Firstsource Solutions has embraced homeworking and other flexible patterns for a number of years in the UK. Utilising Work at Home Agents (WAHA) makes perfect sense to us.
Firstly, rather than only being able to access workers within a small radius of one of our operational centres, we have access to the best people from a much wider talent pool. For example, we can enhance our talent base by attracting foreign language speakers as well as financial services and analytics specialists, who would perhaps not naturally gravitate to working in a contact centre environment. Secondly, homeworking enables flexible resourcing to help match our clients' call patterns. If a client has the majority of incoming calls in the morning and late evening, then some of our homeworkers would be free to cover those shifts and enjoy being free in the afternoon to make time for a hobby or childcare. Thirdly, we find homeworking aids us and our clients with business continuity capability if the bricks-and-mortar operation should be compromised during, for example, extreme weather conditions.
There are of course benefits for our agents who work at home as they can fit their job around their own varied domestic commitments. This means that we are able to motivate and increase the productivity of a wider pool of workers with attractive career offerings that meet their work-life balance needs.
So how does this work in practical, day-to-day terms? For example, one of our team leaders in Northern Ireland works a split shift from 9am-1pm, collects his children from school, helps them with their homework, before returning to his desk in the evening to complete his shift. He says this works well for him and his family in terms of work-life balance, allowing him to spend more time at home with his children, and also provides significant savings to the family budget on childcare and commuting costs.
As a seven-day-a-week operation in the UK, we offer a variety of shifts throughout that work window, including working at home. We find this arrangement also works well for particular members of staff - for example people with disabilities who cannot easily travel to any of our centres, but who can fulfill a valuable role from the comfort of their own home. We believe it is by utilising a strategic and tailored mix of these approaches that we progress most successfully as a business. Contact between staff is important, but they don't necessarily need a 'water cooler moment' every day.
Obviously, in order to keep people engaged and ensure ongoing career development we utilise online forums and chat sessions for employee interaction, as well online training courses to ensure that staff working at home have the same level of training as those in the contact centre. The advantage of an e-learning package is that it is self-directed, which can significantly reduce the time it takes an employee to finish a course. They do not have to wait for the rest of the class to catch-up, but can move ahead at their own pace as quickly as they are able to absorb the information.
But technology is the real game changer that is enabling this homeworking revolution to take place. Remotely accessible company intranets, high-speed broadband, VOIP telephone systems, email etc have made homeworking a widely available practical alternative that can be scaled up or down, depending on varying business requirements. It is now possible for modern companies to have their bricks-and-mortar operating centres complemented by a significant element of homeworking, whether for customer services, as in our case, or other elements of their business models.
A quarter of UK office workers say they work at least one day a week from home, according to a YouGov survey Firstsource commissioned last year, but we still have a long way to go. There may still be some concerns holding back the UK's wider adoption of homeworking, one of which is doubtless the always hot topic of security. From our perspective, we have overcome this with thin client technology and by ensuring our Work at Home Agents use a dedicated computer in that environment with no hard drive and no ability to retain client data outside our central secure office environment. With new technology and the right training there are a range of sensible and scalable security solutions that allow such fears to be overcome. The fact that 17% of UK homes still have no internet access also hinders the UK's homeworking competiveness to some degree.
Sectors that require seasonal working such travel and leisure can also harness the benefits of homeworking. This has happened in the United States, where students, in particular, have embraced homeworking in the summer and Christmas holiday period. We certainly feel Europe and the UK in particular has yet to benefit fully from drawing on these additional resources.
Last year, analysts Ovum concluded that agent quality, lower price point, ease of recruitment and retention and resourced flexibility were the four key advantages to using homeworkers. With the right model, these benefits can often be transferred to different industries from IT to design.
In essence, offering a range of work patterns for staff is what successful socially conscious companies do. Those that fail to provide themselves with this flexible and varied advantage and the operational infrastructure to successfully support it, especially those that have a public-facing operational profile, will increasingly struggle to navigate the challenges of a slow economic recovery. The demands on customer-facing companies are greater than ever before. Newly smartphone and tablet-enabled customers expect instant servicing through their choice of channels, including phone, webchat and social media - and innovative approaches to staffing can help meet this demand. It's time for the UK to make homeworking work.