Managing the virtual workforce

To set the stage for managing virtual workers, let’s cite a recap of a  Deloitte article:

 “For many years, people viewed contract, freelance, and gig employment as ‘alternative work,’ options considered supplementary to full-time jobs. Today, this segment of the workforce has gone mainstream, and it needs to be managed strategically. Given growing skills shortages and the low birth rate, leveraging and managing ‘alternative’ workforces will become essential to business growth in the years ahead.”

All valid points. So, let’s consider this workforce of free-range talent in a brave, although not entirely new, workplace. Included somewhere in this transformation is my industry -- on-demand contact center outsourcing, delivered by distributed workers through a virtual, customer service network.

Think traditional call centers, freed of their brick-and-mortar confines. On-demand, in fact, dates back to the mid-1990s, when the internet as business tool for remote work came of age.

Contracted for specific projects and times, contact center agents now provide for clients across many industries. And customers -- once served from ZIP-code-bound call centers -- are supported today by far-flung operations in as many locations as there are agents.

For 23 years, I’ve led remote workforces, long before gig became the rage. After a lot of trial and error, I developed some well-founded beliefs for what works virtually and what will almost assure failure.

A three-part workforce management strategy is necessary to succeed. Here’s why and how:

  1. Belonging builds a better business. Great care should be taken to create a strong, inclusive culture where offsite workers feel motivated and part of a thriving concern.  
  2. Remote works well when it’s disciplined. Proven processes, enabled by integrated technology, need to be in place to promote efficiencies and productivity gains of an on-demand model.
  3. Distant doesn’t mean being detached. Special effort is required to build and maintain lines of communications among remote workers spread far and wide to foster camaraderie.

Let’s begin with the benefits. For home-based contact center operations, a study by Customer Contact Strategies cite many positives, including:

  • Talent pools soar 200-400% when companies are open to work at home.
  • Turnover drops as much as 50%, and absenteeism decreases 20-25%.
  • Productivity gains are reported to be 7-15%, tying back to happier workers.

That said, there are caveats. Keep in mind, it’s tough to manage a work-from-home team -- whether it’s contractors or employees. If its leaders don’t mirror the same work mindset and behaviors expected from the workers, there could be a disconnect.

For the leader, this also means no reserved office at headquarters gathering dust. When there, a conference room for visiting leaders will do just fine, thank you.   

Certain functions, say finance and marketing, might come into the office every day, operating out of shared space or private offices. For them, being in one place facilitates their jobs.

Other groups, such as recruiting and workforce education, can be remote -- empowered by tools such as the virtual classroom. This arrangement makes sense when dealing with on-demand agents. Like for like.

For remote to succeed, frequent and multiple communications are key. Collaborating with a virtual workforce can be achieved through many channels and tools. They include: regional meetings, chat rooms, a worker community site, online professional development, group exchanges and conference calls.

To truly be remote, a worker must be all in. It can be difficult when someone works three days in the office and the other two at home. And, if that person doesn’t come in on one of the three days, the optics aren’t good for the rest of the team. Valid or not, not being there becomes a distraction.

The answer: Either keep workers remote -- or have them come in. Don’t go “halfsies.”  

Ultimately, logic should determine a worker’s location, in office or at home. And really, it doesn’t matter where someone works if goals are well-defined and performance met. I believe it’s best to value productivity more than place.

We have found that a remote workforce can be productive and profitable, if managed strategically. It is cost-effective and inherently green, reducing commuter congestion, pollution and capital outlay to house a staff. Plus, workers who begin their days at home, freed from commuting, are less frazzled and ready to perform.

Companies facing climate change and ensuing disasters can count on a distributed workforce, which shifts operations out of harm’s way to ensure business continuity. Severe storms can force office workers to be evacuated, as evidenced by recent hurricanes and nor’easters -- that is, if they even make it into work in the first place. 

By its very nature, remote work attracts a dedicated group of professionals who prefer this lifestyle, with its freedom and flexibility. As a result, they serve our customers well, and tend to be more dependable and productive.

Virtual is viable when done with precise processes and the right people practices in place. In any place.

 

Kim Houlne is president and CEO of Working Solutions in Dallas. As Working Solutions founder, she pioneered virtual contact center outsourcing across the country. Her company launched its home-based agent model in 1996. For the fifth year in a row, FlexJobs, an expert in remote work, named Working Solutions among its Top 100 Companies with Remote Jobs -- placing it fifth in 2019. Houlne has held senior management positions in consulting and in financial and insurance industries at Mercer, Travelex, Mutual of Omaha and Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska.

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