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Contact Centre Solutions Nov 25, 2021

From agents to zedonks: the challenges of the future hybrid contact centre

By Dr Nicola Millard Principal innovation partner

When it comes to the so-called ‘hybrid’ workplace, one of the most discussed topics is “how many days should we be in an office vs. at home?”

Oddly enough, this isn’t a question which preoccupies my favourite hybrid: the zedonk – a charming (and rare) mash up of donkey and zebra. It doesn’t spend three days a week as a zebra and two days as a donkey, because it spends all its time being a different breed. And that’s what hybrid work is. It isn’t about the numbers of days in the office – it’s about getting work done, wherever and whenever you happen to be. The focus is the work, not where or when the work is done.

The rise of the decentralised contact ‘centre’

The hybrid conversation hasn’t bypassed the contact centre industry. Until the pandemic hit there was some reticence to embrace a model that wasn’t a contact ‘centre’, despite decentralised technologies such as cloud, collaboration and connectivity challenging that logic. Even though the number of home-based agents was gradually increasing globally, concerns around trust and security - especially around customer data – were holding the industry back. This changed almost overnight, as lockdown orders forced many contact centres to lift and shift agents from their secure, ergonomic environments to working off a table in their living room, an ironing board in their bedroom, or a laptop on their sofa.

This worked better than many people expected. Customers in our recent Autonomous Customer research even thought that service had improved over a number of key performance indicators during the pandemic. Agents also embraced the idea of a future hybrid model for contact centres - with 71% of them in the Autonomous Customer survey saying that they would like to work from home at least some of the time.

The big question in a hybrid model then is: “what function does the physical office/contact centre play?”

Replicating a physical connection digitally

Work is very much a social activity. Work without social integration doesn’t improve productivity. This is well illustrated by research from Professor Sandy Pentland at M.I.T. His work on ‘social physics’ showed that giving agents a team coffee break together during the day improved productivity stats across the board. This is because the contact centre environment itself provides an informal ‘community of coping’.

This is especially important because contact centre work can be stressful. Agents often take abuse from customers for things that they’re not responsible for. Our research showed that customers were not only more impatient, stressed and sometimes downright rude during the pandemic (mostly because they were having to cope with a pandemic), but they were asking questions which were more complex to answer. Two thirds (69%) of agents also reported a hike in contact complexity, with 29% saying that they needed to have a discussion with a colleague or team leader to resolve one in five of their customer calls, emails or chats.

This is relatively easy if all you have to do is swivel around on your chair and flag a colleague or team leader down. However, when agents are working in a hybrid model, this connection needs to be replicated digitally for all agents through collaboration, knowledge management, and agent assistance tools.

Contact centres have a unique advantage over many other knowledge work environments in that both work demand and productivity metrics are very visible wherever agents are – queues, call handling times, time in wrap, time available and recordings of contacts are all available to team leaders and, to a certain extent, the broader team. The bit that’s missing is going beyond the stats and managing agents’ emotional wellbeing. When you can see tears, frustration or anger it’s easy – if you can’t, it requires a very open, trusting and honest channel of communication between team member and team leader.

Growing concern around agent wellbeing

This is why some of the findings of the Autonomous Customer research were particularly worrying – especially in the UK. UK agents were reporting significantly more anxiety, less understanding from colleagues, and lower satisfaction than their US and Indian counterparts. This even spilled over to satisfaction with technology – with UK agents ranking their technology effectiveness 22% lower than their Indian and 8% lower than their US equivalents. This may have simply been a question of lockdown fatigue (the survey was done during a second protracted lockdown period in much of the UK), or a legacy of solutions which had been cobbled together quickly but hadn’t been made more robust as the weeks became months. However, it may also demonstrate the impact that virtual working can have on individuals who didn’t choose to do it, and where communities of coping were not functioning well.

Although our research showed that team leaders felt a closer connection with their team members during the pandemic because they got to see them over video in the ‘wild’ (including judging their taste in wallpaper, meeting their children, and cooing over their pets), many of them had to work especially hard to create a sense of ‘teamworking’ in a virtual environment. Leadership by walking around and sit-by coaching is pretty much impossible. This is complicated further in a hybrid environment as teams are split between the virtual and physical world. ‘Out of sight’ can easily translate into ‘out of mind’ – so-called ‘proximity bias’. For hybrid team leaders, this means that they need to make sure that any team celebrations, briefings or beginning/end of shift huddles include everyone, regardless of where they are.

Design work around your people

This is easier said than done – and hybrid can be a challenging model to get right. Although it’s underpinned by the collaboration, connectivity and cloud technologies that we’ve come to rely on during the pandemic, it does mean that we need to stop designing work around location and start designing it around people. This flexibility can be beneficial for both the customer and employee experience. However, we need to develop digital-first business models and mindsets to support all this.

The pandemic has just been the catalyst for this journey into the future world of work. It’s highly likely that not everything is going to go smoothly, so an experimental mindset is vital. Let’s saddle up the zedonk and hold on tightly.

Take a look at our latest whitepaper, to find out how you can create the ideal hybrid working environment for your contact centre agents.