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Managing Daily Staffing and Service in the Support Center
By Penny Reynolds, Founding Partner, The Call Center School


One of the most critical steps in making and receiving customer calls is deciding not just how many staff will be needed, but what type of staffing solution will be used. Since about three-fourths of call center costs are related to labor costs, this decision is fundamental to the operation of the business. How a business chooses to get people in place to handle its customer interactions will have an impact on every other function within the center, including site selection and facility design, forecasting and scheduling, performance management, technology acquisition and management, facilities management, human resources administration, and risk management.

The four main options for call center staffing include traditional in-house staffing, outsourcing, contract agency staffing, and telecommuting. This article will explore the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of telecommuting as a call center staffing solution.

The technology exists today within telephone switches to allow agents to log in from home or any other remote site and receive calls in the same way as if they were sitting in the call center. They can be part of an ACD agent group and receive calls just like the other agents in the group, and data can be sent to their screen at home just like what they would see in the center. The technology also provides for management functions so that the remote agents’ statistics are tracked and reported just like the in-house agents. Supervisors can also monitor and record their calls on a real-time or scheduled basis.
Some ACD systems provide built-in capabilities to enable remote agent connections. Other call centers rely on third-party remote agent technology that allows agents to receive calls from the regular ACD as if they were a position in the center. This type of technology makes it possible for agents to even use the features and functions of the ACD phone system from home over a regular, dial-up telephone lines using a basic off-the-shelf telephone set.

Telecommuting Advantages

There are many advantages to a telecommuting or remote agent arrangement as discussed below:

Schedule Flexibility. The main advantage of using remote workers as all or part of the call center workforce is the flexibility gained in scheduling. It is very difficult to cover the peaks and valleys of calls throughout the day with traditional staff. The call center may have a two-hour peak of calls in the morning and another in the afternoon. While the call center can’t expect someone to come into the center and work a split shift to handle those periods, it may be reasonable to expect a person working from home to do so.
Covering night and weekend hours may also be easier to accomplish with telecommuters. Many people do not like to commute to work at night when crime and traffic risks go up. These same people may be willing to work those hours if they can do so from the comfort of their own home.

Real Estate Savings. Another primary benefit of telecommuting is the space savings accomplished by not needing to house the agent in the physical call center. Assuming that an agent occupies 50 square feet of call center space and the lease cost of this space is $20 per square foot per month, the savings per agent would be $1,000 per month or $12,000 per year. And this is just the cost of the space alone. Add to that the one-time and ongoing costs of building and maintaining workstations, furniture, lunchrooms, conference spaces, and other amenities, along with the cost of additional utilities, and that cost could easily double.

This estimate of savings is supported by actual industry statistics. According to numbers from the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC), a trade organization for teleworkers, there is a cost avoidance of $25,000 per teleworking agent when compared to traditional staffing alternatives.

Expanded Labor Pool. Another strong reason to consider the utilization of a remote workforce is the potential to attract additional labor sources. This expanded labor pool may include those that are highly qualified workers, but are handicapped or physically challenged and unable to commute daily into the business site. Another potential source of workers may be those that are homebound caregivers, such as the growing population of baby-boomers now caring for their elderly parents.

A telecommuting option may also simply bring in a bigger pool of qualified candidates attracted to the prospect of working at home and avoiding the commuting hassles of getting to their job every day. As a matter of fact, companies not only find their candidate pool increasing, but also find that people are willing to work for less money if telecommuting is an option. In addition to the avoiding the travel time of a long commute, employees can save money on transportation costs, food costs, and a working wardrobe. These are all significant benefits to employees.

Remote staffing capabilities may also be a way to have workers out of the office due to illness or disability back on the job sooner. Rather than waiting on a full recovery, many workers may be able to resume work sooner if working from home, either on a full-time or gradual part-time basis.

Staff Retention. Businesses generally find that their teleworking employees have a much higher job satisfaction and retention rates than traditional in-house employees. In addition to the “hard dollar” employee benefits listed above, the additional time found in their day is a big factor in overall satisfaction and quality of life.

Another retention benefit is the fact that trained employees can also be retained even if they move to another city or area of the country. Many call centers lose valuable employees when a spouse’s job takes them to a new place. With remote agent capabilities, the high-quality agent can remain employed, avoiding recruiting, hiring, and training costs for new staff, not to mention the retention of valuable skills and knowledge.

Increased Productivity. Many trials of telecommuting workers versus traditional office workers suggest that telecommuters are more productive. The main reason for this higher productivity may be the fact that there are fewer interruptions to distract the employee. Their comfort and increased satisfaction from working at home may also be a contributing factor to the better productivity.

Disaster Recovery. All sorts of disasters and emergencies can happen that disable normal call center functions and having a pool of remote workers can assist the call center in carrying out its work. A flu epidemic or icy road may prevent staff from coming into the center, but work can still be carried out in remote sites. A flood or power outage at the site can damage workstations, but assuming connectivity is still possible to the main switch, agents at home can continue to process calls.

Environmental Impact. Having fewer people driving into the call center every day can certainly reduce auto emissions and pollution. This isn’t just a nice benefit, but may help some companies comply with legal regulations. The federal Clean Air Act requires companies with more than one-hundred employees in high-pollution areas to design and implement programs to reduce air pollution. Setting up a telecommuting program is one option for complying with this rule.

Telecommuting Disadvantages

Telecommuting is not for everyone however, and there are also some downsides to this staffing alternative. The major obstacle preventing many companies from doing telecommuting is the issue of equipping the agent to work at home. While the voice part of the technology is easy to accomplish and phone calls can be seamlessly made and answered, the bigger stumbling block has to do with the delivery of the data portion of the call.

Delivery of the data portion of the call to the agent’s desktop at home requires equipping the agent with the proper equipment and sufficient bandwidth to enable the customer interactions. Dedicated lines can be expensive, and ISDN and DSL lines are not available in every area. There is also concern about the delivery of private or confidential information to an agent’s home where friends and family members may have access to it.

Social concerns should also be taken into consideration. Those team members that work from home may not feel as much of the team as their on-site counterparts. And it may be more difficult to keep at-home agents “in the loop” of office communications and new procedures. Many companies address this gap by having the employee come into the office at least one day a week to work.

Finally, many employees are not good candidates for telecommuting. Some may lack the experience or discipline to work without supervision. Other folks long for the camaraderie of being in a social workplace. It is important to define up front what the selection criteria will be and make sure a process is in place to continually monitor and coach the distant workers to ensure they effectively contribute to the goals and objectives of the center and of the overall business.

Evaluating the Potential

An increasing number of organizations are exploring the telecommuting option as a way to get the flexibility they need in staffing as well as to improve employee satisfaction and morale. Think telecommuting might be a potential solution for your call center? Proceed slowly by implementing a small pilot first to test its acceptance and success. You may find that the “work at home” solution is a winner for your center, your agents, and your customers.

About the Author
Penny Reynolds is a Founding Partner of The Call Center School, a Nashville, Tennessee based consulting and education company. The company provides a wide range of educational offerings for help desk and call center professionals, including traditional classroom courses, web-based seminars, and self-paced e-learning programs at the manager, supervisor, and frontline staff level. Contact Penny at penny.reynolds@thecallcenterschool.com or 615-812-8410.

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