Call Center

Dealing with a Distributed Workforce

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The label “call center” amuses me. Firstly, most call centers now process more than just calls, such as email messages and text chats. Though revising “call center” to “contact center” seems to adequately address that concern, it’s a moniker that’s never clicked with me. The second consideration is ironically that call centers increasingly are becoming decentralized. Since a decentralized call center is an oxymoron, we have another reason for inventing a new name, but I’ll leave that as a consideration for another time.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The 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 becoming increasingly distributed geographically.

When I was last involved in the day-to-day operation of a call center about eight years ago, I worked on interconnecting disparate centers together in order to share technologies, gain greater economies-of-scale, and blend staffs and call queues. At that time, the nascent work-at-home model was hampered by technical limitations, so my focus was on distributing calls to other centers, not to individual homes.

This has all recently come back to me. Though not in a call center, Candy, my wife, has gone through a series of work changes over the past year that relate to a distributed workforce (see my July 2009 column, Effective Change Management). To complicate matters, many of these changes have been poorly managed and haphazardly executed.

When her local office closed, she was told that she could do her work from home, making the hour-plus drive to another city only once a week, if that. Her job is perfect for telecommuting, as most of it is done on a computer (writing and maintaining databases) and via email; an occasional phone call completes her activities. The problem is that the rules and expectations for her work locale change on a weekly basis, often in a contradictory fashion.

Through her eyes, I’m seeing the employee perspective of working at home, which contrasts sharply with my experience on the management side in making a distributed workforce happen. Though I had miscues along the way, I truly believe that I guided my staff through the distributed workforce initiative much more effectively and with much less pain than what my wife has encountered over the past year. Combining my experience with hers results in the following thoughts:

Have a clear policy: Candy was initially told that she could work from home. Indeed, she had been doing this for years. Although a part-timer, she was always willing to work whenever needed to accomplish time-critical tasks. She checked her work email daily and was not frustrated in receiving work calls when she wasn’t working. Not only was her job ideal for telecommuting, but she had proven that it worked.

Unfortunately, the mid-level manager who devised the reorganization plan that closed her office and promised she could work at home, left in the middle of the transition. An underling took over on an interim basis, partially rescinding the work-at-home offer; he cited it to be an organizational directive. As a further frustration, he is now making overtures at eliminating telecommuting altogether. Ironically, this is not an across-the-board mandate, but a department-wide one that he instituted. Indeed, human resources was surprised at the edict (especially given most businesses’ efforts at creating a pandemic policy to allow operations to continue with employees working remotely.)

The bottom line is that either you will allow home-based agents or you won’t. Make a clear policy and stick with it; don’t subject employees to an ever-changing and unstable situation.

Have the right managers: The apparent reason for the new boss’ abrupt about-face is his insecurity or uncertainty in managing a distributed workforce. Indeed, it is hard to do, and not everyone can pull it off. “Management by walking around” no longer works in a distributed environment, and true management skills must be implemented.

In my wife’s case, the wrong manager is in place, and Candy is paying the price. If you want to have a distributed workforce and your manager can’t manage it, either provide the needed training or find a new manager; don’t summarily tell those who are successfully working at home that the right to do so has been rescinded.

Avoid the “us” versus “them” syndrome: As Candy’s once local office was being integrated into the main office, a definite “us” versus “them” mentality emerged. Indeed, the remote staff had always been disregarded – imagine receiving an email that there are donuts in the break room, only to discover that the break room in question is not down the hall, but sixty miles away.

Now this division is even more pronounced. None of the remote staff were considered for management positions, with many ending up working for those who were once their peers – including Candy. Also, the policies and procedures at the two locations differed. Even when a process from my wife’s office was superior, her officemates were expected to change. The message was literally, “you need to change to the way we do it.” Hold on – “we” should be all employees, regardless of location. When remote staff is referred to as “them” and the local staff is “us,” you have a staffing dysfunction waiting to erupt.

Have a plan and work the plan: Although the originating manager had a specific (albeit unpopular) plan, he clearly communicated it and was faithfully implementing it. At his premature departure, the interim manager jettisoned the master plan, adapting an indiscriminate and chaotic “plan as you go,” often countermanding pronouncements made only a week prior. This resulted in an unstable environment and an unsettled workforce. When this is the case, even the most conscientious of employees shove ideals of excellence aside, opting for mere survival.

I fear that the eventual outcome will not be good for Candy. I fear the same for any call center that pursues a distributed workforce without the proper policy, principal, perspectives, and plan in place.

Read more in Peter’s Sticky Series books: Sticky Leadership and Management, Sticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Customer Service featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Healthcare Call Center Essentials.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.