The Work-at-Home Discussion Continues

By Donna Fluss

Is the pandemic finally winding down, or is there another variant (or other surprise) lurking in the shadows? While no one knows what is going to happen, and we continuously see and hear conflicting reports, it is clear that human resiliency and the miracles of modern medicine are the driving forces behind dealing with this challenge.

As if the pandemic weren’t challenging enough, the Great Resignation, driven in large part by the pandemic, has added another layer of complexity to enterprise planning, including the decision about where employees will work – on-site, at home, or hybrid—during the next year. With this in mind, DMG asked enterprise and contact center executives and leaders to share their work location plans for the next year. (There is no point in looking beyond 2022. Few public or private organizations want to share these longer-term plans as it could negatively impact their ability to attract the resources they need to hire.)

The figure below displays the results for the survey question about work location plans, which DMG asked in November/December 2021. This chart shows that 11.3 percent of organizational leaders want contact center and customer service employees to work on-site; 20.7 percent expect them to work at home; and 68 percent are planning for a hybrid staffing model where employees split their time between coming in to the office and staying at home.

Where do you plan to have your contact center/customer service staff work in 2022?

These results, which provide insight into the work location flexibility that enterprise and contact center executives are going to give their employees in 2022, are well aligned with the results of a similar question that DMG asked of our worldwide audience of leaders at the end of 2020, when there was still hope the pandemic would end sooner. In November/December 2020, DMG asked: After the pandemic is over, are you going to have some/all contact center/customer service employees work from home? Fourteen percent of survey respondents said no, and 86 percent said yes. These answers are consistent with the results of this year’s survey, when the at-home and hybrid responses combined totaled 88.7 percent.

Implications of Survey Findings on WAH

Before the pandemic, the vast majority of executive and contact center leaders wanted their employees to work on site. There was a perception that contact center and customer service employees would not be productive if they worked from home. DMG estimates that less than 5 percent of contact centers were 100 percent work-at-home (WAH) environments prior to COVID-19. (There were many contact centers that had a small WAH program or a few agents working from home, but most did this on an exception basis and had no plans to expand it.)

The pandemic proved them wrong. Contact center and customer service employees, particularly agents, have been as productive when working from home as they are in the office. This is due to the array of systems and applications that provide deep visibility into agents’ performance, as well as the commitment and dedication of employees who staff these jobs. But is this enough reason to allow agents and other contact center and customer service employees to continue to work at home?

No one knows what the future will hold, but it currently appears as if the WAH landscape has changed in a meaningful manner for some, but not all, contact centers. DMG has heard from a significant number of organizations that are planning not to renew real estate leases for some or all of their contact center sites in response to employee demand for WAH. Other leaders have told us they have a mix of agents and employees who would prefer to return to the office, once it is safe. As no one single work location is best for all employees, and their preferences change based on a variety of factors, it looks like a hybrid approach, where there is choice and flexibility, is the way to go, which explains why 68 percent of survey respondents selected this option.

What This Means for Executives

It’s been a tough few years, but most organizations have done a good job of navigating workplace challenges. This is particularly the case for contact centers, where it is common to have hundreds or thousands of people working in close proximity to each other, which would have been a major impediment to social distancing without WAH and hybrid options. Organizations should continue to apply the staffing and onboarding practices they learned during the pandemic, as these approaches have proven to be effective and give companies and their employees mutually beneficial flexibility in an era where this is a priority.