Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic still a thing, it’s raging stronger than ever, with case numbers reaching new peaks all around the world and most of us still living with at least partial lockdown restrictions. Those of us who are able to work from home (WFH) are, for the most part, continuing to do so. For us contact center folks, what started as a wild scramble to get agents to a home environment has become the new normal. Instead of pacing up and down the rows of cubicles and whispering in our agents’ ears, we’re sitting in our pajama pants and remotely pinging them via chat. 

All signs indicate that even once offices start opening back up, remote work isn’t going anywhere. But just because we’re getting used to it doesn’t mean it’s normal. We’ve completely upended the contact center’s decades-old sociotechnical equilibrium — the complex web of interdependent processes, technologies and human social relationships that underpin daily operations — and it’s sure to have major ramifications for the future of the industry.

So now that you’ve persevered through the fire drill phase of modernizing processes and systems to support and scale WFH agents, take a step back and look at the big picture. How are these fundamental shifts in our environment, processes and reliance on tech impacting different types of people on a social and psychological level? And in turn, how is that impacting our business, and how can we best respond?

An early experiment in sociotech 

Although the wild exodus to WFH was certainly a new challenge, the questions raised above are older than the oldest mainframes. If you’ll briefly indulge me, let’s take a quick journey back to the 1990s.

In my early days working the call center phones at AT&T, the top brass decided to run a little experiment. They plucked out a handful of outbound agents (including myself) and brought us together to form a new team. What made this new team unique was that we had no direct manager. We had a supervisor, technically, but they were really just an observer; the point was that we had to manage ourselves.

We had to track our own attendance and performance KPIs, and give weekly readouts to the management team. We were responsible for coaching each other and keeping each other accountable. And at the end of the month, if one of us was underperforming, it was up to the rest of us to take corrective action — up to and including termination, if that’s what it came to. 

It was, as it turned out, a kind of telemarketer’s Survivor island. We were put in a new operational environment with plenty of structure but little direction; finding an equilibrium that would allow us to succeed was up to us. The point was to observe how we adapted to working  within an unfamiliar (and much less centralized) decision-making framework — one with much different interpersonal dynamics — and then to assess how it affected our ability to serve customers.

In other words, the whole project was a conscious experiment in sociotechnology. If you’re a CX leader who’s had to move your entire contact center remote this year, odds are that the whole thing sounds highly familiar. 

Lessons in sociotech for the WFH call center

In transitioning our contact centers to WFH, today’s CX leaders have all been unwittingly plunged into our own sociotech experiments. 

The paradigm that has defined contact center operations since the 80s (or longer) has been upended almost overnight. When we were still at the physical office, the balance of core interrelated sociotechnical factors — team structures, technical systems, social dynamics, business processes and goals and more — was well-established. Now that we’re all working from home, it’s anything but.

As we scrambled to move our contact centers to WFH, most of us, out of necessity, addressed these components on a one-by-one, ad hoc basis as various fires popped up that needed putting out. If legacy systems couldn’t scale to spin up remote agents, for example, we rushed to migrate to more flexible cloud solutions. If existing compliance policies didn’t cover the new realities of a distributed team working over VPN, we sprinted to update them accordingly. If agent absenteeism suddenly became a problem, we worked with supervisors to correct it.  

The fact is, however, that all these things are highly interactive and interdependent. And now that the dust has settled slightly, it’s time we zoom out and ask ourselves some important questions: How are our current structures, systems and people interacting, now that they’ve all been reshuffled? Where are there synergies? Where are there tensions or gaps? How can we achieve a new sociotechnical equilibrium? 

Anytime you try and wrap your head around an extremely complex and abstract concept and system, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. My advice? If you start with your people, you can’t go wrong.

Adapt the system to your people, and your people will adapt to the system

On the whole, call center agents tend to be a fairly social and extroverted bunch. They skew younger, averaging 30 years old in the U.S. and just 26 in the UK. And having chosen a job that’s all about talking to people, they tend to be the kind of individuals who really need to interact regularly with their peers.

As anybody who’s worked the phones knows, being able to pull your buddy aside in the breakroom for a quick chat — whether it’s to ask for advice, share a big win or simply to decompress and reset after a particularly tough call — is something you really depend on, especially when anxieties and call volumes are running high. And now that’s gone. 

So as a leader, ask yourself: How has the removal of all that time and space for social interaction impacted your agents, not only emotionally but functionally? What kinds of personality types are performing well in the new remote environment, and what kinds are struggling? Do you have the tools and KPIs in place to actually be able to tell?

If your organization uses a personality assessment framework like Myers-Briggs or Gallup’s CliftonStrengths, that can provide a useful starting point. Send out a simple questionnaire to cross-reference with those assessments — How happy are you working from home? Do you have everything you need to be successful while working remotely? — and of course, you can learn a lot from looking into your standard performance KPIs too. 

From there, consider how you can respond with changes in technology and processes. For instance, maybe investing in the right collaboration or video capabilities will help more extroverted agents get the social stimulus they need. Or maybe you might adjust your recruiting profiles to favor people who work better with less over-the-shoulder supervision. 

As I said, start with the people and the other pieces of the system should begin to fall into place.

The 3 key takeaways

  1. Consider sociotech when approaching WFH — Now’s the time to take a comprehensive view of the complex interdependencies that constitute your contact centers’ work environment, and push toward achieving a new equilibrium. 
  2. Start with the human and social impact — Whether by using personality profiles, performance metrics or employee surveys, understand how the shift has impacted your people, and build your sociotech strategy from there.
  3. Conduct a POV (proof of value) on a cloud platform — Lifesize (and most quality CCaaS providers) are offering various free licensing options. So if you’re not yet all-in on the cloud, take advantage with a reverse-bullseye-style proof of concept — for example, starting with three agents, then 12, then 60 — to experiment with how you might evolve your tools to better suit the new sociotechnical realities of the WFH contact center. 

For more insights on the topic, watch the full LinkedIn live stream episode (recorded just before Thanksgiving), “Only Turkeys Make Their Reps Go Back to the Office.”

And for discussion of similar topics, tune in for the “Customer Experience in the Cloud” live stream series with Valur Svansson, every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. CT on the Lifesize LinkedIn page. To watch past episodes on-demand, visit our YouTube channel.