HIRING WORK-AT-HOME AGENTS AFTER THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS: WHAT’S NEXT

RECRUITING & HIRING – CONTACT CENTER PIPELINE
by SCOTT BAKKEN JUNE 2020

In the race to restaff, leverage technology to shorten the hiring period without sacrificing quality of hire.

Chances are you have pivoted toward remote agents, and maybe not by choice: Most organizations were forced into work-from-home situations. You scrambled and had little choice.

The race will soon be on to either replace agents lost during the pandemic or restaff your team—whether they will be brick-and-mortar or virtual agents. Take advantage of the opportunity. Now’s your chance to do it right: Using virtual interviewing technology, you can save valuable time and begin to select who is the best fit.

WAH Was Already on the Rise

The work-at-home (WAH) sector has rapidly changed contact center operations. It’s a trend that Saddletree Research has been following for many years in its annual survey of contact center professionals, conducted each year since 2009 in conjunction with the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers. Saddletree’s most recent research, conducted in January 2020, revealed that 52% of the industry had some portion of their workforce—typically 25% or less—working from a home office.

Rachel Gresler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press also noted that remote work and increased workplace flexibility were on the rise in the United States. According to:

  • Zenefits: 77% of workers say flexibility is a major consideration in their job searches.
  • FlexJobs: 30% of workers have left a job because it didn’t provide flexible work options.
  • A 2019 survey of hiring managers by USA Today and LinkedIn: Offering more flexible work schedules was the most common way employers were competing to attract workers amid the then record-low 3.5% unemployment rate.

Consider Premiere Response, a division of American Customer Care, with 11 call centers in seven domestic locations with clients in telecommunications, consumer products and financial services. According to Beth Ziff, EVP of Customer Engagement, approximately 20%-25% of Premiere Response’s agent workforce in New Jersey was virtual before the coronavirus hit. “People seem to love it. It has also helped our attendance and greatly reduced absenteeism” that seems to plague many others in the industry. Ziff estimates the percentage of WAH agents at Premiere Response at will be closer to 30%-40% once business normalizes. “We’ll probably have a hybrid depending on the program,” she said.

If you’re thinking of sticking with the WAH model similar to Premiere Response, you’re not alone for good reason.

  • Research shows that it’s common for 300% more applicants to apply for home-based jobs due to candidates living outside of geographical boundaries, giving hiring managers the ability to be more selective during the screening process.
  • MainTrax has found that companies with a focus on customer experience often benefit from behavioral characteristics commonly found in WAH agents. These agents tend to be more than 35 years old, have a strong work ethic, naturally have a better understanding of each customer’s needs, may be bilingual, and are motivated by autonomy.
  • Echoing Ziff’s observation about WAH agent satisfaction, many former brick-and mortar agents appreciate working from home and tend to be more satisfied. I can’t help but think of a line from that old World War I song, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.” As Saddletree Research put it, “the more time these workers spend remotely, the more they tend to be content about it. The less time they spend working remotely, the more likely they are to want to do it more often.”

The War for Talent: Streamlining the Hiring, Onboarding and Training Processes

There will soon be a race to replace or restaff agents lost during the pandemic. Time will be of the essence, so it would be wise to leverage the latest technology to shorten the hiring period without settling on the first applicants who show interest.

“As the industry scrambles for solutions in these highly uncertain times, I believe an immediately accessible solution is contact automation,” Paul Stockford recently wrote in Contact Center Pipeline. “While the industry has been looking cautiously at automation for some time, it now presents itself as a potential solution to an unexpected problem.”

In the case of Premiere Response, the sourcing process that’s part of the recruiting effort will remain the same. Premiere will continue to rely on Indeed.com, referrals and college fairs. But instead of screening applicants by phone and then inviting selected candidates to come in for interviews and testing, Premiere will stick with the virtual process they employed during the crisis.

“Zoom has been a godsend,” said Ziff. “It has streamlined the process and made us more efficient.” It has also increased the number of candidates. Instead of requiring them to take the time to come in, candidates realized “they can just sit here, click, and boom.”

“Having an understanding of a candidate’s relevant skills, ability to communicate and emotional engagement before scheduling your time with them is a game-changer for both parties.” – Paul Noone

Bruce Anderson, writing for the LinkedIn Talent Blog, said, “Talent acquisition teams are racing to find ways to make what has historically been a very high-touch human process a virtual one. They are figuring out how to effectively work from home, conduct video interviews, make successful offers (to candidates whom the hiring manager may not have met), and remotely onboard new-hires.”

Anderson added that according to a recent LinkedIn survey, “58% of talent acquisition professionals said that a major impact of coronavirus has been transforming in-person interviews to virtual ones.”

“It takes the same amount of time to assess 20 people as it does to test 200,” wrote Emrecan Dogan, another LinkedIn talent blogger. “Instead, recruiters can focus on analyzing results and making decisions. In addition, the speed and scale of these tests encourage recruiters to assess more candidates—including more nontraditional candidates, further diversifying the talent pool.”

Efficiency Is One of the Big Wins in Virtual Interviewing

“Having an understanding of a candidate’s relevant skills, ability to communicate and emotional engagement before scheduling your time with them is a game-changer for both parties,” said Paul Noone, CEO of HireIQ, an industry leader in virtual interviewing and predictive analytics. “The recruiter finally knows the value of the candidate relative to other sourced candidates and can determine the speed and the extent they will go to hire them. The candidate, through demonstrating superior skill, knowledge and experience, will force talent acquisition’s hiring hand or be lost to a competitive offer.”

So better get a move on before the best candidates out there are gobbled up. According to LinkedIn talent blogger Stuart Liroff of Academia.edu, “My biggest problem is that nearly all candidates are actively pursuing multiple opportunities. Where I used to be able to work pretty much one-to-one with passive candidates, I no longer have that luxury.”

Noone agrees. “Virtual interviews provide advantages to both the recruiter and the candidate. A candidate’s demonstration of skills and experience should drive a hiring organization to prioritize scheduling and organizational effort invested in a candidate. Wouldn’t you like to know, before you’ve scheduled your time, where the candidate is relative to your hiring needs? And if you know that this candidate is possibly ideal for the job, that you’re prepared to move fast? One-to-one interviews slow the whole process if you haven’t vetted the candidate beforehand. Organizations better be ready to move fast.”

Noone recommends holding off from trying to sell your company on the prospect until you have the knowledge of how the candidate scores against hard and soft skills. “Be ready to sell your organization when you’ve identified a great candidate. But never sell your organization when you lack this understanding.” And then, “act quickly. Get the best candidates out of an interviewing process and into the hiring process as fast as possible.”

Frequent Contact Center Pipeline contributor Michele Rowan of Customer Contact Strategies, says to “keep it simple; 10 minutes to complete is optimum,” adding “ask applicants to use a device similar to the one they will be using for the job itself (laptop or PC). Mobile phones can make the application process itself cumbersome and can alter results.”

Then, only “after questionnaires, speed tests and self-scheduled job simulations are completed should hiring companies begin to review recorded sessions and personal interviews,” Rowan added. “It is only at this point in the process that the hiring company starts to manually touch the application.” Personal interviews can then be scheduled with those applicants who meet all minimum requirements.

Once a candidate has demonstrated that he or she can meet your thresholds, be prepared to act or risk losing them, says Noone. “Great candidates always have choices. A recruiter’s choice is how fast they move after a candidate demonstrates understanding, skills and abilities.”

Behavioral Qualities to Look For in a Work-at-Home Agent

Home-based agents tend to be more mature and more professional. That’s especially important these days because customers’ needs and behaviors have changed. WAH agents don’t just have to be wired technically, they need to be properly wired emotionally. After all, in these stressful times, your customers are worried. You need people representing your company who are steady at the wheel.

The exciting news is that behavioral characteristics can be identified using virtual interviewing technology before anyone on the recruiting team speaks with anyone. AI software automatically:

  • Identifies the presence of hundreds of different paralinguistic cues found in recordings of each candidate’s voice;
  • Runs them through algorithms modeled against actual agents;
  • Correlates them to behavioral traits such as excitement, energy, boredom, sadness and disengagement; and
  • Immediately generates a score that indicates whether each candidate possesses the characteristics necessary to be successful.

Let’s review several highly valued WAH traits that MainTrax has identified and how those traits can be instantly identified by analyzing the paralinguistic measurements in candidates’ recorded voices and verified by playing back their responses:TRAIT: EMPATHY

PARALINGUISTIC MEASUREMENT: CADENCE

Exhibited in the rhythmic rise and fall detected, commonly referred to as cadence.TRAIT: WARMTH

PARALINGUISTIC MEASUREMENT: PACE

The measured tempo (“pace”) detected in the human voice reflects the agent’s disposition. Fast pace suggests engagement; slow pace suggests detachment.TRAIT: PATIENCE

PARALINGUISTIC MEASUREMENT: AMPLITUDE

Amplitude measures the distance between high and low peaks over a defined period of time. Agents demonstrating consistent levels of amplitude are steadfast and confident.TRAIT: CONFIDENCE

PARALINGUISTIC MEASUREMENT: PITCH

Agents who naturally possess the ability to change pitches in their speech demonstrate the flexibility necessary to deftly handle most situations.

Use Screening Tools to Quickly Identify the Best WAH Candidates

Many companies are implementing the WAH model after being forced to change their processes. The benefits are abundant starting with lower costs, improved customer service and improved employee satisfaction and retention. But MainTrax has found that companies often tend to focus too heavily on a candidate’s job-relevant knowledge, skills and abilities, while not giving enough consideration to the individual’s motivation and self-discipline for remote work. Finding future superstars who can manage and motivate themselves is different than hiring traditional brick-and-mortar agents.

The good news is that your pipeline for WAH candidates has become bigger due to higher unemployment and a vast geographical range to work from. But recruiters should be focusing on the behavioral characteristics of each applicant to ensure they are a good fit for the position. A good fit means:

  • Greater job satisfaction
  • Better performance metrics
  • Lower attrition rates
  • Improved customer experience

Leading companies such as Premiere Response shined throughout the crisis using Zoom and became a lifeboat for many organizations who found themselves struggling. And by using innovative candidate prescreening programs for interview qualification from companies such as HireIQ, savvy recruiters are minimizing the chance that future superstars might slip through their fingers. By implementing initial screening tools such as these to quickly identify which candidates are motivated and self-disciplined individuals, they are setting themselves up for success.

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