Like many companies, COLA, a nonprofit firm that offers accreditation, consulting, and education services to clinical labs, was initially apprehensive about positioning its entire contact center staff to work from home, even if it was temporary. Larry Senior, COLA's director of network services, was concerned that the 80 employees who normally worked out of the company's Columbia, MD, headquarters would not be able to do the same work at home as they do in the office during a four-month renovation, but of equal concern was the data security issue.
As is the case with so many at-home agent deployments, recent technology advancements ameliorated his concerns.
"There are so many solutions available today that lock down equipment, applications, and data, and even monitor employee navigation during the course of the day," observes Michele Rowan, president of Customer Contact Strategies, a consulting, training, and research firm. "Security is no longer a barrier to entry in the work-at-home [area] for contact centers. It's purely a matter of choosing the strategies and technologies that meet individual business objectives."
For COLA, the right technology was Interactive Intelligence's Customer Interaction Center (CIC), an Internet-based communications suite that includes remote support capabilities so that home-based employees can access the same communications applications as their on-site colleagues. CIC, which offers automatic call distribution, unified messaging, voicemail, desktop faxing, conferencing, and more, also lets managers monitor home-based employees with real-time presence dashboards.
"Because of the technology," Senior says, "people didn't feel like they missed anything by not being in the office."
The company didn't miss anything either. "It didn't matter where the employee was. We were able to monitor everyone. The system could see every employee just as well as if they were sitting side by side in the office," Senior says.
To COLA's surprise, key business metrics actually held steady or increased while agents worked from home during the renovations, from October 2013 to February of this year. Sales hit record levels, and customer satisfaction held steady in some areas and improved in others.
The company's contact center handles about 7,000 incoming calls per month, and "customers didn't even know the staff was virtual when they called," Senior says.
The work-from-home model worked so well that COLA has kept the option for some of its employees, even now that the renovations have been completed.
"Being virtual has not taken anything away from the organization," Senior says.
A growing trend
COLA is certainly not alone in allowing employees to work from home. Currently in the United States, 26.2 million workers (almost 20 percent) telecommute at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the contact center space, roughly 80 percent of U.S. businesses now employ some work-at-home agents, who number about 100,000 nationwide. These agents answer inbound customer calls for companies such as J.Crew, 1-800-Flowers.com, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue, Walgreens, and many others.
Forrester Research earlier this year predicted that 34 percent of businesses with contact centers would expand their work-at-home agent pools in 2014. Looking even further ahead, Ovum expects the work-at-home agent pool to reach 160,000 by the end of 2017, growing at a rate of 17.5 percent annually, which analyst Peter Ryan says is approximately twice the rate of growth expected for the brick-and-mortar contact center outsourcing market.
"The American workplace is changing. Technology has extended our ability to work from home or remotely during the hours we choose, giving us the opportunity to balance our lives and ultimately be more productive, healthier, and happier," observes Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a provider of services to help workers find flexible employment opportunities.
But a work-at-home strategy doesn't come without some effort and sacrifice. When moving to a remote working environment, "the channels, methods, and tools we utilize to convey values will change," Rowan says. "Managers need to be thoroughly prepared to effectively lead remote teams, with soft skills, modified business processes, and technologies to support them."
Working on the Web
For call centers, the Internet is key to the entire work-at-home model. Employees, first and foremost, can't do anything at home without a strong and reliable broadband Internet connection.
"Everything is browser-based now, so it can be accessed from anywhere," says