Lessons from the ICMI Contact Center Expo 2021

ICMI expo recap

The annual ICMI Contact Center Expo provided valuable lessons for the future of call center operations.

This year’s International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) Contact Center Expo was a little bit different than in years past. Instead of gathering at a large convention center in a major city, hundreds of contact center industry experts gathered at their computers to connect digitally. 

Despite having to pivot to a virtual format, the event featured no shortage of practical conference sessions and workshops, inspiring keynotes, and invaluable opportunities for peer-to-peer sharing. 

The changes brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic were naturally reflected in this year’s Expo agenda. How to manage a contact center in a remote work environment was a common theme throughout the conference. Nearly every presentation mentioned the industry-wide shift to remote work and highlighted how it has changed so many aspects of operating a contact center.

This conference provided a platform and an opportunity for the best minds in the industry to meet (albeit virtually) and discuss what they’ve learned from the pandemic.

The Time Doctor team was in digital attendance for the two-day event. As sponsors, we had the opportunity to host a webinar-style as well as a discussion session. We also attended as many other sessions as possible and talked to call center thought leaders about the challenges they face. So what did we learn? Here’s a recap. 

Agents really like working from home

Employee wellness promoters 5th Talent International worked with technology services provider NTT, Ltd. to conduct a global survey of 5,777 call center workers from 13 countries and 74 cities to examine how they felt about working from home over the last year. In their Expo session, Principal Consultants Ted Nardin of 5th Talent and Ruth O’Brien of NTT shared the data from their study and the insights that it provided.

Maybe the most significant data point that they shared, which set the stage for the entire conference, was that agents overwhelmingly prefer to work from home. When participants were asked where they want to work, 66% stated that they would prefer to work from home full time. Just 2% said they would want to go back to the office full time, while 30% preferred a mix of at home and in the office and 2% had no preference.

The survey took this question a step further when it augmented agents and supervisors. Although 69% of agents reported that they preferred WFH for themselves, just 38% of supervisors said that they preferred WFH for their teams.

This highlights a major difference in experience and preference between agents and supervisors. While agents have grown to love working from home, supervisors would still rather have their agents coming into the office at least part of the time.

The reason that this imbalance exists between what agents want for themselves and what supervisors want for agents is most likely the long-held beliefs that supervisors have about working from home. Many supervisors still believe that remote work leads to low productivity, high distraction, and a diminished ability to manage their team despite the evidence to the contrary.

Working from home has no negative impact on performance

Some of those preconceived notions about remote work are actually incorrect. 

In one particular session, delivered by Time Doctor’s CMO and co-founder, Liam Martin, a recent WFH vs. in-office experiment showed just how wrong pre-pandemic opinions on remote work have turned out to be.

Time Doctor used performance data that was collected from 450 agents of a large call center while working in the office and compared it with data collected after they were forced to work from home during the pandemic. In his presentation, Liam shared 11 data-backed, counterintuitive insights about remote work.

work from home experiment

Prior to the pandemic, most call center supervisors (and business leaders in general, for that matter) assumed that working from home would result in reduced performance from agents. The “conventional wisdom” was that WFH would bring too many distractions, that agents wouldn’t be able to focus, and that they would be less productive without managers keeping an eye on them.

agent productivity working from home

According to the data, that hasn’t been the case. Since switching to WFH, agents in this experiment actually reduced their unproductive time by 56% compared to when working in the office. The findings of the experiment actually suggest that agents at home spend much less time on unproductive behaviors.

Returning to the office post-pandemic could cause talent loss

If the past year was a trial run for remote work, the trial was a success in the eyes of call center agents. That was shown by both the survey presented by Nardin and O’Brien and the data insights shared by Martin. 

As countless speakers mentioned during the conference, the “genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to remote work. There are many ways in which remote work has improved contact centers, but it’s also disrupted contact centers’ ability to attract and retain talent. 

When businesses are able to move back to an office setting, the discrepancy between where agents prefer to work and where their supervisors want them to work could result in turnover issues.

The pandemic has shown that agents are happier, more productive, and more satisfied when working from home. It has also shown call center leaders and operators that remote work is a viable option for a successful call center. The added benefits of reducing costs by switching away from a physical office space will lead to a much greater prevalence of remote work opportunities in the call center industry.

For companies that are not willing to adapt to a fully remote or hybrid work model, there will be a percentage of agents that leave the organization in search of a call center that does offer remote or flexible work. 

For those that stay remote or move to a hybrid model, offering the option to work from home will help them attract top talent. In the case of fully remote call centers, they will be able to pick from a global talent pool of agents.

There are some new best practices for call centers

The work from home environment is not the same as the in-office environment. Along with all the benefits of working remotely, comes a new batch of challenges for call center leaders.

In his keynote session, Steve Cadigan shared some of the new best practices that have been uncovered over the last year. As founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures, Cadigan brought a wealth of experience to his session on “Building a Post Pandemic People Strategy.”

For one, supervisors and leaders will need to move the training, monitoring, and coaching strategies to a digital format. Things like team meetings, 1-on-1s, and individual check-ins will need to be conducted online with a remote-first mindset, along with any other day-to-day communication that typically happens in the office.

There are new management techniques that will need to be implemented as well. Leaders should check in on agents more often with the goal of increasing awareness of employee wellness. They should increase the frequency of surveys and pulsing, create more informal spaces for engagement, and be authentic and transparent in all communications.

7 tips for leading post pandemic

There’s also an increased need to measure agent productivity in the remote work environment. The call center has long been a place of metrics and measuring, but there’s a need for an evolution in what’s monitored. 

Time tracking and workforce management technologies gained popularity during the pandemic as a way for call center managers to find peace of mind while their teams worked from home. These technologies brought much more to the table than simply monitoring, and have since become valuable tools for optimizing workforce productivity, regardless of the work environment.

Call center work is changing, and so must effective call center leaders.

Collaboration and engagement will be paramount

A common concern about remote work, which came up over and over again throughout the conference, is how to keep employees engaged in a virtual environment. 

In her session on how to get really good at running a WFH call center, Michele Rowan, President of WFHAlliance.com, gave some valuable tips on how to better collaborate and engage with remote teams.

As Rowan defined it, engagement is “the extent to which employees will participate and contribute to company success.” She believes that effective leaders can influence the engagement levels of employees, regardless of location, by giving them consistent exposure to leaders.

run great virtual meetings

In remote work, this means bringing intentionality to virtual messaging. With no opportunity to interact in person, leaders must make themselves visible and accessible in a remote-first way that aims to maximize the impact of all digital communication.

Rowan suggested some practical methods for doing this: 

  1. First, was to measure engagement through “pulse checks” asking three or four questions, twice a month. This should give leaders a sense of what’s going on with individuals, take the mystery out of how engaged employees are, and bring to light any trends that might be affecting engagement.
  1. Another important method is to run great virtual meetings. This involves preparing well for every meeting, keeping them short (no more than 30-40 minutes), and even allowing agents to lead portions of the meetings.
  1. Finally, Rowan stressed the importance of creating space to share personal interests. This is something that can happen naturally in person but is more difficult to facilitate in a remote work setting. By making a point to focus on creating these spaces and moments, remote leaders can foster a sense of togetherness and belonging. 

Technology will be key in the contact center of tomorrow

Whether agents are working from home or back in the office, the contact center of tomorrow will feature some important changes, including increasing levels of technology for the foreseeable future.

Although the use of technology in the call center has been growing for years, the global pandemic accelerated that growth significantly. Many organizations that were considering the switch to a cloud-based contact center in the next few years were forced to go largely virtual in a matter of days.

There was also an increased need for multichannel customer communication. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic led to increased call volume, reduced workforces, and a switch to remote work that caused long hold times. Many contact centers turned to automation and AI like chatbots, customer self-help options, and other digital channels, finding that it was effective in mitigating a large portion of easily solved issues.

The biggest lesson is not just that technology will continue to grow, but that the growth of technology will spur the evolution of the contact center agent. As machine learning and AI become more prevalent, it will enable agents to focus on more complex engagements with customers and act as a strategic piece of a business.

When contact centers begin to leverage things like chatbots and virtual agents they can remove the bulk of the simple transactional and repetitive processes from their agents’ queues and provide them with opportunities to grow and offer higher levels of service. 

This will cause the contact center role to change and mature. Ken Landoline, Principal Analyst of Customer Engagement with Omdia, explained what we can expect from the role of the contact center agent in the future. “Because of the richness of the contact center, the involvement they’ll have across the board, how well they know the products, etc. I think we’re going to get into an era of what I would call ‘the super agent,’ ” Landoline said. 

Final thoughts

The ICMI Contact Center Expo featured a highly engaged audience of CX leaders. After more than a year spent adjusting to the enormous changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, call center practitioners clearly welcomed the opportunity to meet and share their experiences. The best minds in the industry gave attendees valuable insights that will help them evolve through these unprecedented times and be better prepared to lead the contact center of tomorrow.

 
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