The Proper Care and Feeding of Home-Based Agents

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatThe label “call center” amuses me. First, most healthcare call centers process more than just calls, embracing many forms of communication. Second, call centers are becoming decentralized. The ironic truth is that a decentralized call center is an oxymoron.

This decentralization of the call center was first manifested by linking multiple centers together and more recently by extending the center to encompass home-based agents. As a result, the call center workforce is increasingly becoming geographically distributed over the city, the state, the country, or even the world.

While there are many advantages in implementing home-based agents, the risks are great for those who rush into it without careful forethought and planning. Here are some considerations:

Formulate a Clear Policy: At your call center, you either have agents who work from home or agents who want to work from home. Regardless, you must have a clear policy to fully address this. If telecommuting is something that you will allow, specify how and when it can occur, what the expectations are, and how agent efficacy – both qualitatively and quantitatively – will be measured. If home-based agents will not be permitted, this too needs to be stated in writing. A third option is if telecommuting will be considered on a case-by-case basis. For this scenario, provide guidelines to interested employees and establish internal evaluation criteria so the consistent determinations can be made.

The bottom line is that regardless of your practice, be it that you will allow home-based agents, will never allow home-based agents, or might allow home-based agents, make a clear policy, and stick with it. Don’t subject employees to inconsistent management or unfair behavior.

Have a Plan and Work the Plan: Once a plan for telecommuting and home-based agents has been established, it must be clearly communicated and carefully implemented. Adapting an indiscriminate and chaotic “plan as you go” approach quickly results in an unsettled workforce. When this happens, even the most conscientious of employees will shove their ideals of excellence aside, opting for mere survival instead. And whenever staff becomes unsure of their jobs, the best ones will leave first.

Train Managers to Properly Oversee Remote Staff: Many call center managers and supervisors effectively employ the “management by walking around” style of overseeing staff. This is a common method and can be most effective when employees are centralized – and most disastrous in a distributed environment, which requires true management skills, often necessitating in advanced management training.

If you want to have a distributed workforce and your manager can’t effectively handle it, then either provide him or her with the needed training or find a new manager. Don’t make employees who want to work at home suffer because of ineffective management.

Avoid “Us” versus “Them”: Once a staff becomes physically separated, with some employees physically located in the call center and others working from home, an “us” versus “them” mentality can easily and quickly emerge if left unchecked. Remote staff tends to be disregarded, usually not maliciously, but often thoughtlessly. Imagine being off-site and receiving an email or text that there are donuts in the break room or being instructed to check the potluck signup sheet posted next to the time clock. Referring to remote staff as “them” and the local staff is “us,” especially by management, is a staffing disaster waiting to erupt.

There are many significant benefits from having a distributed workforce and allowing agents to work from home, but if it is pursued without the proper preparation and forethought, all the anticipated advantages can be quickly erased. A bit of careful planning today will result in a better outcome tomorrow.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From the April/May 2012 issue of AnswerStat magazine]