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New Game, New Rules: rethinking at-home work - lifting and shifting frontline work to at-home is jus

The world just changed but it needs to change again…

In March 2020 on every continent, many of the front-line operations of the world achieved a minor miracle in moving to at-home working.

Some followed their existing Business Continuity Plans like well-oiled machines or just scaled up their existing at-home capability. Many organisations had no such capability and scrambled to implement new technology solutions, add connectivity or buy hardware but somehow found a way to enable staff to work from home. These companies have achieved years of change in a matter of weeks. If that wasn’t hard enough, some organisations have also had to plug resourcing gaps caused by massive spikes of activity, offshore lock downs or deal with new legislation and business rules.

It was a mighty rush for some and continues to be a challenge for those with increased work volumes. Even those who already had at-home work models have found that many of the rules for at-home models had changed. The accepted “practice” for at-home working assumed that you could:

  • Get people back to the office from time to time to keep them connected

  • Continue to train them centrally so they stay in touch with the workplace

  • Set up a dedicated place to work in the home away from families, pets etc

  • Make at-home work like work in the office as much as possible

  • Connect people to team leaders and support staff centrally

Many of these concepts are now either harder or impossible. With everyone at home the challenge of staying connected applies to all levels of the workforce, as well as front line staff. People are adjusting to a new way of working in a very uncertain world and at-home work could go for weeks or many months. It is highly likely to be a major part of the way we work for the next year.

This environment has been created so fast that there is no defined playbook. New games have new rules and new opportunities so we’re going to cover some changes that we think will make this new world more effective. In our last paper we outlined “Ten ways to get lean or create capacity” which complement these ideas, but we won’t repeat them here. We’ve picked on seven new opportunities to re-think work in this new world and we’ll cover each in turn as follows:

  • Leave old shift thinking in the office

  • Isolate and deflect any new work

  • Maximise channel switching

  • Revisit the skill and support model

  • Knock down silos to add flexibility;

  • Consider work marketplaces

  • Reinvent active management or turn it off and trust everyone.

Seven Opportunities:

1. Leave old shift thinking in the office

In an office world, rosters were always a compromise balancing the need for people to get to and from the office with patterns of demand. That has all changed. Everything is up for grabs now because few people are commuting so we can re-think shifts. The new shift rules could include:

  • Major split shifts with big gaps in the day

  • Some staff may prefer three or four short shifts a day.

  • More staff may prefer part time through the week and part time at weekends because, let’s face it, there isn’t much to do at weekends and families are home seven days a week.

  • More staff may want part time work now than ever before

  • Many staff may be prepared to do over-time in place of travel time.

In Australia there are all kinds of workplace agreement restrictions but even these are

falling away. Allowing staff to pick shifts that suit them could make it harder to manage teams but with teams now distributed, how teams interact will be changing in any case. This is a unique chance to rethink how we organize when people work! It’s also a great way to get staff more engaged with their work and allow them to find new ways of working in a new world. There may be challenges like industrial agreements and scheduling software constraints, but in this environment, everything can be challenged.

2. Isolate or deflect any new work

Many organisations are facing brand new types of activity linked to changes to legislation, business rules and crisis response. These are causing exceptionally high volumes of similar transactions (e.g. mortgage interest deferral) for short periods. Often organisations have had almost no time to “set up” for this work and it's bombarding the front line and causing wait times and poor experiences for all customers. We think it’s key to either isolate (to new or temp staff) or better still deflect this additional work. In our last whitepaper we discussed proactive deflection strategies and they are a key defence in this fast-changing environment. We recommend getting on the front foot for these temporary contact categories and using isolate and deflect strategies together. That means steps such as:

  • text and email customers proactively with links to digital processes, FAQs, so anticipate and pre-empt contacts

  • get new messages into IVRs to deflect customers to digital solutions and sources

  • define fast and repeatable processes to respond to these new types of contact that enable new or seconded staff to add to the deflection or “part automate” the contact by sending links, text and emails that “shrink” the handling time. This in turn enables a company to use temporary staff and make them productive rapidly. At really busy times they may even merely capture basic details for later follow up

  • set up additional staff or a dedicated a group for these new contacts and use them to protect other customers and staff using these streamlined processes

  • anticipate the successive waves of contact for these temporary customer needs from “how do I?” to “where is my” or “why didn’t I qualify X”. Think about the next 2-3 steps and prepare the customer for those.

Of course this isn’t easy, as companies are on the back foot reacting to rapidly evolving legislation, brand new products and business rules changes but taking the time to stand back and preempt will save money and make customers grateful.

3. Switch to a better channel

Some channels are well suited to simple queries (chat for example) while others are

more flexible. The technology world tends to perpetrate the myth that chat and automation can handle anything. In many organisations we find that each channel team (chat, email, call) have a natural tendency to interact purely in their own channel even when that is ineffective. We rarely see email or chat teams invite or initiate a phone call but we find “switching” channels can produce faster and better outcomes. A quick phone call could save a long drawn out email exchange.

The new COVID world of at-home work should mean that channel “switching” is easier because customers are mostly at home or using their own phones and devices and therefore easier to contact. They also have greater access to personal emails to send them information than when they were in a purely work environment. Therefore, all channels can raise resolution and reduce handling time if they recognise when channel switching will help. With technologies like click to chat and the potential of proactive outbound contacts, channel switching can be a great time saver and customer win.

4. Re-visit skill and support models

Many organisations have used help and support models that involve team leaders as support or people walking the floor to give help. We never thought it was a good idea anyway, but in an at-home model it can’t work. The new at-home world forces organisations to virtualise help and support and in this world we suggest three possible solutions:

  • Create chat or messaging Q and A for simple queries that can be answered virtually

  • Create a dedicated virtual help desk or queue

  • Implement a complexity split service model.

Taking each in turn. We’ve seen many organisations have success

with a “chat” or messaging support model even in the office. Front line staff use chat just to confirm things where they think they know the answer or ask simple questions. It rarely works well for complex problems which is where a help desk “virtual team or queue” is needed. Setting up a dedicated virtual help team means that the work is visible and can be measured and resourced appropriately. However, any “consult queue” can result in extended contacts and still involves some “double handling” as, for the period of consultation, two people are handling the contact. To avoid queues, these teams need to be sized bigger than the help demand so we suggest blending help and other work. These kind of dedicated help desks may be an expedient answer in the move to at-home work but they are far from perfect.

A different option is a “complexity split” work model. In contrast to help desks, the second layer of these models are “given” the problems to solve rather than consulted about the answer. These models have the advantage of matching the complex work with those best equipped to solve them rather than trying to get less qualified staff to do complex work. They can involve less double handling when designed correctly and produce better experiences where resolution rates are high.

These solutions are complex to design, in our experience. To get the design right you need to rethink processes to align them to a complexity split model. We’ve written several papers on how to do this well (see our papers “Five myths of effective service models” and “Customer experience driven operating models”)

so we won’t repeat it here. Technology can also play a role if analytics or past contact history can separate complexity. These models can produce great efficiency gains and customer resolution benefits but they take time and effort. The move to at-home work may be a great opportunity to consider alternative support models like these or to realign and simplify skills as a result. If organised well they can also help reduce induction, simplify IVRs and navigation and bring together more front and back office work so the effort involved can have a great payback.

5. Knock down silos to add flexibility

The rush to at-home working has meant that many organisations have been content if they can get the front-line workforce productive in one channel or type of work. At-home work runs the risk of lifting and shifting the silos of the office world to an at-home world. Managing a range of skill, channels and work types was already complex and often created complex skill models, hand offs and sub scale teams. In this world where new types of work emerge for short periods and others fall away, organisations need to find ways to add more flexibility rather than less. We have already described the need to “switch” channels at times for any given customer. Here we are questioning why different channel, product or functional teams have been separated.

Given that it was possible to move each work or channel type to an at-home mode also suggests that it is possible to add more flexibility and knock down some of the channel and work type silos. Rather than just setting up staff at home to handle one channel or type of work, it’s an opportunity to expand flexibility. Now that we can equip a home agent to take calls, it means in theory that more people can take calls. Why can’t staff still heading into branches or retail sites now take calls to supplement their work? If the email team can do emails at home, then others can also assist them and if back-office processing teams are now at home, then they could take calls in busy periods.

We recognise that different applications and equipment are needed for some work (e.g. a headset to make calls) and sometimes skills, business rules or software licenses are seen as a constraint. The current crisis may be the easiest time to challenge these constraints. The move to at-home work has shown the potential to distribute any work. Removing silos will add flexibility and contingencies. For example, more people could handle peak volumes of one work type (e.g. calls) in busy periods and then switch to other work later in the day. This could also complement the change in shifts we discussed earlier. So, the move to at-home working is a chance to create more of the omni channel and flexible workplace that has long been promoted.

6. Market Places for Work

At-home work is an enabler of some very different ways of work such as “marketplace” concepts to match workers to work. These models let people “bid on work” in some form and enable flexible workforces and new employment models. One BPO established this model and offered shifts at different prices to a number of at-home staff. Agents signed up for them if they wanted to work that shift at that price. In effect these became work marketplaces where the company was using market forces to schedule. Uber have shown a version of this model in so called “car sharing”. Uber drivers chose when they work and know that some times of the week have higher rates or are busier. It’s up to them when they work and laws of supply and demand kick in to match the workforce to the work.

These “market-place” models are a great potential answer to the temporary “spikes” of work that are occurring at present. As we’ve described, a company could train an expanded workforce quickly for a limited number of temporary new work types and then use a marketplace model to match the workforce to the demand. At-home work need not be a constraint as many organisations are finding they can use video conference training and recorded content to train staff at home. Narrowing the problem to one or two types of contact make it possible to do this quickly in an at-home setting. The at-home workers complete the training and can be tested to qualify for the work.

At-home working has also removed the size of the office as a constraint. With high unemployment there are many candidates available for these types of models. Organisations can have larger contingency workforces and use pricing to influence who works and when. This idea can also work well with an existing workforce. Those that want to work extra hours or add shifts will match themselves to the price of the shifts made available. This market-place idea can add flexibility and move more “old school” businesses to some of the benefits of the “so called” gig economy.

7. Re-invent Active management

At-home working has made it harder to manage what everyone is doing.

It’s not just the distractions in the home, it’s the lack of physical visibility. A team leader in the office knew who was sitting at their desk or had a headset on. Of course, we’d all love to think that everyone could be trusted just to do their job but with children at home and many other distractions, some people are going to need help. We have described two different responses.

The first involves an active management process for the at-home work force. This means having visibility, virtually, of what everyone is doing and having a reliable communication mechanism to interact with the workforce if needed. Visibility should be possible in contact centre type software but is less hard with email and chat work. How do we know if someone is busy responding to an email? In an at-home world we need to decide who is monitoring the teams and how interventions will work. Walking over to someone is no longer possible so messaging tools become key. We recommend thinking through what “triggers” require an intervention e.g. how long in state like “not ready for call”, and clear responsibilities for these interventions. The need for triggers, contingencies and clear reporting are even greater in a virtualised world of at-home working.

Or don’t…

There is also a complete flip side model in which, in these special times, you take away all the measures and monitoring and move to a model of total trust with minimal real time oversite of staff. So rather than “command and control” approach, you trust staff to do what they are paid for and perhaps monitor after the fact, whether people behaved responsibly. In some companies and cultures, this works well while in others staff may exploit these freedoms in the wrong way leading to difficult discussions. There are well documented cases that removing all monitoring can free up productivity. In some cultures it works well and now may be a time to begin a trial.

Want to know more on these ideas?

We hope these ideas are of interest and are happy to share more of the detail about all or any of them if you contact us on the options below. If they sounded too simplistic, of course we didn’t have time to describe the complexities, but we hope they help. We’re already working on our next paper to focus on oversight of other types of work in an at-home environment.

For more information email us at or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438 652 396.

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