The COVID-19 outbreak brought working at home to the forefront, but the number of companies using remote customer service teams has been on the rise for years. Even before the pandemic, a 2019 Deloitte report predicted that the number of home-based customer contact workers would rise from 34 percent in 2019 to 56 percent in 2021.
Managers of remote customer service teams have unique concerns. Since they are not able to supervise employees directly onsite, some managers worry whether remote teams would be as productive as their in-office counterparts.
But data doesn’t show a loss of productivity from working remotely. In fact, it shows the opposite. A Stanford business school study illustrated a 13 percent improvement in performance from employees working at home. The study also showed that resignations dropped by 50 percent when employees were allowed to work from home.
Managers know that the basic principles of management—setting goals, removing obstacles for success and recognizing individual achievement—remain the same whether teams are onsite or at home. Leaders of remote customer service teams must deploy technology and creativity to achieve these goals.
Focusing on the following five key areas can help managers support their virtual workforce.
1. Provide Employees the Resources They Need to Succeed
A variety of communication, collaboration and project management technology tools are the new business essentials for uniting managers and remote teams. For example, collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, videoconferencing mainstays such as Zoom, GoToMeeting or Skype, and project management platforms including Basecamp or Trello can help keep the lines of communication open and workflows moving.
The key is letting employees know which tools should be used for which purpose. For example, videoconferencing can be used for daily check-ins on projects, while instant messaging is appropriate for quick requests or information.
Beyond technology, remote customer service teams must have access to the documents they need to quickly resolve customer problems. A cloud-based knowledge base can provide a great solution. To be successful, the Technology Industry Services Association (TISA) suggests that companies should have a plan for their knowledge management system that includes storage, publication of quality content and unified search capabilities.
2. Communicate Often, Using Different Technologies
Communication is crucial in a remote environment. In fact, it’s better to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Start by setting the ground rules with objectives, expectations, deliverables and timelines in written form to get everyone on the same page. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be tailored for remote teams, focusing on results rather than simply on hours worked.
Different technologies offer opportunities to reach out to both individual employees and teams. For example, managers can structure daily video calls to check-in with teams to review project goals and identify any roadblocks. When scheduling calls, managers should be aware of varying time zones and keep calls short and focused.
Individual contact is also important, and managers should touch base with each employee frequently by phone, video call or instant message to see if any support is needed.
3. Training Can Make the Difference
According to research from OWL Labs, the challenges managers of a remote team most worried about were employee engagement, focus and satisfaction, as well as whether employee productivity was reduced. A thoughtful training program can help alleviate these worries.
Managers should not assume that all employees know how to use the technology that’s available to them. Check employee comfort levels and offer resources for additional training. Managers should also follow this advice, seeking training either within the organization or externally on how to more effectively manage a virtual team.
The OWL Labs research showed that remote employee managers who received training were 15 percent less likely to be as concerned about employee engagement and productivity as other remote managers. Effective training can establish a foundation for success for both managers and employees.
4. Coaching for Performance and Career Growth
Coaching employees takes on even more importance when teams work remotely. To foster their employees’ talents, managers need to show that they value each person as an individual. Take time to ask each employee how his or her day is going and have a virtual “open-door” policy that encourages employees to reach out with questions or concerns. Resist the urge to micro-manage—trusting employees gives them the confidence to deliver on their goals.
One-on-one video calls are a great tool for establishing a personal connection. Remote workers often identify isolation as one of the drawbacks of working from home, so it’s important to take time to connect with employees on a personal level.
One-on-one calls can also provide an opportunity to discuss work performance, identifying what’s working and what’s not for both managers and employees. Be consistent in reaching out to employees on a regular basis and ensure work boundaries are respected by not scheduling phone calls after work hours to help prevent burnout.
Career development should not go on the back burner just because employees work remotely. Use one-on-one video calls to discuss personal and professional objectives and suggest online or in-person training courses to help employees meet their goals. If possible, allow employees interested in a broader career path to participate in cross-functional projects. Time invested in coaching can lead to better talent retention.
5. Celebrate Together—Even If You Are Apart
Distance shouldn’t make a difference in making employees feel a part of the team. Managers can use technology to recognize employee achievements during video chats and send tokens such as gift cards or other awards to acknowledge outstanding employee performance.
It’s also important to allow time for employees to connect with each other in the absence of in-person events. Encourage employees to share non-work-related news and help create stronger bonds through events such as virtual coffee breaks or games. These social events can help spark a sense of team and alleviate the isolation that some remote employees may feel.
The Advantages of a Remote Workforce are Worth the Extra Effort
Managing a remote workforce may seem like it takes more effort and creativity, but there are clear benefits of a virtual workforce for both employees and organizations.
Employees who have worked remotely enjoy the flexibility of managing their time and not having to commute. In a 2020 Buffer survey, 98 percent of remote workers said they wanted to continue to work remotely in some capacity for the long-term.
But the benefits aren’t restricted to employees. In addition to productivity gains, a remote workforce provides employers with access to a worldwide candidate pool as well as cost-saving opportunities.
If managers provide their customer service teams with the processes, technology and support needed to get the job done, remote work will continue to provide more opportunities than challenges.