To survive the current crisis many businesses have either gone into hibernation or radically changed their working practices. Early efforts focused on reacting as fast as possible in order to minimise damage to trading. As the world becomes more used to living with the virus and companies bring some people back into office environments, management is shifting from a survival to optimisation mindset. Businesses now need to invest time in adapting their services and processes to changing market conditions and customer expectations. Where human interactions are involved, this is likely to mean a significant rewrite of the employee journey in order to better serve customer needs.
Of course, one of the areas that has seen the greatest changes has been the rapid rise of homeworking. In many organisations we are likely to see much higher levels of homeworking continue in the short to medium term than was the case previously. Lockdown and home working have raised radical questions about the employee-employer relationship and companies are now beginning to process the data and early lessons. How positive has this vast, impromptu home-working experiment been for employees and businesses? What effect has this had on productivity? What implications has it had for trust in the workplace? Employee journey mapping can help to address such questions as it studies how employees go about their job and how the organisation helps or hinders this process. Processes, interactions, support tools and the working environment are sifted through in order to design improved employee and customer experiences and better business outcomes.
A particular spotlight has been put on the performance of the contact centre industry during lock-down. I’m sure many of us have experienced the novelty of more agents referencing their home working set-up as well as the frustration of increasing wait times with some of our providers. Home working is not new to this sector but has grown exponentially over the course of the crisis. While the technology is there to support this transition, many operations need to closely examine this area to optimise the way that agents work and how the technical tools are best implemented to enable and monitor the service that they provide. In the short term the areas that need the most attention are those with greatest impact on the customer and this is where any employee mapping work should place its focus. Some key areas that stand out are:
- Rapid deployment of remote working capabilities – Perhaps surprisingly, it is estimated that only 10-20% of call centre workers in the UK were based remotely before the crisis. Operators such as Sensee had a well-established home working model long before Covid 19, while Capita had seen the majority of their staff transitioned to homeworking by the end of April. A survey conducted early in the crisis found that many call centre workers, still in office environments, were unhappy with the situation, with more than 8 in 10 feeling pressurised to come to work. Although this initial situation will undoubtedly have changed, some call centres remained with office-based workers throughout. Implementing government guidelines offers some protection but an outbreak still presents a significant business risk as it could cause many agents to self-isolate and even for a centre to temporarily close as Sky’s Cardiff centre did in March.
- Changing mix of contact centre roles and increasing empowerment – many sectors are having to deal with increasing numbers of customers in life-changing situations which require greater sensitivity and corporate flexibility. Some organisations have set up separate Coronavirus teams, such as Santander, which initially needed to deal with customers asking for mortgage holidays but are now more focused on temporary overdrafts to get people through short term difficulties as they move to Universal Credit. The tools are similar but the level of empathy and generosity have adapted to deal with unprecedented changes in people’s lives. Training agents to deal sensitively with these issues and achieving a sensible balance between empowering agents while providing a clear framework of revised guidelines, are critical to delivering a better service in difficult times. The companies that get this right are likely to be remembered by customers in years to come and enhance loyalty longer term.
- Keeping agents informed – is foundational to effective empowerment. The contact centre environment is often set up to keep agents up to date on the latest developments in company services as well as any contextual issues that are likely to impact customers but this is not as easy to achieve in the home. If agents are not up to date on the latest customer playbooks to get the job done, particularly in a fast-changing environment as we are currently seeing, then customers can be misinformed, treated inconsistently and become unhappy. Systems that can deliver this communication flow in a seamless way in the home environment are vital to delivering great service. Air France has developed a desktop and mobile based app that delivers all of their communications and training in a consistent form using Microsoft Teams. This was in place before the crisis but has become more vital as their industry has been transformed and 100% of their agents are now home based.
- Listening to employees – communication of course needs to flow in both directions, so having an easily accessible employee feedback mechanism is vital during these times of rapid change. This is not so much about formal employee engagement surveys and metrics, but more concerned with giving employees the power to rapidly share any niggles and inefficiencies they may be experiencing with new systems so these can feed into continuous improvement efforts.
- Systematic review of processes: All the day-to-day processes that were taken granted in the call centre such as daily huddles or face to face escalations, need to find their equivalents in the home working environment. For example, when faced with a problem on a customer call, in the contact centre environment agents can simply go and ask their manager. When they are working at home, this is not so simple. Managers may be fielding multiple queries so may not be available to pick up the phone if an agent tries to call them. Messaging systems may be more efficient at handling ongoing questions throughout a call so that managers can deal with multiple streams simultaneously.
- Real-time monitoring of agents – striking the right balance between caring support and performance management. Tools exist that can see what is on the agent’s screen and what is going on in their environment at any given time. Although this might be taken as a draconian, ‘big brother’ measure it really depends how it is used. Many agents will be dealing with a complex home environment with children home schooling and family relations stretched by the stresses of home isolation. An increasingly untidy environment or longer periods offline between calls, could provide early warnings of problems. Managers need to be able to discuss these early on so that solutions can be found. If done sensitively, remote monitoring systems can be a way to pick up issues with agent’s mental health before they become a problem. The organisation has a duty of care to both employees and customers and as more of the industry transitions to home working models, even beyond the crisis, this will remain a differentiator for organisations.
Trust and communication are the constant themes running through all these issues. It remains to be seen how long-term this shift to a home-working model is for the industry. It will be fascinating how the sector navigates its way between more traditional ‘command and control’ approaches and new opportunities to develop smart and motivating approaches to personal development and empowerment. At the interface between customer services and customer, work needs to be done to rewrite the existing playbooks in response to the pandemic and any lasting changes it ushers in. New scenarios need be understood and addressed with new service designs. For example, lockdown has raised significant disruption in terms of payments processes for customers and call centre agents alike. Less tech savvy customers who have been content with their more traditional payment channels may no longer have their preferred choices such as the local bank branch or cash transactions, and need patient support to get them off to a smooth start with online banking and digital payment options. Call centre organisations have faced the complex challenge of revising their procedures and technology in order to protect customer payment card data from the multiple risks of a remote working model.
The key to success in this new environment is to bring together the talents of the organisation to minimise the impact of Covid 19 on employees and customers. Employees urgently need new tools and updated processes to deliver great experiences to customers. Organisations need to revisit and rework their employee journeys to allow them to deliver these. Failure to do this will lead to customers moving to organisations that are better able to deliver this.
Niall Rae & Stephen Gosnell
 The end of the office? Coronavirus may change work forever, FT 1 May 2020