An International Contact Center and the Responsive Home Office System
Over the last two years, since the first wave of the epidemic, the issue of the home office has been discussed in many different ways. But what are the pros and cons of this way of working for a contact center company operating in an international market, where the basic feature of day-to-day operations is to serve customers through colleagues working from home, who often live thousands of miles from the head office? What are the technological and professional challenges for someone who runs a multilingual customer service operation at the enterprise level, working from home?
Thanks to the fact that more and more workflows can now be coordinated online, in the service sector, or for companies that operate under a specific outsourcing system, this working arrangement can be easily adapted. Of course, this requires an appropriate technical background and well-functioning internal communication channels. We discussed the topic with the managers and staff of United Call Centers, who have many years of experience in the field due to the unique operating model of the company.
The Infrastructure of a BPO Contact Center in At-Home Model
The covid situation, which has been taking hold over the past year, has challenged even those who had previously made the home office part of their daily operations. In March 2020, United Call Centers, a global telecommuting company, moved part of its team in Hungary to a home environment in literally days. In the meantime, they needed to ensure that they could carry out their tasks to the same high standards as before, without technical disruption or service interruptions. According to Richard Kozma, Managing Director, it took the coordination of several factors to successfully overcome the obstacles.
"We had some advantage in this area, as we had been working remotely internationally for many years. For a company like ours, operating in many countries and service areas, it is hard to talk about divisions in a classic brick & mortar environment. For us, as an outsourced company with multilingual customer services, the most important cornerstones of a home office are adequate professional support and the possibility of immediate feedback on any issue, both on the technological and the human side."
In terms of technology, we need an infrastructure that can operate reliably in a home environment, using cloud platforms, from both a customer experience and data security perspective. Balázs Kopcsó, the company's Head of Development, said:
"We're not telling a big secret when we say that the infrastructure background of an international contact center requires a very serious investment. It is very important to say that a very large infrastructure is very important for a professional service. In addition to our proprietary tools, we work with partners that are recognized at the enterprise level and can ensure data protection and online information exchange to the highest standards. It's telling that we can also work for a financial institution from a home environment, and there's no greater challenge for a customer service company than a bank information security audit."
But the technology background is only one piece of the puzzle. Employee support is particularly important, with operators demanding immediate answers to any professional or technical questions. In their absence, even colleagues who love the home office can become uncomfortable - a sense of being lost is never good for quality work.
The Unhindered Flow of Information
For a company that runs outsourced customer services, it is essential that online training is of the highest possible quality, as it provides colleagues with the knowledge they need to serve customers. The flow of information, both formal and informal, allowing for unhindered and immediate feedback, also plays a huge role in efficient day-to-day operations. Staff socialized in the office are used to being able to get help from a colleague sitting a few meters away at any time, for any question. There is therefore a need for interfaces, preferably automated, where team members working on each campaign can communicate with each other on an ongoing basis. However, even the best system doesn't work without the people who run it, and here we are on the borderline of people management, at least according to Richard.
"In remote working, the role of direct managers becomes more important, as we need to communicate with our colleagues much more than in a traditional office environment. If you go out for a coffee at home, that’s not so much chance to meet any of your colleagues in the kitchen or hallway. In many cases, a team leader is a person - in our case, obviously, in addition to the customer - with whom an operator has regular, daily contact."
Communication to Recognize the Warning Signs
It's a cliché, but every good manager is also part psychologist, who can tell from a chat if an employee is frustrated with the way things are going. A professional contact center can only provide a quality service if it regularly monitors and analyses employee performance, either through call analysis or automated assessment systems. In such cases, the numbers often speak for themselves and, although not very often, in some cases it may turn out that a lack of motivation due to a lack of engagement is behind poor performance. Zsolt Máté Juhász, Chief Operating Officer, said the following:
"It is important to know that not all personality types are compatible with the home office. Especially those who have typically worked in an office before may have problems with the change. We constantly monitor feedback from the team in the form of surveys and research. We regularly ask colleagues for their views on their experiences, whether on their performance or completely informal issues. It's not just about team building and socialization, but also about recognizing those who are not suited to it in the longer term. We need to see if someone has entered a negative spiral because they are not in a community and are less motivated within the four walls."
So signs of demotivation can be spotted through regular and thorough surveys. United Call Centers has used both questionnaire and in-depth interview methods, and the results have surprised on several occasions, for example, how popular the home office - or as they call their system, the at-home model - has become with people who were previously used to a traditional office environment. Equally interesting was the association game, where colleagues were asked to write down the first word that comes to mind when they think of working from home since such a completely open-ended question can sometimes tell us more than a dozen Likert scales.
Associations About Teleworking
According to a summary of our staff's responses, teleworking makes it easier to run a customer service in many ways: it provides a comfortable, relaxed and quiet working environment, it promotes quality working conditions by encouraging employees to be more proactive, independent, and creative. More focused working increases efficiency, especially in data-intensive, high-precision work where a noisy, open office can be counterproductive. A reporting area manager said this during the research:
"The home office requires a more independent attitude in all areas, and for me, that's a positive thing. I work in a specialized field with a lot of data, which requires a relaxed, focused environment. When you have 20 colleagues in the office, you can often find yourself being called on when you need to focus on something."
Research shows that many people feel that working from home provides a sense of security in the event of an epidemic. It also saves a lot of time, as there is no need to travel several hours to work and back home at the end of the day. This leaves more time to do things at home and improves work-life balance.
"At the employee level, this system is better in many ways. There is no need to drive or take the bus, and a lot of time can be saved by being able to do the laundry or prepare the day's cooking during breaks from work. You don't start at 5.30 in the afternoon when you get home. It makes everyday life much simpler."
Responsiveness and Self-Identity
That said, no system can be perfect in every environment and for everyone. Another important finding from the surveys is that although the majority of colleagues would like to work in the current model in the longer term, around 5% of the team associated the term home office with loneliness, isolation, and distraction. And although many things come before them in the hierarchy of needs, almost all of the value community and the cultivation of friendships at work. In line with this, United Call Centers is currently working in a special hybrid system that is responsive not only to the needs of its customers but also to the needs of its employees. According to Richárd Kozma, the most fortunate starting point is for a company to remain self-identical in this respect.
"The international team, and we're talking about hundreds of people, all work in home offices because that's what the at-home model is all about, so that's the fastest way to get a project up and running, to implement a new language. Since March last year, about 90% of the Hungarian colleagues who used to work in the office have been telecommuting. That said, all our offices are open unless current epidemiological regulations preclude it. In other words, we do not support a particular working pattern, but rather what the employee wants. For a service that deals with clients every minute of the day, it is very important that employees feel comfortable because that is when they will perform well.
If someone feels more productive in the office or motivated by the environment, they can always choose to come in. If it is more convenient to work from home, anyone can work from a home office or a hybrid system. The results bear us out, as the team's performance has not deteriorated at all, quite the contrary! Flexibility is a prerequisite in the business services sector anyway. We would be inconsistent if we advertised ourselves as such, while we can only maintain day-to-day operations at the cost of strict rules that must be followed to the letter. Fortunately, we can manage everything without any obligation other than conscientious, high-quality work."