A Watershed Moment For
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Solving The Virtual Training, Coaching, And Management Puzzle
By: Execs In The Know
In March of 2020, companies all over the world were forced to shift almost 100% of their contact center staff to a work-at-home (WAH) model. As an industry, when we collectively look back on this time, it is somewhat mind boggling to grasp the scope of that effort. From a business continuity perspective, companies were focused on the immediate task at hand, which was to ensure employees had the necessary equipment and internet access at home, while addressing security and compliance concerns. That was Day 1. As time has passed without a major return to the workplace, companies have been focusing on developing processes and implementing technologies to ensure remote workers can be onboarded, trained, coached, and effectively managed in a remote environment. Companies that already operated a WAH model had an advantage, but ensuring best practices are consistently deployed in a virtual world is a constant focus.
Organizations have had to take the “center” out of “contact centers” in the first half of 2020. Historically, physical centers were the backdrop for new agent learning, existing agent collaboration and upskilling, face-to-face coaching, and real-time assistance. How do you replicate this, and perhaps even improve upon it, in a virtual world? As organizations start to bring some staff back to physical contact centers, organizations must ensure employees receive comparable training, coaching, and management whether they are in a physical site or at home. After all, customers do not care where agents are located – they just want their issues consistently resolved with minimal effort. So, it is up to all of us to put the puzzle together to make that happen. Technology, of course, plays an important role, but even the best technology cannot support an ineffective process or structure. So, while we will touch on technology, the focus of this discussion will be the key process and organizational components required to effectively train, coach, and manage staff. We also asked Mark Killick, Vice President of Care with Instacart, to provide some insights and examples of what is working for them.
VIRTUAL TRAINING: ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
When we think about training we often focus primarily on new hire agent training, which is critical. However, we also need to consider ongoing/upskill training, so most of the principles we will address apply to both.
With remote staff, a common mistake that companies make is simply trying to replicate their in-person training. This course of action was necessary in the early days of the pandemic, but as time goes on organizations need to be more thoughtful and develop a cohesive, hybrid model. One size does not fit all – to ensure your in-center and at-home staff receive comparable training often means varied approaches and considerations.
MINIMUM SKILLS REQUIRED FOR REMOTE STAFF
You cannot talk about new hire training without first considering the skills required for a remote worker. While the technical skills and knowledge required may not change substantially, (with the exception of tools) the required intangibles and soft skills are likely different. You cannot simply “copy and paste” your job descriptions for WAH agents. For example, workers must be more self-motivated, and you may even need to consider if traits such as being extroverted are a good fit for a remote role. Some companies have reported that extroverts are struggling in a WAH environment as the feeling of isolation and lack of comradery found in a physical site are difficult for them. You also need to ensure new hires are comfortable and capable of being trained and coached remotely. Additionally, some organizations are hiring part time workers for remote staff, which also has hiring implications. With a WAH model, the ability to offer part-time work provides more flexibility for scheduling and broadens the hiring pool. So, evaluate and adjust the minimum skills required for any new remote staff and ensure you are hiring the right profile for this environment.
NEW HIRE TRAINING MODALITY
In the early days of COVID-19, companies had to pivot quickly and many had no choice but to simply shift all new hire, in-person classroom training to a web-based platform using the same materials, with a trainer presenting the material. There was little time to modify content or create new curriculums. As time goes on, consider mixed modalities, meaning a combination of live, instructor-led, remote training with online self-paced training. In Instacart’s case, they leverage Zoom as part of a blended learning approach that incorporates self-discovery (like knowledge search and scavenger hunts) with eLearning to demonstrate and assess. They have also found success leveraging Slack with subject matter experts (SME) supporting the facilitator. This solution has proven valuable for them, allowing the class to keep moving without being distracted by chat. Whatever you choose to do, put yourself in the learner’s shoes – it is difficult to sit in front of a computer for eight hours listening to someone review training materials meant for an in-person audience. Break the training up so learners stay engaged and focused. Again, one size will not fit all for remote and in-center employees. As you move to hybrid staffing models, you may very well need two approaches with varied modalities.
With classroom training, it is important to give learners frequent “real life” practice. It is perhaps even more important to incorporate “real life” practice in a remote world so they can apply what they are learning throughout training with relevant scenarios. Training cannot be theoretical whether conducted remotely or in-person – it must be experiential throughout with even more practice provided for remote learners. This will improve the chances of their eventual confidence, effectiveness, and efficiency post-training.
VERIFICATION OF SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Verifying skills is always important regardless of learner location, but in a remote environment, consistent knowledge checks and verification of skills is critical. It is more challenging to know with confidence that remote learners understand the material, so you cannot wait until the “final exam” to conduct knowledge checks.
Some brands report that more nesting support is required for remote learners versus in-person learners. In an in-person environment, there may be one or two trainers available for support depending on class size. In a remote environment, trainers need to provide more support from the very beginning to teach agents the basics such as logging in (sometimes one-on-one troubleshooting), observe what trainees are doing during class, provide feedback, and coach in real time. Many organizations, including Instacart, are using technologies such as Zoom to conduct side-by-sides during nesting (and for existing agents).
TRAINING LENGTH AND CLASS SIZE
Some organizations have reported that the length of new hire training is longer for remote workers when compared to in-person. That may be counter-intuitive, but many are not able to go as fast in a remote environment due to technical challenges, time needed to observe remotely, conducting frequent knowledge checks, and increased time for practical application.
Secondly, consider class size. What may have worked in an in-person class may not work in a remote environment. Instacart explains that class size is one of the most important factors in remote training. They have found that over 20 in a remote class creates engagement issues.
Obviously, technology plays a role with any training program, especially with remote staff. However, we have talked to organizations who have not implemented advanced technology yet, but they are still having success training virtually. There are some “must haves” to ensure success with remote learning long term and some “nice to haves” which may become part of your longer-term strategy if they haven’t already:
- Firewalls and connections – This may seem obvious, but this is one of most important areas in a remote training environment. Firewall issues must be addressed when onboarding learners, and the risk of learners being blocked or losing connection during eLearning must be minimized.
- Screen sharing or screen observation – The ability to view what your agents are doing during nesting and any practice scenarios is critical. However, if you do not have screen sharing technology yet, there are creative ways to replicate side-by-side observation through applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting.
- Sandbox environment – New hires, whether remote or in-person, need the ability to practice during training. Creating a sandbox environment where the new hires can practice handling customer transactions while utilizing resources and knowledge bases is important. Some companies have technology to create this sandbox environment. There is also instructional design software that can replicate a production environment so seamlessly that learners feel they are in the system handling actual transactions.
- Collaboration tools – There are many collaboration tools which offer nesting agents the ability to ask questions and collaborate with fellow learners or trainers. In lieu of these, even free tools such as Google hangouts or Skype work as well. Instacart believes that employing greater usage of editable PDF learning workbooks for learners and stronger breakout capabilities will be a necessity.
- Learning Management Systems (LMS) – Prior to COVID-19, some organizations were not yet providing online, self-paced training. With a remote staff, this becomes more important not only from a learning perspective, but from an efficiency perspective. So, an LMS will become a necessity to effectively offer and track training remotely.
- Remote learning technologies – There are new technologies coming to market daily which bring in-person, classroom training to life remotely in sophisticated ways. While not necessarily required to provide effective virtual training, they can be good additions to a remote training toolkit.
VIRTUAL COACHING: MORE IS BETTER
Training in a virtual world is not the only challenge – managers must provide ongoing, effective coaching to existing employees to maintain performance and employee morale. How do you ensure remote employees receive the same level of attention as those in a physical site? Even if your staff is not sitting beside you, you must be more cognizant than ever about maintaining that connection. A front-line manager’s number one job is helping their agents get better. This is no different with a remote staff but requires more focus and attention in a virtual world.
DATA, DATA, DATA
In addition to monitoring and observing agents, front-line management must review and understand the performance data for each of their agents. Do not simply rely on one metric (like quality assurance data) to tell the story. Understand what the metrics mean and connect the dots to know what to coach. Avoid the pitfall of coaching only to metrics that are easy to measure like Average Handle Time (AHT).
A balanced set of metrics is critical with an understanding of what performance story they tell. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as resolution rate, escalation and transfer rates, drop rates, productivity (occupancy and utilization), schedule adherence, and quality are all important to review holistically.
In a remote environment and with a global pandemic raging, you need to coach and check-in even more often than in a face-to-face environment. This will likely have an implication to your management structure which we will discuss below, but with more coaching required, the need for more supervisors and coaches is often needed when coaching remote workers.
It probably goes without saying at this point, but coaching must be face-to-face. Most companies are now quite accustomed to using Zoom or other video applications, but all coaching should be conducted face-to-face so body language can be read and to minimize the risk of misinterpretation. So, turn those video cameras on and ensure your staff do the same. Companies we have talked to tell us that requiring this of all managers and employees has resulted in happier employees with reduced feelings of isolation, and a side benefit of increased engagement during meetings. Let’s face it, it is also easy to be distracted when you are not face-to-face.
LEVERAGE YOUR ORGANIZATION’S VIDEO CONFERENCE TOOL AND SCREEN SHARING
To understand what your staff are doing, again, use your video technology and watch how they work, just as you would if sitting side-by-side. Know what tools they are using, how they are using them, and what they are doing with their time.
Supervisors should be monitoring agents consistently regardless of staff location. One could argue that agents should be monitored even more often in a remote environment. This is not for the purpose of catching agents doing something wrong, but to provide support and coaching since they do not have the benefit of being close to teammates or managers when they need help. This should be done both silently (without the agent knowing) and side-by-side, using some of the tools discussed previously.
There is no shortage of technology enabling closed-loop coaching and feedback through quality assurance tools in our industry. Many tools also provide the ability to push training material or job aids based on the situation observed. As discussed, the ability to screen share (and capture), record transactions, and live monitor is a necessity to effectively coach agents. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also playing a role, offering up answers/resources which can possibly shorten training time. Those certainly help, but again, most important are the fundamentals mentioned above.
The bottom line is your front-line supervisors must spend time with their staff, just as they would in a physical site. Employees are happier and feel more connected when managers simply spend time with them, take an interest in their future, and help them succeed.
VIRTUAL MANAGEMENT: REMOTE DOES NOT MEAN INVISIBLE
Managing a remote staff also has some nuances. Whether you have a 100% remote workforce, or a hybrid model, how you manage each requires some thoughtful planning and consideration. Managers with remote staff must be even more present and engaged.
Real-time management of agents and their work is always important but is amplified with any amount of remote staff. It is easy to lose productivity and visibility in a remote environment. So, you must have a strong real-time management process, understand where agents are, what they are working on, and how they are spending their time. It is common to lose productive hours in a remote environment, so this is a critical element from a customer experience and efficiency perspective.
ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE AND MANAGEMENT SKILLS
In most cases, a remote staff requires flatter organizations, but with more direct agent support. This may be good news for the budget as fewer layers of more expensive management may be required depending on how you are structured.
PERFORMANCE DATA AND ANALYTICS
You must have useful and accurate data that provides managers with a holistic view of performance. As mentioned above, a balanced set of metrics is critical. Resolution rate, escalation and transfer rates, drop rates, productivity (occupancy and utilization), schedule adherence, and quality are all important to review holistically. But more important than the metrics is understanding what they are telling you, and how they come together to give the complete picture. For example, if your AHT is coming down, but your escalation rates increase, you could have agents escalating inappropriately to keep AHT down. In a remote environment, the importance of reviewing tools latency and outages is also important, as this can have a negative domino effect in any scenario, but especially with remote staff. So, you need resources skilled in analyzing, interpreting, and operationalizing the data to drive improvements. In other words, know what the data is telling you versus relying on opinions – this is a must, regardless of where your agents are located.
As with agent skills, you may find the skills required to manage differ with a remote or hybrid workforce. You need managers who understand data and can connect the dots. Your front-line supervisors must be engaging and effective coaches, and all leaders must lead from a place of empathy and trust with the ability to connect with and engage with people even more effectively.
Again, technology has an important role with effectively managing and supporting any operation. This is not an all-inclusive list, but addresses the most important:
- Reporting and analytics tools – Again, data is king, so the ability to quickly assess performance with a single view provides a complete picture and enables quick action.
- Security tools – Security is always a concern and a priority with remote staff. You need to minimize the risks associated with customers and private information. There are many tools currently available which prevent security breaches with WAH staff.
- Real-time management tools – Again, real-time management is important in any environment, but especially with remote workers. You need visibility into what agents are or are not doing to ensure service levels are met and to avoid lost hours. These tools allow your workforce management staff the visibility they need to effectively manage service levels and productivity.
- Contact recording and screen sharing /observations – As discussed previously, the ability to observe recorded and live transactions is a must in any environment. It is important for coaching purposes as well as managing staff performance.
Remote Staff is Not Going Anywhere, So We Must Adjust for This New Reality
As stated in this article, “Companies will have to learn that remote work is different work. Managers will have to get better at judging productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals rather than using the proxy of office attendance. Workers will have to adopt extraordinary conscientiousness when it comes to dividing their day into work, office communications, personal time, and civic or family life. Employees will have to develop new habits, such as keeping copious documentation of every meaningful work interaction, so that teams across space and time are always up to speed on what is happening “down the hall.” And bosses will have to normalize more video conferencing and virtual get-togethers and when possible, actual get-togethers, because their employees will continue to crave face-to-face interaction.”
So, even as companies start to bring some staff back to centers, the reality is that for the foreseeable future, most companies will have a significant percentage of staff working from home. Now that we are all past the initial fire drill of moving workers home, it is time to take a step back, evaluate what has worked and not worked, and create a plan for the future that addresses the training, coaching, and management needs of a hybrid workforce that includes both remote and in-center staff.