As enterprises look to the future of work, decisions around staying remote, embracing hybrid, or enforcing a return to office are as important for contact center agents as they are for knowledge workers.
Cloud Paves the Way
Like their business counterparts, contact centers made the shift to remote work effectively overnight as COVID-related shelter-in-place orders took effect, many ditching on-prem systems and adopting cloud-based services
on the fly. In fact, the remote work model that became the de facto through the pandemic wouldn’t have been possible without cloud-based contact center services, specifically cloud telephony, Timothy McDougal, managing director of contact center practice leader for Deloitte Digital, noted during a No Jitter briefing.
While “the jury was still out on cloud telephony” pre-pandemic, the verdict is now in, McDougal said. Not only have cloud contact services proven themselves — enabling remote work in the process — but adoption is expected to pick up in the coming years, he said. Among 135 contact center organizations Deloitte surveyed for its 2021 global contact center study
, 32% reported running cloud contact center at the end of 2020. Over the next two years, that percentage will more than double, to 75%, McDougal said. While simply going with a cloud-based service doesn’t mean that a contact center will choose one working model over another, being on a cloud platform does provide them with greater flexibility than they’d have staying with on-prem systems, which would largely limit them to in-office working. But as contact centers look to the future, a significant percentage of them aren't rushing to get back into the office; rather, they’re embracing remote working indefinitely, McDougal said.
In its survey of 700 contact centers, IT research firm Metrigy has found the same, as Robin Gareiss, CEO and principal analyst at the firm shared with No Jitter. While many customer experience leaders previously didn’t think remote would work for the contact center, now having experienced it, they are changing their tune. In fact, 56% of survey respondents said that “work from home during the pandemic improved management's perspective on the viability of remote working,” she reported.
For ear, nose, and throat physician network ENT and Allergy Associates, remote work has proved so beneficial that the organization intends to carry that model forward post-pandemic, John Monreal, senior director of purchasing and call center for ENT, shared in a No Jitter interview. ENT’s contact center plan for the future has approximately 70% of employees working remotely, Monreal explained. Though some head-office positions like supervisors and trainers will remain working in the office, frontline employees answering the phone calls will be remote, he said.
Like other contact centers in the early days of the pandemic, ENT had to implement a series of technology changes to enable remote work, having previously supported a predominately in-office workforce. This the organization achieved by moving from an old Avaya VoIP system — which didn’t have the best line quality and forced agents to work in one central location/desk — to RingCentral’s CCaaS platform, Monreal explained. “COVID basically forced us to make the decision, but it was a decision that we had played with for over a year,” he added.
As part of its switch to CCaaS, ENT “ditched all the hard phones” in favor of Google Chromebooks loaded up with a RingCentral app called Max Agent
. With this app, agents can see how many calls that they’ve answered and how many are on hold, Monreal said. Not only has this created a simple experience for the agent, but since every agent is on the same device type (using the same software), ENT’s IT department has become very knowledgeable on how to troubleshoot issues, he added.
The shift in technology and working style also came with several key benefits around hiring/staffing and reducing the number of agent absences and tardiness, Monreal said. With roughly 25% of contact center staff now outside of the company’s main area of operation in New York and New Jersey, ENT can better address customer calls at different hours, he explained.
While ENT had experimented with hybrid work during the pandemic, Monreal said he doesn’t see that model working as well for contact centers as elsewhere in the company. The hybrid model might make contact center agents uneasy, given the back-and-forth nature of it. “I think an employee emotionally just needs to know where they're working, so they can get settled in, and they can focus on their work,” Monreal said.
That challenge of a hybrid contact center model goes beyond agent experience, added Deloitte’s McDougal, citing operational and technological complexities as a downside. “I think it’s binary — you’re either remote, or you’re not,” he said.
Heading Down the Hybrid Route
Not everyone agrees with McDougal that hybrid really doesn’t work for the contact center. "Research data is saying that, yes, people think hybrid works," Metrigy’s Gareiss said. Sharing her research, Gareiss stated 72% of its survey respondents plan to continue with remote work until the pandemic is over, and 37% are then planning hybrid contact center operations for the future.
With today’s automated management capabilities, overseeing a hybrid workforce is no more challenging than managing an in-person staff, Gareiss said. On top of that, contact center leaders can do performance correlations to see if an agent is underperforming at home or in the office, she added.
Plus, the hybrid work model offers flexibility to address a host of unpredictable events, from Internet outages to weather-related office closures and global health crises, Gareiss said. Simply put, planning for hybrid makes practical sense, she added.
One company that is planning for a hybrid future is PTC, as Jason Mahoney, infrastructure business relationship manager for this provider of CAD, product lifecycle management, IoT, and augmented reality software, shared during a No Jitter interview.
With a cloud platform from Fuze in place, PTC has been able to support remote work for contact center agents around the globe, Mahoney said. It’s even been able to allow features, such as call transfer to a mobile device, not possible with an earlier system, he added.
Whether agents return to the contact center, continue working remotely, or do a mix of both, this kind of flexibility will be beneficial for the future, too, said Mahoney, noting that the company expects to see most employees, including contact center agents, working from home three to four days a week. Sales or sales-related support groups may be the exception, “going in more, almost to normal,” he added.
Planning for a Full Return
No matter all the hype around hybrid, some companies aren’t buying into either that or the remote work model for their contact center agents beyond the pandemic. Such is the case at Quicken, a personal finance and money management software provider.
While focusing on safety-first for its employees, Quicken is looking to a future that looks a lot like its past, with agents working out of physical offices full time, Ian Roberts, operations leader at Quicken, told No Jitter.
Though hybrid work is hyped up now, the pendulum likely will swing back in favor of in-person working, Roberts said. “Some people will try hybrid …, [but] it’s just not mature enough right now,” Roberts added, agreeing with Monreal. Additionally, Quicken’s workplace culture is one that values face-to-face interactions, and the remote experience leaves a lot to be desired, he said. “DoorDash to your house isn't the same as … sitting next to workers and talking about your day,” Roberts commented.
Roberts said he partially credits this focus on face-to-face interactions and in-person working as the reason why Quicken has seen low agent churn. Another crucial part is listening to its agents and providing them with the best tools to make their job easier, Roberts said. With a Genesys Cloud CX 3 subscription, agents can receive full call transcripts and call summaries, and this has cut down on their frustration in needing to document customer calls, he added.
Though Quicken does plans to head back in the office, Roberts noted it’s comforting to know that its business continuity plan can now support remote work at scale — just in case something happens in the future.
Keys to the Contact Center’s Future: The Right Technology
While no one can predict with absolute certainty what the future of work will look like for the contact center, and in the larger enterprise, one can start to see a mosaic of possibilities. Some contact centers will see the benefits gained during the pandemic as reason enough for sticking with remote working, while others will embrace the return to the office with open arms. Additionally, a percentage of contact centers will embrace the larger workplace trend of hybrid work, allowing agents to split their time between in-office and remote work, hoping to gain benefits of both models.
Regardless what contact centers ultimately decide, the pandemic provided an opportunity for many to reinvent how they approach the customer and agent experience. As they move towards that future, one thing remains clear: Contact centers are leveraging cloud-based services to create the culture and work model that works best for their users.