A radical workforce shift is underway as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with organizations making wholesale operational changes in order to more effectively coach and manage an at-home workforce. In an industry that has typically been reliant on in-person facilities, nearly three out of four contact centers now allow employees to work from home, according to a survey by Nemertes Research.1 Nearly 40% say they will definitely continue agent work-from-home programs, and another third say they probably will continue them, the study found.
This shift creates unique challenges that are significant enough to mandate a rapid change in the contact center. When agents are working in the physical location, supervisors gain a lot of complementary information through casual observation and informal “hallway” conversations. When agents are working from home, supervisors need access to data to assess the same (or greater) levels of insight – but the processed data many organizations have may not be sufficient.
Contact center leaders find themselves in a world where change is being forced upon them and they are desperate to find new ways to adjust to a new normal. To ensure that agents stay productive and deliver the service customers demand will require contact centers to alter how they deliver and measure the value of their coaching program. Coaching is the single largest contributor to agent performance, which means that not adjusting coaching now to take into account the needs of the increasingly remote workforce will have tremendous short and long-term impacts.
To state the seemingly obvious, working remotely just isn’t the same as being physically in the same space, regardless of how much organizations try to replicate in-person interactions through video calls, real-time chat, and other tools. An instant message can’t replace a handshake, and a Zoom happy hour falls far short of the camaraderie of a face-to-face get-together.2 Despite a proliferation of digital interactions, working from home can feel isolating: One in five workers say their biggest struggle with working remotely is the loneliness it creates, according to an annual survey by Buffer.3 The other top two challenges for the remote workforce – communication and collaboration – are always essential for teams, but increase in importance when working remotely, not only in terms of documenting meetings and decision-making but also simply reaching out and connecting with team members. Forty-six percent of remote workers say the best managers are those who check-in frequently and regularly, according to a study reported in Harvard Business Review.4
When done correctly, remote work can actually increase employee productivity, creativity, and morale, researchers have found.5 Creating a team environment, where employees are engaged, continue to take part in training, and are rewarded and incentivized will be key to the success of your contact center. Coaching will play a critical role in making this a reality.
Best Practices to More Effectively Coach a Remote Workforce
Research shows that coaching matters and organizations who accomplish these few things successfully will see metrics improve by roughly 10% over those who don’t:
- have the right KPIs in place to measure agent productivity
- look at every interaction between customers and employees
- use visualized dashboards to clearly show agents their successes and gaps
Most organizations, however, don’t have enough data, or the necessary processing of the data, to objectively make the best decisions.
Higher-performing contact centers (as measured by customer feedback and financial results) are more likely to proactively supply agents with learning materials to make their idle time more useful. They automatically initiate or recommend personalized steps agents can take when they don’t meet objectives.
Best-in-class organizations do not forget the importance of formal supervisor training programs to enable continuous development of coaching skills. These are the contact centers who train their coaches, not just agents, because great agents don’t automatically become great people managers; you have to train them to make them exceptional. Gallup research shows that only about 2 in 10 managers intuitively understand how to engage employees, develop the employee’s strengths, and set clear expectations — which are key components of coaching.6 The good news is that the others can learn.
To be effective, coaching needs to be personalized to specifically what the employee needs to do to change the behaviors that are impacting the contact center’s KPIs. When coaching is an ongoing two-way conversation between the employee and the manager — one that includes frequent meetings and recognition for what the employee is doing right — engagement soars. In fact, employees who have regular meetings with their managers are almost three times as likely to be engaged, compared with workers who don’t, Gallup has found.7
Employee engagement is a critical enabler of contact center success. Ultimately, engaged employees feel empowered and confident that they can do the right thing for the organization and their customers. Engaged and satisfied employees are:
- 8.5 times more likely to stay than leave within the next year
- 4 times more likely to stay than disengaged colleagues
- 16 times as likely to refer friends to their company
- 3.3 times more likely to feel extremely empowered to solve customer issues
While job security and pay are important, intrinsic motivations have a significant impact on contact center operations, including:
- Opportunities for personal growth within the operation, and that can be as simple as badges or rewards or seniority level
- Clarity of the organization’s mission — knowing that you are helping people or making their lives better
- Having a sense of community and being part of a team
- Management — agents need coaching in order to be successful. If an agent is meeting objectives that have been set for him or her, job satisfaction levels increase.
The order of importance of these factors, however, is shifting in the current work-from-home environment. The sense of community has decreased, while stress levels have increased exponentially for many workers. It’s the perfect time to enhance your operations, and there are six key ways you can improve coaching and performance for your at-home workforce.
Create a One-Stop Shop
All-important data, goals, and progress toward goals should be stored in a single location. This becomes increasingly important when your workforce is not in the office in person – desk drop-ins are no longer an option. Supervisors have less time to compile data, so they need technology that does this for them. Technology should bring areas of improvement to the forefront and make those highly visible to everyone whose actions impact the result.
Spend Time Wisely
Interaction volume is up, while time to resolve has increased. Most organizations are in an all-hands-on-deck mode as a result of recent shifts. Make sure that coaches have everything they need to be successful. Preparation is key. And just like coaches can prepare for sessions, agents should too. Have sessions prescheduled and get creative in how you are connecting with agents. It may make sense to split coaching sessions into shorter, more frequent sessions – three ten-minute sessions instead of one 30-minute session, for example. More frequent touchpoints can help ensure that agents feel connected and part of something bigger.
Documentation is essential to help you understand what worked – and what did not – for which agents, and a single repository is critical to understanding the impact. Which agents thrived or struggled? Which coaches excelled or needed assistance? This is one area that’s actually easier with remote agents; rather than popping by an agent’s desk to share advice, the supervisor is reaching out online, which makes it easier to document the coaching interaction. Some organizations have also opted to record the coaching sessions to help supervisors self-analyze and improve their coaching skills.
Share Best Practices
Both agents and coaches can benefit from knowing and understanding what great performance looks like. Reference material is important; the more you have real examples for agents of how to do things, the more consistency you’ll have. Consider recording your role-playing sessions and connecting back to the materials that have been assigned so you know which materials are driving the most significant improvements, and for whom. Some materials work better for new hires, while other modules are more effective with tenured agents.
Remember that best practices are important for coaches, too. Collaboration between coaches has always been a challenge, but it becomes progressively important in the work-from-home environment. Give coaches vehicles for sharing their own best practices and struggles, perhaps a best practice library of coaching techniques. Triad coaching – a method that uses a coach, the person being coached, and an observer – can also be really effective in helping coaches develop their skills, particularly in a remote environment.
Recognize Employees and Leverage Gamification
When agents are at home, there are no whiteboards touting successes, no balloons, no cupcakes, no team lunches. Instead, keep agents motivated by sharing successes and creating contests and trivia – it all comes back to engagement and feeling connected. Make sure that the reward is meaningful – ask agents what they find valuable and motivating – and connect it back to your gamification “Quests.” And if, for example, you use gamification to increase sales of a particular product or service, be certain to note the start and end date for the program so you can monitor the impact your program has on the promotion.
Measure the Value of Coaching
Many organizations have defined coaching programs but lack the ability to connect them to overall improvement and engagement. Take steps to try to understand what you are getting in return for your investment. To do this, make sure that you:
- Take time to connect the dots on your data by understanding how much time is being spent on which topics
- Draw correlations between frequency, content, best practices, contests, and improvement in a metric
- Try to determine through analysis the difference between your employees in the second and third quartile of performance. Statistically, this is where organizations have the biggest opportunity for progress in terms of your investment in coaching and driving results.
- Translate improvements to dollars saved or dollars earned to articulate the value of the program. When situations arise requiring “all-hands-on-deck,” contact center leadership needs to understand what “cancelling coaching” can mean financially.
Although many organizations may have been forced into this work-from-home state due to a global crisis, it is expected to have lasting implications for the future of our contact centers. Many companies plan to continue to give at least some of their staff the option to work from home moving forward. Whether you will continue with full-time remote agents, or a combination of remote and on-premise staff, these six tips for success can be applied to your coaching and performance management programs to achieve measurable results.
1 Gareiss, Robin. “The Global Workforce: Forever Changed.” Nemertes, 16 Apr. 2020.
2 Fetters, Ashley. “We Need to Stop Trying to Replicate the Life We Had.” The Atlantic, 10 Apr. 2020.
3 “State of Remote Work 2020.” Buffer, 2020.
4 Maxfield, Joseph Grenny and David, et al. “A Study of 1,100 Employees Found That Remote Workers Feel Shunned and Left Out.” Harvard Business Review, 14 May 2018.
5 Abram, Zara. “The Future of Remote Work.” American Psychological Association, 1 Oct. 2019.
6 Robison, Jennifer. “Give Up Bossing, Take Up Coaching: You'll Like the Results.” Gallup, 14 May 2020.
7 Tarallo, Mark. “Coach to Your Team's Strengths to Improve Employee Engagement.” SHRM, 16 Aug. 2019.
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