be part of the new normal.
The concept of agents-at-home isn’t new, but it’s predominantly been an outlier. Let’s start with why agents are often placed in contact centers:
  • Technology: This involves both the phone system, applications (apps), and databases that agents utilize to perform their job. For most of the contact center history, both of these had distance limitations. Remote agents have been technically possible for some time, but it usually comes with many special considerations. Setting up an at-office contact center is well understood.
  • Supervision: The word says it all. ‘Super’ means very good or excellent, and vision means the faculty or state of being able to see. Like many other job roles, supervision has been performed by visually surveying employees. Additionally, contact center staff often rely on lights or scoreboards that display performance and metric information. Call center headsets frequently are designed with extra ports so that a supervisor can physically plug into a conversation.
  • Assistance: The need for this is so common that we often describe agents or call flows in terms of tiers. The first tier handles the most common or routine inquiries, and agents either seek assistance or transfer the more complex inquiries to more specialized staff. Agents require various specialists, often co-located nearby.


For safety and legal reasons related to COVID-19, many of these contact center locations have closed. It’s a global pandemic, so sending calls to other call centers or providers hasn’t been a reliable option either. Instead, many organizations have suddenly implemented agent-at-home technologies and policies. It’s worked well - presumably better than expected. In 2020, at-home agent technology is ready.


  • Technology: this now enables distributed agents, which includes basic VoIP technologies as well as access to applications and databases either through VDI or a browser. Additionally, the required devices are less complex and have dropped in price. Instead of a separate workstation and phone, both can be combined into a single Chromebook, tablet, or basic laptop. USB headsets are also universal and less expensive than traditional analog models.
  • Supervision: The practice of contact center management by walking around has been disappearing for years. Supervisors can learn more from watching real-time dashboards. Contact center agents are among the most analyzed and measured workers in the modern enterprise. We can see how many calls are processed as well as their outcomes — in real-time. AI-powered technologies can assess, in real-time, valuable stats such as sentiment and customer satisfaction. Speech analytics can detect if the caller or agent is speaking too quickly or too loudly — they can even detect inappropriate sounds such as a dog barking.
  • Assistance: The need for support remains, but has little to do with the location of the agent or the experts. Messaging apps, such as Webex Teams, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, are working their way into contact centers to find experts that can assist agents via phone or voice — across cities, states, and countries. We are also seeing powerful agent assistance tools such as Google CCAI. Here, machine algorithms that monitor the conversation (voice or text) and suggest information to assist the agent.


All of these technologies are location agnostic. However, it takes more than technical features to change the status quo. For that, we can thank the pandemic. COVID-19 forced organizations to adopt at-home agents quickly. Quite possibly, the experience wasn’t ideal. In addition to the technical issues, many agents had to make-do with a poor physical setup and likely had to share space with others also sheltering (spouse, kids, roommates, etc.).
So perhaps this first taste of agent-at-home was less than ideal. However, a little planning can go a long way to creating a highly preferred solution. Let’s consider what we’ve learned:
  • The office is a terrible place to work: It’s filled with germs and distractions. If you want to get anything done, stay home.
  • The gig economy: Traditional work-schedules makes no sense. Eight-hour shifts are too long, and if everyone has the same off-hours and weekends, it’s really hard to get things done outside of work. There’s always a need for full-time workers, but contact centers, in particular, can benefit from the gig economy. Uber showed us the power of a non-traditional workforce. Full-time students and stay-at-home moms that have a few hours a day or week to be productive are examples of the gig economy. Gig workers want shorter hours, and without the overhead of commuting and other going-to-the-office tasks can do so efficiently.
  • Customers are remote: Regardless of intent, we can only work where the work is. For example, an assembly line worker can’t work from home. Firstline workers need to work where the product or service is delivered. Contact center agents have been coming to work to help customers that aren’t at the office.


Being at the office has no qualitative value to the service delivered. It may not even be a choice. The CFO has also learned what’s possible, and likely won’t forget when it comes time to renew the lease. There are several issues not addressed here. But for every issue or objection, there are also solutions. For example, a common objective I hear is privacy. Contact center agents often deal with confidential information, and security is more controllable at the office. For example, strong encryption won’t protect information from someone standing behind the agent.
There are a few ways to look at this, starting with training. If an agent needs to see confidential information to do their job, that’s still true at the office. They need to understand the obligations and precautions necessary regardless of location. If that’s insufficient, there are other options. Such as redacted information, as is often the case with credit card details. Processes are developed that enable an agent to perform their role without access to confidential information. Another option is persistent video. For example, with, you can see who is standing behind the agent.
Over the past few weeks, there have been tremendous investments made in at-home agents.
Of course, we’re not going to stay sheltered in our homes forever, but we’ve learned just how effective and productive staying home can be. It’s not just the agents either. We’ve been moving away from in-person services such as local retail and movie theaters for time. Now, many more people have also discovered the benefits of online shopping and entertainment.
The contact center is critical to remote productivity for agents and customers. The vendors have responded with a variety of offers, programs, and success stories. Two weeks ago, Avaya announced that it enabled 2 million remote workers at more than 11,000 companies during the pandemic. Five9 launched a FastTrack program that accelerates remote agent implementations in as little as 48 hours. Cisco created a short-term subscription to facilitate the migration to agent-at-home. These and other offers are related to the current crisis, but the agents will be at home long after it’s over.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.