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Is Homeworking the new normal?

In recent weeks we have seen a magnificent effort in enabling so many people to work from home. Technology has been a real asset and an enabler but it has also been a real success for the many people involved in IT teams who have made it happen. I have been so impressed with how quickly Homeworking and in particular connectivity has been achieved. I am also sure that if it were not for a crisis, this would have taken a lot longer. But there is a real need to praise people for their achievements and congratulate them on coping with a situation that was the perfect storm in Business Continuity Planning.

Many are predicting that the working life will have changed permanently with far more Homeworking than ever. I think that this is the case but we must be careful, it is not for everyone.

For many people, working from home was often seen as a bit of a luxury. No commuting, no interruptions at your desk, nobody watching you work. But this is not the case for everyone. In this article I am going to look at some of the issues that highlight that Homeworking is not right for everyone.

Is Homeworking the new normal?

Well for some people it might be but for others it probably is not.

The technology, when set up correctly and fully implemented is great. But for most it relies on a good broadband signal and a range of different processes. The processes related to data are complex and working remotely can be difficult to ensure data is secure and protected. The issues around payments are sensitive and provide an opportunity for fraud and other indiscretions.

But perhaps the biggest issue is a cultural one. When people work in teams, especially those engaging with customers, there is a relative safety in being amongst colleagues. The empathic glances between teammates when you are dealing with a difficult call or the bonding during breaks and lunches. There is a feeling of togetherness in a good contact centre where it is evident of that supportive environment.

Team Leaders and Manager have an enormous role to play in supporting their teams and motivating them. A good Team Leader may spend time floorwalking to be able to spot difficulties and offer support immediately. We often see cases where Agents signal to a Team Leader that they need support or help but how can they do this as effectively when working remotely?

Having a Team Leader stand next to somebody dealing with a difficult call or an irate customer can be very supportive. A similar argument applies to new staff. How are they going to be supported and trained to become proficient and confident if they are working in isolation? What will happen to attrition rates?

Lone working can be difficult for some and the impact on mental health should not be ignored. Out of sight should not be out of mind and Managers should be engaging with staff on a regular basis to ensure that they are well, engaged and coping with new arrangements. We need to make sure that people are being looked after and not suffering from issues about isolation. Some people will always prefer to go to work and for others it can also be a safe haven!

When it comes to sharing of information, I often overhear contact centre agents supporting each other with updates and news that has not always been communicated to everybody. These support mechanisms are essential in efficiency but also in ensuring that the customer received the right information.

We then need to look at the suitability of the working environment for people working at home. It is ok for some but not for others. If we look again at contact centre staff, how many of them have got a suitable workstation available to them with the correct space, lighting, heating etc let alone the requirement for ergonomic furniture. How many of these people are working in an environment that may result in long term health issues and resultant litigation. I am sure that there will be some Law practices that are planning for these situations and will be preparing campaigns similar to PPI or similar. How will organisations fare when asked the difficult questions. I always thought it necessary to complete an assessment of working conditions to ensure that they are suitable.

Finally, on the environment, we have discussed the workstation but what about the workspace and the surrounding space. Not everybody will have enough space at home to work in an uninterrupted manner. What about other household members? Pets? Deliveries? They all cause a distraction. I know of people that are sharing a study at home. Others are sharing Dining Tables. I have heard from people that are working in Garages or coffee tables. It is also quite likely that there will be other people in the household who are at home. If children are off school how easy would it be to work when they are around. How can it be possible to concentrate on a complex matter with a TV on or other family members behaving as they normally do at home.

But there are other benefits to working together too. Some years ago, I was involved in a major relocation project that consolidated a number of different office locations into a central Head Office. The improved communications and efficiency gains were substantial. People who had worked for the same organisation but had never met were suddenly getting to know each other and working as a team. A quick chat by the coffee machine often meant that issues were resolved before they became issues.

I recently spoke with a Manager who is working at home as are all of his team. He said that he is working longer days than ever because what used to be resolved with a quick 5 minute catch up in the office is now scheduled as a 30-minute video meeting. This results in time being wasted trying to utilise the full 30 minutes and justify the meeting. There are cultural changes that can be applied to replace this but the issue is still there; people like to meet people.

There are of course exceptions. I have focused on contact centres as that is where I work most of the time. The range of services delivered by contact centres is extensive and some are suited to Homeworking or working remotely. When call volumes are low and the office is closed it is quite possible that enquiries can be dealt with remotely. Some outbound calls are also better suited to being made from remote location especially when the content is basic or processes well developed.

I am not suggesting that people who suggest that Homeworking will be normal are wrong and I do think that there will be more Homeworkers in the future. But each situation needs to be carefully considered and an assessment of the suitability from many aspects taken into account before settling to a new norm just because it saves office space.

From a business perspective, it is inevitable that there will be calls to reduce costs by reducing the amount of office accommodation but that is a simplistic view if taken in isolation. What about:

  • Increased attrition levels resulting in recruitment costs and degradation in service
  • Increased absence from mental health issues caused through stress and being isolated
  • Potential claims for negligence as a result of not providing a suitable working environment
  • Reduction in levels of service caused by a combination of all of the above.

The main cost in most businesses is the human capital; people. They need to be protected and supported to get the correct return on that investment.

With regards to technology, make sure it is flexible and therefore enables both office and remote working. Cloud based solutions are becoming the norm with hosted solutions and rate based payments. Capital investment is reducing so ROI models will be different.