Connecting Onsite and Work-at-Home Agents
By Susan Hash
Home-based contact center staff often miss the social aspect of being in the workplace. And while the isolation of working at home can be a difficult transition, onsite staff also must adapt when a center launches a home-based program.

Onsite agents often find it challenging to build and maintain effective coworker relationships with their home-based colleagues. A few years ago, a study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that, if this issue is not addressed, site staff are apt to become less satisfied with their jobs and more likely to leave the company. However, the study pointed out that managers could help to mitigate some of the adverse impact by ensuring greater face-to-face contact among coworkers when home-based staff are in the office. The following best practices from contact centers with successful at-home programs can help your home-agents to stay connected with their onsite colleagues.

Encourage Face-to-Face Activities with Coworkers
Management at Fairmont Raffles Hotels International's Global Reservation Centre encourage their home-based agents to come into the center and participate in social events throughout the year.

In addition to planning onsite events to encourage face-to-face interaction between at-home agents and their onsite colleagues, management also holds regional social gatherings to allow the home-based agents to network and form relationships with their peers who live in the same community. Colleagues from other departments that the home-based staff regularly interact with, such as IT, customer service leaders and center executives, often attend the regional social gatherings, as well.

Management at the Trademark Assistance Center (TAC) at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) schedules quarterly socials to maintain a strong sense of community among its employees, says Supervisory Trademark Information Specialist Dora Best. In addition to the quarterly functions, management holds "informational huddle sessions" every Tuesday when the entire team comes into the center. "Communication is key. When the employees are onsite, we make it a point to meet with them. We use a high-touch approach. We reach out to the employees to offer assistance and solicit their input, and we're constantly providing feedback," says Best.

Use Technology to Create a Connected Environment
Managers of successful home-agent programs agree that constant communication is the key to making it work. These days, there are a variety of tools that can help to improve real-time communication, such as wikis, intranets, instant messaging, SMS and chat.

"You have to communicate with work-at-home staff much more often than with the people who are onsite," says Scott Murphy, assistant director of customer benefits, Employees Retirement System (ERS) of Texas. "Our supervisors reach out to those who work at home multiple times a day." For instance, while information and updates about process or policy changes, or knowledge that needs to be communicated quickly, can be sent via email or posted on a sign board, supervisors take the time to pick up the phone to convey updates to work-at-home staff.

Another unique way that ERS helps its home-based agents maintain a connection to the center is through a live video camera that allows home-based staff to view what's happening on the floor in real time via the center's intranet page. The agents—both onsite and at home—enjoy the visual connection, and Murphy often sees onsite reps waving at the camera when they're instant-messaging with their at-home colleagues.

Give home-based agents a way to get to know their fellow remote workers. Creating a Facebook group for home-based staff allows them to develop a sense of camaraderie with each other, says Fairmont Raffles Hotels International's Louise Andrew, manager of workforce planning. "They can post pictures so that they can put faces to names, and converse with each other just as you would at the office," she says. "It's a tool that has been embraced within our home-based group."

Build Stronger Supervisor-Agent Relationships
Studies have demonstrated the value that the supervisor-agent relationship has on frontline performance and retention. But how can frontline supervisors continue to engage their team when individuals are not in the center? At the ERS customer service center, video, again, provides an effective solution. Whenever supervisors communicate with their work- at-home staff by phone, they are required to use the video conference feature, says Murphy, adding that: "It helps to create a stronger connection between the supervisor and the work-at-home person than a phone call or an instant message would."

INSIDE VIEW: ING Direct Canada
In 2009, ING DIRECT Canada's Vice President of Sales and Service David Bradshaw spearheaded a three-year vision to become a world-class revenue-generating sales and service organization. The vision was built on four strategic pillars: employee engagement, client focus, predictable and repeatable results, and effective resource management.

The purpose of the vision was to elevate the contact center, to improve the overall client experience, to become more efficient and effective, and create a culture and work environment that attracts and keeps talented people. Goals were developed to drive specific business results, such as improving employee engagement, reducing absenteeism, cutting new-hire attrition, and implementing new technology to enhance the customer experience. Bradshaw also incorporated soft goals, such as winning a contact center of the year award and becoming a contact center employer of choice. "We wanted to get the contact center aligned around a few goals that weren't strictly numeric or attached to a dollar value because we wanted our people to be a part of something bigger, and we also wanted the organization to rally around us," he says.
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