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Is homeworking the answer to the recession?

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12th Jun 2009
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There is already talk that the UK is finally coming out of the recession but its effects are far from over. So for contact centres still feeling the pinch, could homeworking provide a more cost-effective solution - as well as a more dedicated workforce? Alex Coxon asks the experts.

There are already reports the the credit crunch is releasing the UK from its grip but since January this year, when Britain officially fell into a recession for the first time in 18 years, few businesses have remained unaffected by the effects of the economic crisis - and contact centres are no exception.

In the past few months, home shopping company Shop Direct has announced plans to close its Crosby call centre with the loss of 1,000 jobs. Meanwhile, German energy group E.On has revealed it is to shut its contact centre in Tannochside near Glasgow and betting firm Stan James has said it will be relocating its 74-strong contact centre from Grove, Oxfordshire, to VAT-free Gibraltar in a bid to save money. While moving contact centre facilities abroad does typically deliver some reduction in operational costs, it is a drastic move – and not necessarily one that all businesses will want to consider. So what other options are available to British call centres that want to achieve greater efficiencies while the recession bites?

Interestingly, one of the most practical solutions has been touted by the contact centre press for some years: homeworking. It received its first column inches back in the early part of the century when it was hyped as a great new way of staffing those contact centres that had traditionally been struck by high attrition rates. The idea was that by giving people the option of working from home, the industry would be able to tap into a brand new pool of workers – including mothers with young children and people with disabilities – who would be able to undertake shifts that tallied with periods of high call volumes.

"Seven or eight years ago, the cost of homeworking was simply too prohibitive. Companies would have to pay several thousand pounds to set up an agent working from home." 

Andrew Candlish, UKVCC

But while the theory was strong, it didn’t work in reality. The biggest problem, explains Andrew Candlish, director of virtual call centre provider and consultancy UKVCC, was the cost of technology. “Seven or eight years ago, the cost of homeworking was simply too prohibitive,” he says. “Companies would have to pay several thousand pounds to set up an agent working from home. In the early days, this would involve bringing in ISDN lines and mainframe technology, as well as all the hardware (PC, telephone etc.) they would need to do the job. Even when broadband became popular a couple of years later, it was still too expensive for businesses to provide connections in people’s homes, and the connections themselves weren’t fast enough to do the job properly.”

Living up to the hype

With other barriers, including concerns over lack of security and HR – particularly worries about how remote workers could be recruited, trained and managed effectively – homeworking couldn’t live up to the hype that surrounded it. But that was then, and this is now. “Broadband costs have come down enormously and the speeds are so much quicker than they were even three years ago,” says Dave Vernon, senior contact centre planning specialist at the Professional Planning Forum. “In addition to this, there is thin client technology, which means that people no longer need ISDN cables to link them to the call centre’s mainframe. They can now access and run all the relevant programmes through a web browser.”

According to Jeff Swanson, UK manager at virtual call centre technology and agent provider LiveXChange, working in this way is a lot safer than people might think. “Security has always been a concern with homeworking,” he says. “But the same firewalls businesses place around their networks can be applied to the homeworker, making it very difficult for people to access it from the outside.” Advancements in remote monitoring technology also help counter any worries coontact centre managers might have about whether their staff are doing the right work at the right time. “Our technology is robust enough to give us live data, which enables us to see who’s working at home, what they’re doing, and whether they’re complying with their schedule,” says Brett Edwards, head of operations at Active Health Partners, an absence management firm that works on behalf of large UK organisations, employing predominantly home-based nurses and occupational health therapists to independently assess employee sickness and get staff back to the workplace as quickly as possible.

“We’re fortunate because our staff are highly skilled people who are on good salaries and who have worked in trusted roles previously. Because of that, we don’t come across the same trust and security problems that other homeworking call centres might,” he adds. “However, the monitoring technology gives us that extra layer of visibility and confidence in what we’re doing.”

Unsurprisingly, companies that have embraced homeworking have even found ways of circumventing obstacles such as the recruitment and training of staff. “The recruitment process we used to find our homeworkers was very different to the one we’d traditionally used for people in the call centre,” says Kevin Beattie, resource planning manager at television shopping channel QVC, which employs 46 home-based call centre agents. “Because our call volumes are so spiky, we were looking for people who would work from home, for maybe an hour, any time between 9am and 1am. So it was important, once we did an initial telephone interview with prospective homeworkers, to bring them on-site, show them what we do, what technology they’d be using, and, critically, to go through the shift patterns again so they fully understood what we were looking for from them.”

A health and safety check was then carried out in the candidates' homes before providing them with the restricted internet connection and furniture they needed to do their work. "After that, we bring people on-site again for training which gives us the opportunity to fully support them while their skills levels grow and to be there for them if they have any problems," adds QVC’s senior operations manager Ingrid Arnold. "For some, the time on site can be as little as eight weeks.”

Less staff churn

For both QVC and Active Health Partners, the benefits of homeworking have been considerable - for both agents and contact centre operators alike. At QVC, attrition among homeworkers is less than within the contact centre itself, with staff highlighting the savings they’re making on travel and childcare as some of the key advantages to this type of working. The story is the same at Active Health Partners. “On average, each of our homeworkers saves eight hours of travel time a week – equating to 416 hours, or 17 days per year. They also save approximately 150 car miles each week, or 7800miles a year. That adds up to approximately £16 in petrol every week or £832 a year, and 2808Kg of CO2 emissions per annum,” says Edwards.

“When we asked our homeworkers what they like most about homeworking, the drop in travel time and travel savings were two of the key reasons. People like the fact they can work flexibly too. It gives them a better work-life balance: more family time.”

"On average, each of our homeworkers saves eight hours of travel time approx. 150 car and approx. £16 in petrol every week." 

Brett Edwards, Active Health Partners

On the operational side, there have been considerable savings for both companies as well. “Because of the nature of our business, we would need maybe 40 agents at 9pm, 120 at 10pm and 70 at 11pm. Traditionally, to ensure we had staff to cover that, we would have to overstaff the call centre by 30-40% for three hours either side of the busy period,” explains Beattie. “Yet, by scheduling in home agents for an hour at a time, we achieved a return on investment within six months, covering everything from recruitment costs through to health and safety checks, training and infrastructure.”

Edwards says his firm also achieved ROI in just six months. Like QVC, he has managed this by getting people to work shift patterns that actually suit the business. But savings have also been realised because the firm has adopted the homeworking model so fully that it has managed to scale back on the prime office space it was previously paying for in both London and Leeds. With the effects of the recession still being felt, it is savings like these that could make the difference between success and failure in the British contact centre industry.

Certainly, it would seem that businesses outside of QVC and Active Health Partners are beginning to wake up to the potential of homeworking. In 2007, when analyst firm ContactBabel carried out its fifth annual UK Contact Centre Operational Review, it found that just 3% of British call centres were implementing homeworking practices. Amazingly, that had grown four-fold by the time the next review was published in September 2008. More recently still, technology company ProtoCall One conducted a survey which revealed, not surprisingly given the economic climate,  that the management of costs would be the biggest challenge facing contact centre directors in 2009. To help combat that, a massive 58% of ProtoCall One’s interviewees said they were now actively starting to investigate virtual contact centre technology.

As Vernon puts it: “The savings that can be made with homeworking are compelling. Using this model, contact centres can schedule people to work for the periods they are actually needed,  implementing split-shifts where necessary, without incurring additional costs. They can also help cut attrition by employing people who actually want to work from home, rather than the more transient younger employees that tend to populate the UK’s contact centres and see their job simply as a stepping stone to something else."

The Professional Planning Forum is an independent industry body that promtes best practice and professionalism in contact centre planning

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By Reeshar
16th Jun 2009 13:13

My experience of UK call centres is that they are becoming more aggressive in the length of shifts, time variations from shift-to-shift, and shortness-of-notice of shift changes, skirting as close as they can to legal limits. Some are introducing broken shifts eg, 1 hour in the morning and then 5 hours later in the afternoon. These generate cost-centre savings for the call centres making them look as if they are performing well but at the cost of rapidly rising employee sickness and stress, and of course churn. Taking account the falling productivity of those actually making it into work, it is difficult to see that these short-termist tactics actually benefit companies as a whole. Not to mention that employer liability for employee stress is rising in profile and that unsociable call centre working hours have been singled-out as being a major cause of stress.

So, all told, homeworking is definitely a good way to go, giving call centres the flexibility they want and happier call-centre staff without many of the side-effects they are currently experiencing. The only downside is the lack of social contact for full-time homeworkers, but F-International used to handle that issue by having periodic days when staff had to meet up and get to know each other.

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