When the global coronavirus pandemic forced many businesses to shift to remote operations in early 2020, news outlets dubbed it “the Great Work-From-Home Experiment.” One of the areas where this operational model felt most experimental was in the contact center: a function that has traditionally involved in-office work.
Now, businesses have had plenty of time to collect data from this experiment and draw conclusions. One of the biggest takeaways is that even as it becomes more feasible for people to return to the office, employees want to keep working remotely, at least some of the time. 68% of employees report wanting a hybrid environment (with a mix of working from the office and from home), with the average employee wanting to work from home about two and a half days per week.
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Contact center leaders are anticipating that hybrid work will become the norm, with one study predicting that long-term, about 53% of contact center agents will be primarily in-office while 47% will be primarily remote. There are a wide range of benefits to adopting a hybrid model, including:
Increased productivity–Over 70% of contact center managers say they are satisfied with remote work productivity, and 78% of employees say they are equally or more productive working from home than they are working from an office.
A larger talent pool–Hiring isn’t restricted by geography when agents can work remotely (which also makes it easier to scale up hiring during periods of high seasonal demand).
Better coverage–It’s easier for organizations to provide always-on support when they have teams across different locations and time zones.
The hybrid work model may manifest in a few different ways: some contact center leaders may ask their agents to work a certain number of days per week in the office, while others may allow agents to choose their preferred work environment, and still others may embrace a remote-first approach. But contact centers considering any kind of long-term hybrid work approach must answer a few key questions:
What new technology is needed to support working from anywhere, and how can agents use it successfully?
What cultural shifts need to occur to keep employees engaged when work doesn’t take place in one central location?
What will onboarding and ongoing training look like when employees and training managers aren’t in the same location?
How can contact center leaders break down communication and knowledge silos to keep everyone connected and informed?
Contact center leaders are responsible for making sure their agents are equipped with the customer knowledge and technology to work–and provide great customer service–from anywhere. In this guide, we’ll explore how businesses are rethinking their technology, culture, training, and knowledge management to help their contact center employees thrive in a hybrid work environment.
The Technology That Helps Teams Succeed From Anywhere
While many contact centers scrambled to send employees home in March 2020, with managers and IT teams working overtime to get agents set up to work remotely, the work-from-home landscape looks a lot different now. Contact centers have had time to adapt to remote work, optimizing their tech stacks for decentralized team members and adapting their training to support employees who can’t meet in person.
However, contact centers still face challenges in adopting new tech and getting agents up to speed, especially now that they may have a mix of in-office and remote employees. One of the biggest challenges for many traditional contact centers has been shifting from on-premise to cloud-based technology to enable employees to work from anywhere.
The Shift to Cloud-Based Tech
While many contact centers were cloud technology laggards before 2020, the onset of the pandemic and the shift to remote work increased the urgency of moving from on-premise to cloud-based platforms (which employees can access from anywhere they have an internet connection). As of 2021, 75% of contact centers were working in the cloud–44% fully and 31% with a mix of cloud-based and on-premise solutions. And while they may have been reluctant to make the shift at first, they are embracing the benefits now: in one study, three-quarters of contact center managers reported that moving to a cloud-based infrastructure has allowed their organization to be more strategic and business-oriented.
Cloud-based technology offers a wide range of benefits to contact centers. Because employees aren’t tied to a single location, businesses are better able to adapt to unpredictable events, have greater flexibility in hiring across different geographic areas, and can more easily scale up hiring to support different communication channels or seasonal demand. Additionally, employees benefit from fewer disruptions during the workday, less commute stress, and greater flexibility in their work environment.
The Next Phase of Hybrid Work and the Rise of Knowledge Management
The shift from on-premise to cloud-based solutions has been one of the leading technology challenges for many contact centers over the past several years. But now, as contact centers become increasingly comfortable supporting remote work, they face a new challenge: going from a “good enough” remote or hybrid work environment to one that empowers agents to do their best work–and to deliver a customer experience that becomes a competitive differentiator.
Fun fact: 93% of our customers report that they have increased their hybrid or remote work efficiency since implementing Bloomfire!
Customer expectations have never been higher, with one out of three customers reporting that they will leave a brand they previously loved after just one bad experience. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for contact centers in this new era of hybrid work. Those that give their agents the tools to effectively assist customers from anywhere, without the need to constantly track down a subject matter expert (SME) or documentation buried in filing cabinets, will earn a reputation for excellent customer service. Those that don’t will lose customers to those higher-performing competitors.
Leading contact centers are increasingly looking for modern knowledge management solutions that don’t just enable agents to do their jobs, but that allow them to be more efficient and assist customers more confidently, regardless of where they are working.
decreased time spent searching for information to assist customers
reduced average handle time
improved CSAT scores
reduction in errors
These improvements ultimately translate to a better employee and customer experience. Throughout this guide, we’ll show how embedding knowledge management technology–and embracing a culture of knowledge engagement–can help your contact center thrive in a hybrid work environment.
Want to learn more about how to choose the right knowledge management software for your contact center?
As you think about the technology that will support your hybrid contact center, it’s important to consider how any new tools you bring in will integrate with your core tech stack. 63% of contact center agents use at least four tools in their daily workflow, and switching between windows and tabs can cause unnecessary disruptions and slow agents down when they’re assisting customers.
Implementing software with an open application programming interface (API) allows you to integrate different components of your tech stack so that agents don’t have to navigate between as many tools. For example, if you use a knowledge management solution that integrates with your CRM, agents can search for and access content to help customers without leaving the CRM’s interface. Agents are able to find the information they need in the flow of work, meaning fewer disruptions and faster resolutions.
The Cultural Shifts That Drive Knowledge Engagement
Company culture has a big impact on how long employees stay with the organization. A great company culture helps keep employees engaged in their work, which has a positive impact on productivity, profitability, customer loyalty, and employee retention, according to research from Gallup. On the other hand, a poor company culture can cause employees to become actively disengaged–and Gallup found that almost three-quarters of actively disengaged employees are looking for new jobs.
The shift to remote and hybrid work has forced many organizations to reckon with the fact that company culture must go deeper than an office ping pong table and a well-stocked kitchen. Keeping people engaged, especially in a hybrid contact center environment, requires making employees at all levels partners in achieving the organization’s mission. Contact center employees must see how their work is contributing to the overall customer experience and be rewarded for positive contributions. They must also have easy access to the resources and knowledge they need to be successful–and opportunities to grow within the organization.
Maintaining Parity Between In-Office and Remote Employees
One of the big cultural challenges that every hybrid work organization needs to address is how to maintain parity between in-office and remote employees. Working from home and working from an office are inherently different experiences, so how do you create an environment that’s equitable to all employees, regardless of where they’re located?
Here are a few best practices to keep in mind if your contact center has a hybrid work model:
Document your remote work policy and publish it where everyone can access it.
Your policy should make it clear who is eligible to work remotely–and when–so that it doesn’t feel arbitrary. You should also make your expectations around remote work clear. For example, how often will agents check in with their managers? Will they still need to report to the office a certain number of times per week or month?
Provide remote and in-person employees with the same opportunities.
Don’t fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. If your organization allows for remote work, employees shouldn’t be overlooked for promotions, training, or other professional development opportunities just because they’re not in the office.
Make company knowledge and resources available on demand.
In a hybrid work environment, employees shouldn’t have to come into an office to access the resources and subject matter expertise they need to do their jobs. Migrating all company and customer service documentation to a cloud-based knowledge management platform allows employees to quickly find the information they need anywhere they’re working.
Keeping Employees Engaged–No Matter Where They’re Working
According to a 2021 study from Gallup, only 36% of employees report being engaged in their workplace, and 15% say that they are actively disengaged. Not only are disengaged employees at a higher risk of turnover, but they can also have a negative impact on customer experience–especially when they’re working in a frontline role like a contact center agent.
Keeping team members engaged should be a priority for any contact center leader. Whether you and your team members are working together in an office, working remotely, or a combination of the two, you must build engagement into your culture so that team members feel connected and enabled to succeed.
Want to learn more about the relationship between employee experience, customer experience, and knowledge management?
Strategies to Improve Contact Center Employee Engagement
Get agents involved in goal setting.
As a contact center leader, you no doubt already have goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) that you and your team are responsible for–and your team should certainly have visibility into these goals. However, you should also work with your direct reports to set individual and team goals. These goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. For example, an individual goal might be to complete a certain training series by the end of the quarter, while a team goal might be to improve the first call resolution rate by 15% by the end of the year.
When agents play a role in setting their individual and team goals, they are more invested in meeting those goals and can see how they are contributing to the organization’s overall success.
Encourage autonomy and professional growth.
A contact center agent’s job is typically highly structured, but it’s still possible to build in more autonomy so agents feel like they own the results they deliver. You could give agents a budget that they can use to resolve customer issues without having to escalate to a manager (for example, the Ritz-Carlton empowers customer service employees at all levels to spend up to $2000 per guest per incident). You could also block off a certain amount of time per month for employees to spend learning and developing a new skill or area of knowledge.
Provide recognition and rewards for successes.
While it’s important to provide constructive feedback on areas in which a contact center agent can improve, it’s just as important to recognize and reward their successes. Give team members shoutouts in department or company meetings, use gamification and prizes to reward top-performers every quarter, offer rewards in the form of job perks, and so on–lean into the forms of recognition that fit best with your company culture and resonate with employees. Just make sure you are recognizing and rewarding both in-office and remote employees for their good work.
Make time for team building.
Employees feel more engaged with their workplace when they get to know their co-workers. Team building may seem more challenging when employees aren’t all working from the same location, but it’s still possible to strengthen trust and relationships remotely. Even little things like setting aside a few minutes at the start of team meetings for small talk can make a difference. Virtual games and activities can also help people connect with their co-workers (just make sure you aren’t asking anyone to commit to team building activities outside of their normal work hours).
Give agents meaningful outlets for feedback.
As one of our customers told us, “the most important thing in a company is listening to the people right on the front lines.” These are the employees who are directly interacting with customers–and learning from those experiences–every day.
Give your contact center agents multiple ways to share feedback, such as sharing directly with their manager in check-in meetings, adding comments or questions to your knowledge management platform, or sharing anonymously through a survey. When your organization acts on employee feedback, clearly articulate what you are doing and how the feedback led to that outcome. And if a team member shares feedback that you are unable to act on, explain why, and make sure that they understand their feedback is still valued and taken seriously.
Agent Onboarding in a Hybrid Work World
Your contact center’s onboarding process sets the tone for an agent’s experience and can have a huge impact on how long that agent decides to stay with your company. According to research from Brandon Hall Group, a great onboarding experience can improve employee retention by 82% and boost productivity by 70%. Unfortunately, only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new hires. And employees who have a negative onboarding experience are twice as likely to look for a new job in the short term.
In our hybrid work world, more employees are onboarding remotely, forcing leaders to rethink their old onboarding processes. With teams meeting in person less frequently (or not at all), it’s the manager’s responsibility to make sure their new hires feel connected, know where to go to find the information they need, and can get up to speed quickly.
Best Practices for Onboarding in a Hybrid Work Environment
Document your remote onboarding plan.
If your contact center first went remote in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, you may have adapted your onboarding plan on the fly. But at this point, there’s no excuse to be winging it with your remote work onboarding plan. Make sure you have a remote onboarding checklist, a clear process to help new hires get their home workstations set up, and a defined set of onboarding documents for employees to review. If you have a knowledge management platform, you can organize essential onboarding materials into a linear series for new hires to review.
Introduce the central source for knowledge on day one.
Whether your new hires are onboarding remotely or in person, there are going to be times when they need to search for information on their own. That’s why it’s important to show them where your organization’s knowledge lives on day one. Ideally, you should have one centralized, searchable knowledge management platform so that employees don’t have to constantly toggle between interfaces or dig through shared folders to find what they need. With a knowledge management platform, you empower both new hires and more tenured employees to find information from across your organization through a simple keyword search.
Define your communication channels.
Your contact center probably has a variety of tools for internal communication, such as email, a chat platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams, video conferencing software like Zoom, and so on. Make sure your new hires understand when and how your organization uses each of these channels. It’s worth documenting all the communication channels your agents have access to, along with any guidelines around their usage, and publishing this information in–you guessed it–a knowledge management platform.
Assign a mentor or orientation buddy.
Help new hires get to know other employees across the contact center or larger organization by pairing them up with a mentor or orientation buddy. Software company Buffer actually assigns new hires a role buddy (someone on the same team or in a comparable role) and a culture buddy (someone on a different team who can help guide new hires through culture-related discussions and provide more information about the company). Connecting new hires with these peers can help them get familiar with the company, make the first few days and weeks feel less overwhelming, and help build trust within the organization–something that’s especially crucial when not everyone is working from the same location.
Introduce ongoing learning opportunities.
New contact center agents are hit with a lot of information in their first few weeks–they have to get familiar with new policies, products, technology, and more. And once they’ve got the basics down, they will likely go through a transition or “nesting” period where they shadow other agents and get comfortable on the phone. But all too often, training and learning opportunities drop off after that.
You can improve your onboarding–and the overall employee experience–by introducing contact center agents to ongoing learning opportunities early on. Talk to employees about career development paths and opportunities to build new skills, whether that’s through workshops, formal training programs, or bite-sized learning modules. When employees feel that they’ve been given a clear path for professional development, they are 3.5 times more likely to report a positive onboarding experience.
Training and Upskilling: A Win-Win for Employees and Employers
Whether they are working remotely, in-office, or a combination of the two, your agents are more likely to stay at your contact center longer if they feel that they:
Are making meaningful daily progress
Have opportunities to learn and grow professionally
A LinkedIn study found that the top reason employees are likely to leave their current job is because of a perceived inability to learn and grow. The study also found that those employees who do have meaningful opportunities to learn at work are 21% more likely to feel confident in their work, 21% more likely to be happy with their job, and 47% less likely to be stressed at work.
In a contact center environment, managers may be wary about taking too much time away from agents’ day-to-day responsibilities to focus on training, but the payoff is worth it. Not only can training and upskilling opportunities help reduce turnover, but they can also help agents build both technical and soft skills that they can apply when helping customers. Additionally, a culture of learning can help keep agents motivated and lead to more internal mobility, with high-performing agents moving into more specialized or managerial roles.
Learning may look different when not all employees can meet in person for training sessions, but that doesn’t mean it should be eliminated from the contact center. Below, we take a look at some of the best practices you can use to promote ongoing learning in a hybrid work environment.
Best Practices for Ongoing Learning in Your Contact Center
Foster a culture of learning.
Building a culture of learning within your contact center requires buy in from the top down. As a contact center leader, you can strengthen this culture by working with other company leaders to demonstrate the behavior you want to see. For example, when you attend a workshop or training session, you could document your key takeaways in your contact center’s knowledge management platform so that everyone can benefit from them. You could also publish questions in your knowledge management platform–and encourage agents to do the same–to crowdsource answers from subject matter experts and grow your contact center’s collective knowledge base.
You can encourage team members to be active participants in your learning culture by asking them what they want to learn and getting feedback about any current learning programs you have in place. This will help you tailor learning initiatives that keep agents engaged and allow them to build the knowledge and skills that will help them grow professionally.
Launch a mentoring program.
Pairing agents with mentors in more senior customer service roles can help agents develop both soft skills and subject matter expertise that will allow them to better assist customers. And agents don’t have to be in the same physical location as their mentor to benefit from the program: mentors and mentees just have to agree to a communication format and schedule (e.g., a 30-minute Zoom meeting every other week) that works for both parties.
Before launching a new mentor program, survey your contact center to gauge interest, gain a better understanding of what participants are hoping to get out of the program, and determine which mentors and mentees will be a good match. From there, you can match up pairs, host a program kickoff session, and communicate any program guidelines. Just like with any other professional development initiative, you should also make it clear to mentors and mentees how they can share feedback about the program.
Offer bite-sized, on-demand learning.
While there is a time and place for formal training programs, it’s also important to offer learning opportunities that agents can access on demand, when they have a few minutes to spare. This on-demand, informal learning can be especially valuable when agents are working remotely: they can access and consume bite-sized knowledge on a timeline that works for them, rather than having to wait for a more formal, in-person training session.
As a contact center leader, you can work with training managers in your department to develop digestible training materials that align with the ways your agents prefer to learn. For example, short how-to videos are likely to resonate with anyone who watches YouTube videos to learn a new process or skill, and audio recordings are likely to be popular with people who typically consume podcasts on the go. Whatever format(s) you choose, make sure that agents can easily search for and access the content they want to consume, no matter where they’re working.
Capture and transfer tacit knowledge.
Explicit knowledge–such as process documents, policies, and product information–is relatively easy to document and share. What’s more challenging (but just as important) to share is tacit knowledge–the knowledge that team members gain from experience, such as how to de-escalate a situation with an upset customer or identify appropriate upselling opportunities.
While it’s more difficult to capture tacit knowledge than explicit knowledge, it’s still possible. For example, giving agents access to a database of call recordings will help them learn from their peers’ experiences. Using a knowledge management platform with a Q&A component can also help you capture expertise that hasn’t been formally documented: agents can post questions as they come up, and their peers can share answers where everyone can see them.
Develop an internal mobility strategy.
There’s a reason contact centers have an average turnover rate of 30-40%: working as a contact center agent can be demanding, and if employees don’t see opportunities for professional growth and promotion, they’re unlikely to stay with the company for long. On the other hand, employees at companies with high internal mobility stay almost two times longer.
To strengthen your contact center’s internal mobility, it’s important to document career paths–that is, make it clear to employees what skills and experience they need to gain to move into a new role. If there are opportunities for reskilling or shadowing employees in other roles, make sure you are communicating how agents can access them. You should also meet with your direct reports regularly to learn about their professional development goals and come up with plans to help them achieve them.
Breaking Down Communication and Knowledge Silos
Setting contact center agents up with the right technology, building an engaged culture, optimizing onboarding, and providing opportunities for ongoing learning are all essential components of a successful hybrid work model. But there’s one more always-on component that you can’t overlook: communication.
In a 2021 study, 64% of contact center leaders said that internal communication silos posed a significant or moderate challenge to their organization. All too often, valuable information becomes buried in one-to-one emails or chat threads, or different teams rely on different communication and knowledge sharing channels. This can lead to subject matter experts answering the same questions repeatedly, agents losing time trying to track down information, and customers receiving inconsistent communication across different channels.
In a hybrid work environment, there’s also a risk of knowledge becoming siloed between different geographic locations, or between team members working in an office and team members working remotely. However, as a contact center leader, you can help break down communication barriers and democratize knowledge across the entire organization.
Capturing and Sharing Subject Matter Expertise
One of the top communication challenges that contact center agents face is accessing subject matter expertise (both within the contact center and across the organization) in a timely manner. For example, if a customer calls in with a question that requires specialized product knowledge and an agent can’t find the documented answer, they then have to determine who within the organization could help. This may result in frantic Slack or Microsoft Teams messages, escalated calls, or the unfortunate realization that the person best suited to answer the question isn’t currently online–all of which contribute to a negative customer experience.
The best way to avoid these issues is to proactively capture subject matter expertise and store it in your knowledge management platform so that agents can access it with a simple search. Here are a few ideas to capture that knowledge:
Give your SMEs templates to fill in for specific types of information (a template is a lot less daunting than a blank page).
Allow SMEs to document their knowledge in the format that’s most convenient for them. For example, some SMEs may prefer to record videos or audio rather than writing out what they know.
Reuse and repurpose content your SMEs have already created. For example, if you recorded an informational interview with an SME, could you document your learnings in a “biggest takeaways” write-up?
Encourage agents to publish questions in your knowledge management platform rather than directly messaging or emailing a SME. This way, your SMEs can answer a question once, and all agents can benefit from the information.
Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication
When many companies went fully remote in 2020, they embraced video conferencing software to help keep employees connected and approximate the experience of an in-office meeting. And not too long after that, everyone learned the meaning of the expression “Zoom fatigue.”
While frequent communication is crucial in a hybrid work environment, too many video calls or Slack messages can be draining and disruptive–especially for contact center agents who spend the bulk of their time responding to customer calls or chats. The key, then, is striking the right balance between real-time and asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication enables team members to share information with one another without the expectation of an immediate response. For example, you might record status updates in a video rather than in a meeting, or encourage agents to post questions and answers in your knowledge management platform. This helps limit disruptions during the workday and can be beneficial for team members working across different time zones.
Here are a few best practices to help you make the most of asynchronous communication:
Set response time guidelines.
While asynchronous communication shouldn’t, by definition, require a real-time response, you should set a reasonable timeframe for followup.
If you are implementing any new technology or processes around asynchronous collaboration, make sure your agents receive training and have access to resources that walk them through these new changes.
Encourage your agents to provide feedback about what is and isn’t working. Be open about what needs to be improved and what your leadership team is doing to improve it.
Keeping Information Current and Consistent
Another communication challenge for contact centers is ensuring that information stays up to date–and that all team members are aware when information changes. If agents share frequently referenced documents on their hard drive, or if they have access to multiple versions of the same document in different locations, there is a risk that they will unknowingly share outdated or inaccurate information with a customer. This can have serious consequences, from harming your company’s reputation to causing costly rework.
The best way to prevent this is to have a single source of truth for current information–and communicate to agents that this should be the go-to place to find what they need to assist customers.
Once you have centralized your current customer service information, you can help ensure that it stays up to date–and that agents are using it–with the following best practices:
Determine content owners. Decide who is responsible for owning and maintaining different pieces of content or areas of knowledge. Set guidelines for updating content so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Automate when possible. If you know that information will expire or need to be updated after a certain date, schedule a date for it to be automatically unpublished or flagged for review in your knowledge management platform.
Notify agents of changes. Instead of updating content and hoping agents will notice, proactively communicate new or upcoming changes. Consider sending out weekly or monthly newsletters with content that has recently been published or updated in your knowledge management platform.
Hold agents accountable for new information. If your knowledge management platform includes built-in engagement analytics, you can see which agents have reviewed which pieces of content–and follow up with those who haven’t reviewed information they are responsible for knowing. You could also use periodic checkpoint quizzes to determine whether agents have read and understood the information you have shared.
When your agents know that the information they are accessing is current and trusted, they will feel more confident in their ability to help customers, whether they are working from an office or from home.
Conclusion: Set Your Hybrid Workers Up for Success
For many customers, your contact center employees are the face and voice of your company. And if you’re not taking care of your frontline employees, you’re not going to deliver an exceptional customer experience.
As you adapt to a hybrid work model, the employee experience must be the priority. Enable your contact center agents to work productively, access the knowledge they need, and grow in your organization, and they will elevate your customer experience.
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