As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly rippled its way across the nation in early 2020, so did the newest trend in the workforce: work from home (WFH). Although the concept of remote work certainly has roots that are much deeper than just since the beginning of the pandemic, the new set of circumstances forced many businesses to shift their workforce to working remotely for an extended period of time in order to stay in business as shelter in place and stay at home orders were put in effect. And what may have initially seemed like a daunting, complicated process to many businesses to send their staff to work from home has turned out to be quite effective. A recent survey performed by PwC found of companies that shifted almost their entire workforce to remote work as the virus spread across the U.S., 73% of executives deem it was a success.
Some Roles are Better Suited for Remote Work Than Others
Although many companies found the transition to remote work a breeze, others faced a great deal of obstacles in doing so. The difference between these two experiences largely depended on the nature of the organization and the type of roles/responsibilities of its staff. Companies consisting largely of knowledge-workers, employees whose roles require them to ‘think for a living,’ had a much easier time setting their staff up to work from home. Businesses with skills-based workers, staff that spend the majority of their day in public-facing roles, either found it not possible to work from home or had to overcome many challenges before being able to do so.
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A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) explored this massive shift in companies instituting work from anywhere (WFA) policies for knowledge-workers since the onset of the pandemic – a shift that was well-primed and even waiting to occur even before COVID-19 took the world by storm in 2020. Although the research asserts that an all-remote scenario may indeed be in the future for those in knowledge-work fields, what does the future of the workplace have in store for those employees that have traditionally been required to work shoulder to shoulder with their peers in a physical office? The contact center industry – specifically healthcare – now faces a significant challenge in determining how to best support its (now) remote agents.
Technology is at the Core of the Transition from Cubicles to Remote Agents
Many healthcare contact centers had traditionally not supported work from home policies as the brick and mortar contact center environment is especially critical to the management of daily agent performance to ensure that service level agreements (SLAs) are being met. However, at the onset of the pandemic, healthcare contact centers were forced to rapidly develop mobility plans as the tightly knit quarters of a contact center environment were especially dangerous in contributing to the spread of the virus. Before the pandemic, agents spent their days in a cubicle, often sitting shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues. With stay at home orders and social distancing requirements, healthcare systems were left with little choice but to find a way to transform those same agents into remote agents – almost overnight.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that healthcare systems faced in sending their agents to work remotely was having the right type of contact center communications system that would enable their remote agents to ‘pick up the phone’ without being at their desk to pick up an actual, physical phone. Contact centers with traditional on-premise, legacy phone systems that used phone lines that were not IP-based either scrambled to adopt new communications technology that would mobilize their agents or were forced to limit their hours of operation with minimize the number of staff in the office at a time – creating even bigger issues in terms of patient experience and satisfaction.
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In addition to just getting agents minimally set up to answer calls at home, healthcare contact center management teams were challenged with monitoring the performance of their remote agents, as well as continuing to perform quality assurance (QA) on incoming calls. The contact center environment relies heavily on the management of agent performance (average answer time, average handle time, number of abandons, etc.). On a daily basis, contact center supervisors are tasked with the job of making adjustments to staffing levels based on real-time data – all of which is much more manageable when all of the agents are sitting together in one large room. Without the proper technology that is required to adequately monitor and manage remote agent performance, many healthcare contact centers have struggled to meet service level agreements, creating further stress on the healthcare system as a whole. The advancements or upgrades in technology that were previously on the ‘wish lists’ of healthcare contact center directors suddenly became urgent – in the blink of an eye.
Securing the WFH Experience for Remote Agents
An additional area of concern for healthcare contact centers sending their agents to work remotely is the security of the technology that is used to have agents use to take calls and send emails from a home network. As the typical desk setup for a contact center agent pre-COVID was to work off of a desktop computer in a cubicle, many remote agents turned to using personal computers in the early days of working from home while they waited for their company to ship them a laptop. This presented a variety of data security concerns, as well as a threat to adhering to industry regulations like HIPAA.
These are just a few examples of the additional obstacles that healthcare contact centers must overcome in order to transition to remote agents – more significant roadblocks in comparison to the smooth transition that knowledge-work companies experienced when the pandemic hit. The mere nature of the contact center environment makes remote agents much less suited to successfully work from home than, say, a knowledge-worker, such as a software developer.
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Considering the hurdles that healthcare contact centers have had to jump to have remote agents, it begs the question if the remote environment is really working out for contact center agents? Yes, but with one significant stipulation: only once the right type of technology has been put into place. As the pandemic continues to linger on, healthcare contact center leadership must remain diligent in the management of their remote agents and ensure that the security of agent’s connections is top priority.