As I write this, many governments around the world, and many states and cities around our country, are effectively declaring an “end” to the COVID-19 pandemic. I say “end” because it’s clear that COVID-19 will never be gone — instead, we are told that it will be something that we’ll have to learn to live and work with permanently. Our lives have been altered permanently by COVID, and one of the biggest changes is work from home (WFH).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December that 11% of workers are still telecommuting, and while this might seem small, it represents over 17 million workers. Indeed is also reporting that about 9% of open job postings are for remote work, which is a 300% increase from 2019. Other experts are reporting that on a permanent basis: 10-20% of work will be 100% remote, 10-20% of work will be 100% in-office, and the rest will be hybrid. In the home services industry, working from home isn’t a reality for most of our positions … we work “in” the home, not “at” home.
The big takeaway for us is that an overwhelming majority of our customers will be remote. Also, as we recruit for office and support positions, we’re going to be competing with companies who are offering WFH. So, how do we change the narrative? How do we shift to looking at these changes as a negative into something positive?
If you have access to and make full use of the right technology, you can meet the needs of certain segments of your workforce and benefit your company. Consider your call center: Many of the software platforms available are web based and have the ability to route calls through the internet via VOIP. Also, is your call volume consistent throughout the day, the week, the month, the year? (Hint: The answer is no.) Leverage the fact that you have inconsistent workloads that experience severe seasonal and climate-based fluctuations, and the fact that you have a potential pool of incredibly skilled workers who (for whatever reason) are not able to commit to a full-time job. The software many of us use will also allow us to monitor the productivity of that remote staff, and even give us tools to help coach them.
In our own company, we utilize a staff of part-time remote workers to help us respond to fluctuations in call volume. The benefit to our company is we have the capacity to answer the phone when it rings and reduce our costs when it doesn’t. Also, we have seen turnover in our call center be essentially eliminated, which is an amazing feat given the current hiring environment. For our full-time staff in the office, they have a more reliable 40-hour paycheck during slower times of the year, and they also don’t get overworked when the call volume peaks. We have been able to effectively manage productivity with remote work in our call center.
We should be aware that there are some areas you do need to pay attention to that will cause you problems.
First, unless you have enhanced monitoring and coaching capabilities with your software, you will struggle to manage the call quality, and you’ll struggle to provide proper support and coaching for your remote staff. Also, effective onboarding will need to take place; you can’t just cut them loose in the wild with no training. Make sure to invest in training time in the office before you cut them loose; this will increase their performance and reduce your turnover because they’ll feel more prepared.
Second, it will be very easy for these people to feel isolated, so make sure to have regular coaching sessions where you provide positive reinforcement of the correct habits. Make them feel like they’re part of the team by conducting weekly team meetings using Zoom/Teams, putting everyone on their own separate session, rather than the office team in one session and having the remote staff dial in. Having the remote and office staff on their own computer during a Zoom/Teams meeting will keep everyone engaged in the conversation at the same level. Your remote staff won’t be able to turn to a coworker and have a laugh about that frustrating customer with the person sitting next to them, so you need to take steps to make them feel connected and part of the team.
Lastly, you’ll need to understand that the learning curve will be much shallower with your WFH call center staff. They won’t pick up on the tricks of the trade as quickly as those in the office; they won’t be able to learn from their more seasoned coworkers. Be patient, be a resource, and create an environment where they’ll want to stay. By doing so, you’ll have a long-term employee who is very effective at their job.
Very few positions will fit as neatly into the WFH box as your call center. Yes, productivity will increase in most positions due to fewer interruptions and distractions. However, you’ll find that workplace relationships will not develop, and possibly even weaken. From our experience, the people part is the hardest, and it will be incredibly challenging to manage from afar. Promotion and advancement from remote work will be a challenge, if not an impossibility, so be aware of this. If you and your staff member decide to embark on a WFH adventure together, make sure you both understand what’s expected, what is allowed, and what is not.
WFH has presented incredible opportunities from a business development and growth perspective. Our customers have a new office, and they’ve found out how inadequate their office is: Lighting and outlet access is a challenge, their house gets hot during the day because their old system can’t keep up, and the quality of their air is horrible … how could they possibly work in such a horrible environment? Lucky for you, you have the solutions they didn’t know they needed until recently.
Are you prepared as an organization to:
- Communicate all the ways that you can service your customers?
- Develop a trusting relationship with your customer where they’ll view you as a trusted resource?
- Make sure that all your trades understand and can communicate all the ways your company can help your customers? Can plumbers talk about HVAC, and HVAC talk about electrical?
With your customers “at home” more, their schedule will become more flexible, and you can benefit from this change. As more workers return to the office, some of this opportunity will tighten up, but it will still be there. Your customers will be at home, and they will be more conscious of the shortcomings of their new work environment. What used to be their “wants” will shift more strongly to the “needs” side.
Yes, our “new normal” has challenges, but it also has plenty of opportunities. Are the challenges really challenges, or are they just opportunities in disguise? Take a step back, get a new angle, and look at a paradigm shift like WFH as an opportunity to take your business to the next level — or a new level, at least.