Can call centre workers work from home? While a Stanford University study with Chinese travel agency C-Trip found significant productivity gains, the practicalities for businesses are not simple. Data sensitivity, client concerns and management needs may get in the way, finds Heather Greig-Smith
On the face of it, call centre working is an ideal role to adapt to flexible working. After all, workers spend their days on the phone and that can be done as easily from home as from the office – sometimes more easily.
However, call centre workers work in teams that often need careful management and deal with dialler and computer technology not necessarily available in the average home office. Many of them also handle sensitive data on people’s health or finances, so is call centre remote working really a viable option?
Stanford Chinese experiment
A study conducted with Chinese travel agency C-Trip by Stanford University academics suggests that it is desirable if companies can achieve it. The company is NASDAQ-listed and has 16,000 employees. Managers were concerned that allowing people to work from home would lead to them shirking but were keen to reduce expensive property overheads in Shanghai.
When 249 volunteers were randomly assigned the task of working from home or office for a period of nine months, Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom and his team found that the productivity of those working at home increased by 13%. Of this, 9% was attributed to working more minutes per shift (home workers had fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% to the increased peace and quiet. Home workers also reported increased satisfaction and experienced less turnover, but their promotion rate, conditional on performance, fell by 50%.
Due to the success of the experiment, which also saved $2,000 a year per employee working from home, C-Trip rolled out the programme, allowing staff to choose whether they worked from home or in the office. As those working at home who had performed poorly were more likely to make the switch back to the office, productivity rose again – almost doubling at 22%.
Employees like the office?
This suggests there are many people for whom the office environment is important to reach their performance peak. Interestingly, two thirds of those who had previously wanted to try working from home, but had not been selected for the trial, opted to stay in the office, citing concerns of loneliness and lower rates of promotion. Bloom points to the importance of experimenting when it comes to home working – employees and managers change their minds.
Not everyone offers the chance to find out. A spokeswoman for Virgin Media says its call centre workers do not work from home, with the company preferring “collaborative office environments where everyone benefits from the knowledge-sharing and support this enables”.
Training and community are two of the areas that employers feel can be harder to achieve working from home. Virgin Media says the call centres feature “learning spaces that help our employees to build the expertise to handle the increasingly complex side of communications and home entertainment… and are also fitted with break-out areas and games rooms for staff to take time from their busy schedules to relax and unwind with colleagues”.
Bryan Mouat is managing director of business process outsourcing company BCW Group, which is owned by Arvato. Its work includes the recovery of debts from businesses and individuals and so involves handling sensitive data on a day to day basis. BCW introduced flexible working for call centre workers in 2007 after co-operating with the Scottish government on a White Paper looking at the various methodologies and technologies that could be used.
“We offer flexible hours and days to suit people who are disabled, have childcare commitments or find the commute impractical,” he says.
Keeping the best staff
Initially the policy was set up because one of the company’s best-performing collectors was relocating but still wanted to work for the business. “We trusted her implicitly so set her up to work from home,” explains Mouat.
Today BCW has 36 call centre workers working from home offices that have been inspected by the company. The employees working from home have the same technology as those in the office, and work anything from 10-42 hours a week with their own dedicated (office-based) manager reviewing performance and motivating the team.
“The experience for a home worker is identical. They sign into the system and have a standard package of applications which is the same as that of an agent signing in in the office. They’re automatically slotted into a flow of work and simultaneously logged into a blended predictive dialler [which manages their calls],” says Mouat. The workers come into the office at least a few times a year.
Like the Chinese experiment, BCW has found that homeworkers are more productive than their office-based counterparts and take less sick time, with gains of 15%-18% per person.
However, Mouat is clear that not all employees would work well from home and, as well as undergoing a strict assessment of suitability, all of BCW’s homeworkers had worked for the business for some time before they transitioned out of the office. This mirrors the Chinese experience: volunteers were only selected if they had worked for the business for at least six months.
A further factor is that BCW and companies like it work with accounts owned by creditors such as banks, electricity providers and councils. As well as complying with data protection legislation they are subject to client views on how the data should be treated. Mouat says financial services companies are overwhelmingly against call centre workers collecting debts from home, whereas utility company and local authority clients are generally more relaxed and supportive of the initiative.
Another contact centre manager in the UK told Flexible Boss he was against the idea as it is “fraught with security issues” and there is no control over who can see the screen at home. He adds that what happens when the agent leaves the company and the issue of transporting necessary equipment need to be thought through, as does the isolation potentially felt by the worker.
The sensitive ‘data’ handled by call centre workers at charity helpline provider Connect Assist is of a difference nature. Chief executive Patrick Nash says call handlers deal with challenging circumstances on a daily basis, such as mental health issues, child protection and finances. Being in the office can therefore be important from a staff support point of view.
“We have to respond appropriately and promptly and often that means having someone else on the line to support the call handler,” he says. “I would never want to have the majority of people working from home. There is an element of peer support that is quite important.”
However, the business does support homeworking and all staff are trained to work from home with laptops and headsets in the event of adverse Welsh weather. The company’s homeworking in fact grew out of these disaster recovery procedures. “When the snow threatens to descend everyone takes their laptops home and we can run the system that way. We also routinely circulate the people working from home to make sure our systems are working,” says Nash.
He feels Connect Assist is likely to do more remote working in future. “Clients want us to scale up and down quickly and that’s much easier when we can offer the home working option.”
Flexible working also means the company attracts a more diverse workforce, which is important for the business. One of the lines it runs requires shifts between 6pm and 9pm, which is almost entirely staffed by mothers (and one father) with childcare responsibilities during the day.
However, it is important for employers to remember that not everyone has an appropriate space where they can work at home. Nash says the company always inspects workers’ homes and it is important that there is a quiet space away from distracting noise.
Barriers to success
Technology is certainly no barrier to call centre workers working from home. As Nash points out, the whole operation could be done remotely so why shouldn’t a call centre offer flexibility in location? However, not all staff can or want to work from home and the office serves other functions: support, management and social. Managing those away from the call centre requires different skills and the worker needs to cope without peer and team leader support – often a focus of the call centre environment.
Finally, there is the issue of data security. While someone hell bent on defrauding an employer will find a way to do so wherever they work, it would be easier to achieve this away from office eyes. Trusting the people who work for the business is the essential ingredient. The benefits of getting the recipe right are demonstrable: higher productivity, happier employees, reduced costs and lower turnover.