Posted by: Malcolm Jarvis
With many companies suddenly considering the logistics of having the majority of their agents working from home, I thought it would be a good time to share some of our experiences in setting up home workers.
There are good reasons that companies tend to locate their staff in offices; a shared sense of purpose, ease of information flow, centralised IT resources, data security, and the ability to easily manage and monitor performance being amongst the most important. However, with many companies looking to minimise the spread of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, these benefits are at risk of being outweighed by the need to protect the health of employees and those they are in contact with.
This article isn’t going to be an advert for Greenlight’s software. There’s a time and a place for that and most call centre software and systems are cloud-based these days and include some variation on the essential features that are mentioned in this article. While it’s possible to arrange remote access to call centre systems that aren’t cloud-based, systems that are already accessed over the Internet make it possible to move from the office to working from home with one less technical challenge to overcome.
Here we’re going to consider the factors that are critical when moving your business out of your office and into the homes of your company’s workers.
These challenges broadly break down into three parts; technology, data security and management.
Firstly, you’ll need a means for your employees to access the IT systems required to do their day-to-day role from home. There are two ways to do this; you can either supply your employees with pre-configured devices to take home with them or have them connect using their own devices. Both approaches have their own challenges.
Using Employee’s Own PCs
This is the cheaper option in terms of initial outlay, but will definitely not be the ideal option for many businesses, especially larger ones. While many systems are cloud-based, which means a minimal amount of software will need to be installed to each employee’s PC, having all staff connect to company resources using home PCs is not without its risks.
Companies invest significant time and money identifying risks that could enter your network such as viruses, malware, hackers, ransomware etc, and it’s unlikely that your employees have put the same effort into protecting their home PCs and laptops. This means that as soon as they connect into your company resources from home, they’re potentially opening a new line of attack into your business exposing business critical systems and customer data. To protect your company against these threats you’ll need to engage suitably skilled IT professionals who can help you identify the minimum level of security software and other measures that must be installed on any home worker’s PC before you allow access to your corporate resources. You’ll also need to review your remote access methods if workers are connecting to resources hosted by your company, but more about this later.
Once you’ve identified the steps to suitably secure your employees’ home PCs, you’ll still need to get them connected to your systems. While this will usually involve the same username and password that they use to connect at work, they’ll also require additional information regarding your systems and/or network that they wouldn’t normally be provided with. With this in mind, it’s worth keeping a log of what sensitive data (such as server names, IP addresses, additional credentials) has been shared for the purpose of home working, and take steps to ensure that the information would be of no use if it fell into the wrong hands in the future.
As most staff probably won’t be computer enthusiasts, you’ll need some means to assist them to get connected to company systems from home. This could take the form of simple step-by-step guides written by your IT department that staff can take home with them (considering the implications if these instructions got left on a bus, for example). A more secure alternative is to arrange times when your IT team can call staff at home and then use remote access software such as TeamViewer or GoToMeeting to remotely connect into each PC and have the IT team do the configuration themselves.
In order to carry out their jobs from home, call centre staff will need to have some sort of telephony device to make and receive calls with. If this is a soft phone rather than a physical device then you’ll need to ensure that this is disabled once the employee returns to working in the office, otherwise you may find that you’ve accidentally given them a free phone for life. Keeping an accurate log of which telephony device has been allocated to each home worker is essential.
Providing Devices for Employees to Use From Home
While it requires some upfront investment and configuration time, there’s a lot to be said for providing employees with devices to take home to work on instead of allowing them to use their own PCs and laptops. While the initial setup will require more time, once sent home with each staff member, the process of getting them connected and productive should be much more smooth and therefore require less time from your IT team resolving technical issues.
There’s no need to provide a full PC unless individuals will be working at home for an extended period of time. Low-cost laptops, Chromebooks or even iPads are all possible alternatives provided they’re tested in advance and confirmed to be powerful enough.
The one problem you may have to deal with is helping staff get their devices connected to their home networks, so expect a flood of support calls requesting help getting devices online. Once done though, employees should be able to get productive without nearly as many potential issues as attempting the same using their own devices.
As call centre staff spend most of their day using a headset, they’ll obviously need one to use at home. If you already have USB headsets at the office, you may be able to send these home with your staff. If doing so then it’s a good idea to get a signed form confirming that they’ll bring them back in good condition before letting them go.
If you have a traditional phone system in the office that uses non-USB headsets then you may need to invest in new headsets to send home with your staff. As many businesses may well be planning the same thing, bear in mind that these may quickly be in short supply, so early planning is a good idea. If you’re unable to acquire enough headsets then you may be able to get by using bluetooth headsets, and most mobile phones come with a headphones that have a built-in microphone these days. If you’re caught in a tight spot, you may be able to install a soft phone application on your employee’s mobile phones that can connect to the company’s phone system, but again you’ll need to make sure that it’s comprehensively disabled once employees return to working in the office.
Lastly, you’ll also need a plan for how to get replacement headsets and any other equipment to employees should the ones they’ve taken home break down.
Regardless of whether employees are taking company devices home with them or using their own PCs to connect to company systems, you’ll probably need to make use of each employee’s own Internet connection. Fortunately, the high availability of fibre broadband means that most people will have plenty bandwidth available to connect reliably to your systems. Some staff however, especially those living in remote rural areas, may not have this luxury. In these cases you’ll need to conduct an analysis of the bandwidth requirements of the system that employees will be accessing remotely and ensure that they will be able to use them productively over the connection that they have. This information will guide your IT team to make appropriate decisions for how staff will access the systems they need.
Also, bear in mind that bandwidth is shared amongst all devices in an employee’s home, so you may need them to prepare their families to stay away from YouTube, Call of Duty, and Netflix while they’re working or they may suddenly find their call quality dropping to the point its unusable once school’s finished for the day.
As a last resort it’s possible to purchase and use remote access points to connect employees to the Internet who don’t have a reliable connection themselves. 4G means that this is a viable option and not too expensive, but make sure the provider has adequate coverage and signal strength in the employee’s postcode before investing.
If providing devices for your team to take home then you’ll also need IT staff on hand to provide help if anyone is struggling to get their PC connected to the Internet. If you feel your IT team may be overwhelmed by the volume of calls while your agents get set up at home, you may need to draft in a few IT savvy employees or find an external company to provide assistance while staff get settled.
Connecting to Company Systems
While cloud-based systems make the process of connecting from home relatively trivial, you’ll have more of a challenge to overcome if you have your own in-house systems that employees need access to in order to be productive.
The most common approach is for your IT team to configure a VPN server that allows staff to connect from their home PC to the office network. Remember that at some point home workers will no longer have a legitimate reason to connect to the company network from home, so you’ll need both a process and a mechanism for removing their access when it’s no longer needed.
VPNs can also be used to connect company devices that employees have taken home to the company network, in which case it’s not as risky to install the clients directly on these PCs. You’ll still need a log of which employee has which device and a means to disable access from the device in the case that it isn’t returned, but the risks are considerably less than when an employee accesses the network from their own PC or laptop.
Once authenticated, their device is effectively “on” the company network via a secure, encrypted “tunnel”. This means that they can work as if they were in the office and connected directly to the network. Bear in mind that some VPNs will try to route all traffic through the office once connected, which isn’t ideal if using cloud-based systems at the same time. There are usually configuration options available to prevent this so it’s worth looking out for in this situation.
Connecting your staff to your internal company network from home has serious security implications that your IT team will need to consider. Policies like minimum required access, strong passwords and multi-factor authentication are advisable in this situation if available.
Once connected to a company VPN, your team can either:
- Use the same client applications that they use on their office PC to carry out their job, or
- Use technologies like remote desktop to connect to their work PCs and from there access the internal systems they need to without installing the client software on their own devices.
In both cases you’ll need to warn staff that system may run slower than normal as the data is going over a remote connection rather than the internal company network. In some cases, especially when using a client installed on the home worker’s PC, applications may be much slower than in the office, in which case using remote desktop is the better option.
Your IT team may be able to configure the applications that your staff need to work to run as remote apps, which provides only access to the applications they need to work, as opposed to their full desktop which may be less secure. In all circumstances, a full security review should be conducted before deciding on the best way to proceed.
One of the reasons that companies avoid using home workers during normal operation is the difficulty of securing company and customer data as soon as it leaves the company’s premises. Data protection laws mean that your businesses must perform due diligence in the form of a data protection impact assessment, or DPIA, regularly, and that it should be reviewed if circumstances change. Moving a large volume of your staff to work from home definitely constitutes a change in circumstances, and (global pandemic or not) companies will be required to show that suitable care was given to secure personal data the company is using before allowing it to leave the relative safety of the company offices.
Steps such as ensuring that employees of all seniorities only have access to the absolute minimum amount of data from home and that functionality such as downloads of call recordings and customer data are disabled are the sort of measures you should be considering at this stage. By minimising the data that your employees have access to, you also minimise the risks of anything going astray.
If your company carries out any sort of card payment processing then you’re into a different ball game. For this you may want to maintain a skeleton staff working in the office and have home workers transfer calls through to them to process payments securely. Even if you have a DTMF based card processing system, you may not want employees discussing payment details with customers outside of the office.
If it’s not possible to arrange for office-based staff to carry out payment processing then you’ll need to confer with your security team or a PCI consultant for advice.
Once the technical and security challenges have been overcome, you still need to deal with the human elements of a workforce that’s suddenly all working from different locations with managers and team leaders nowhere in sight. Ideally, staff will know their jobs and be able to carry on without too much trouble, but most businesses will have some staff that require more assistance or oversight than others. It’s also important not to underestimate the importance of community within the workplace, and if the period of working from home goes on for a significant period of time, you’ll definitely require ways of keeping staff productively connected to each other.
Establish Clear Rules
Once your team have all headed home communication will become considerably more complicated if not planned for in advance. You’ll also need to establish what the company’s ground rules are for working from home so no-one is confused about what is and isn’t acceptable. Providing employees with a “home working handbook” whether printed or digital is a great way to ensure everyone is clear on what’s expected of them and what to do if something goes wrong.
The first page of your home working handbook should list the contacts that your team need to have available. This should include line managers and IT support as well as backups should either be inundated with calls and not be available. If your managers and IT team don’t have work mobiles already, you may need to source some so that they’re not handing out their personal mobile numbers to all their colleagues.
You should also set rules that address the change in circumstances. If someone’s unable to work from home on a particular day, is it acceptable for them to send an SMS if they can’t get through to a manager? Can they send an email instead? How do employees plan their breaks? What should they do if the doorbell rings while they’re waiting for a call to connect? Having clear rules established in advance will ensure there are less management headaches once home working has begun.
Lastly, remember to ensure you have up-to-date contact details for all home workers before they go home and that they have consented to you contacting them on their personal mobiles for work purposes. Your HR department can keep you right here.
Most call centre systems provide real-time reports on agent activity and these are invaluable when managing staff working remotely. Provided that managers (who will likely also be working from home) have access to real-time and historic reports, they’ll be able to prioritise their attention effectively.
If you have telephony systems that allow agent coaching (where the agent can hear their manager speaking to them, but the customer can’t), this will allow managers and team leaders to interact with their team in between calls and make sure that everyone is working productively.
Maintaining the Team
It’s also a good idea to set up a group chat system such as Slack, Skype, or Teams so that team members can chat to each other and maintain a sense of camaraderie while working remotely. Particularly in roles where the job itself is quite repetitive, maintaining a sense that everyone’s in it together is key to maintaining a happy workforce.
It’s also a good idea for team leaders to arrange regular one-to-ones with their team members over the phone so they can quickly identify any potential issues and either resolve them or report them up the chain. By staying in regular contact with everyone involved, issues can be identified and resolved before they create any major problems.
It’s Not For Everybody
While planning for a home worker situation, it’s important to remember that home working is not possible or desirable for everyone. Working from home requires a quiet environment with few interruptions, not to mention a strong work ethic to keep motivated and productive.
With this in mind, it’s worth consulting with staff as a group and individually to ensure that they’re all happy with the change of circumstances and onboard with the company’s plans. For those that have reservations or who have a home situation that’s not conducive to professional phone calls taking place, you may need to find alternative work they can do (such as temporarily moving them into the QA team) or agree changes to planned holidays, paid/unpaid leave etc. In this case you’ll need to consult with HR professionals to ensure that you stay within the bounds of your employer duties and employment contracts that are in place.
While it’s never going to be as conducive to running a call centre as a well maintained and managed office environment, most call centres can operate using home workers provided the processes and changes are well thought out and the technology is sound. As with all substantial business changes, detailed planning is key, as is involving all the key players from as early in the process as possible.