The working from home trend is becoming harder to ignore – but for many businesses it’s going to highlight more problems they never thought they had.
Last year, Amazon released a new customer service product called Mayday. Kindle tablet users can access personalised help services by pressing the “mayday” button on their device. A screen pops up with video of a live customer service agent who can help them with any problems they have.
It’s an innovative step, but it’s also not too far fetched from other types of customer service. Plenty of retailers offer real-time text chatting – have done so for several years. All the Amazon concept is doing is taking the customer service agent and actually showing them to the customer.
But the concept of the always-accessible customer service agent carries a curious benefit – the ability for digital enterprises to prove themselves as flexible workplaces.
With so much focus being placed on flexible work – including the previous Australian government which set a goal of 12% teleworkers by 2020 – it makes sense for digital businesses to start thinking about how they can allow their staff work smarter.
Apart from the productivity benefits of flexible work, there is an expectation among digital natives that workplaces will continue to offer these services. While Amazon and others in the retail industry may start thinking of these as innovation – customers and employees alike will increasingly expect them to be the norm, both in the workplace and as a customer.
Which brings up some significant problems for digital enterprises. As consumers and employees continue to expect flexible working options, how can businesses continue to maintain that balance, baking it into the centre of their enterprises without harming productivity or growth?
The digital customer service agent
The notion of the online customer service representative is hardly new. During the mid 2000s more online retailers and businesses started experimenting with the concept of online help services.
Around the same time and increasingly in the latter half of the 2000s, businesses started experimenting with using remote workers for customer service. In Australia, internet service provider iiNet has already started using remote workers as a primary employment force for customer service – as of 2012 between 15-20% of the company’s customer service staff worked from home, with a goal for 30%.
(The company also argues the length of employment for those who work from home is 3.5 years, compared to 1.7 years for staff in the office.)
iiNet isn’t the only business to offer customer service roles for those who work from home. Apple offers a similar program for its AppleCare service staff, with an online hub dedicated to help people find jobs in which they can work from home. In the job description page it even requests workers have the appropriate ergonomic chair and resources to work from home, (echoing local restrictions on occupational health and safety for home workers).
Amazon even has a website dedicated to hiring staff from home – complete with the tagline, “footie pajamas are the new business casual”.
The benefits of flexible work
The benefits of working from home are difficult to ignore. A 2011 study from the University of South Australia found flexible work options resulted in improved performance and reduced absenteeism.
A subsequent study from the same department in 2012 found many who work paid hours at home are more productive. A study from the Australian Media and Communications Authority found 30% say they get more work done – and 45% of small to medium businesses said allowing staff to work from home is “essential” to their business.
Various studies have also found numerous benefits for parents, both men and women, who are able to care for children with flexible work hours. A recent study from Harris Interactive in the United States found 50% of men – compared to 44% of women – would consider flexible hours in order to achieve a desired job. Over 66% of men said flexible work was in a list of “most important” considerations, and several Fortune 500 executives said they would forego pay for flexible working options.
Working from home is clearly the future of flexible work. But for customer service agents, there are specific problems which require being addressed.
The problems – voice versus video
For many businesses, the digital challenges of working from home are easy to overcome with basic connectively tools. Meeting and communication software are cheap, easily accessible and their lack of required bandwidth make them secure for workers not on high-speed connections.
Customer service support, however, is a different matter.
For most, speaking with customers will only depend on voice and chat connections. The majority of staff won’t have problems with this, and in the event of a missed connection the problem can easily be rectified.
For enterprises looking to emulate the Amazon model with video chat, however, there are more significant problems to manage. Appearance, for instance, is not an issue with pure voice chat but in a video context becomes a risk. Staff appearing in front of customers would need to abide by the same standards as they would when working in a store.
Additionally, home aesthetic qualities become a concern. This is true even without video – Australian businesses have been urged to make sure their home staff’s office spaces are safe. For workers only dealing with audio, there’s also the added problem of making sure home noise doesn’t interrupt a call.
These problems seem trivial in the face of larger discussions regarding digital transformation and evolution. But with the growth in the number of people now working from home, especially in the customer service industry, these concerns remain more relevant than ever.
Customer service is a prime example of a business that can be moved into a home environment, with communication and business tracking easily bolted on to track performance.
But for businesses hoping to provide flexible working options for these staff, there are more risks to consider with a department as important as customer service. While they might be completely aesthetic, products like Mayday don’t exist and survive if comprises are made.
To have total control over customer service, you would have all the staff together in one place. The growth in the working from home trend will dilute those expectations among employees. The solution is ensuring a strict range of standards for the home office – and recognising it as simply an extension of the company’s physical headquarters.