After it received more than a dozen complaints, the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment ordered a contact center in Fort Collins, Colorado to send its employees home last week. The agency said that the contact center did not meet the definition of an essential business as set out in county and state stay-at-home orders.

Do You Have To Send Your Customer Service Agents To Work From Home?

Due to the patchwork of state and federal regulations, contact centers often fall into a gray area with regard to their current ability to stay open. Many states use federal classifications for defining essential businesses. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), there are 14 employment categories that the agency identifies as part of the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce. One of those categories —“Communications and information technology”— explicitly includes contact center workers. But as the Colorado example shows, not all states agree with that description. And as of April 3, nine states lacked full stay-at-home orders; in those states, many businesses are recommending sending employees home, but there is no enforcement mechanism.

Now Is The Time For Brands To Move Rapidly To A Work-At-Home Model

Nevertheless, regardless of what the local restrictions are, now is the time for brands to move rapidly to a work-at-home model for contact center agents. Yes, we recognize that for many brands, there will be hurdles to overcome. Brands need to tackle mandates such as GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, and CCPA. Outside of North America and Europe, agents may not have the needed infrastructure, such as reliable telephone and internet service, at home.

We have seen brands get very creative in the past few weeks to deal with these challenges. One of the outsourcers with sites in the Philippines opened centers for agents to move into to ride out the crisis. With better facilities than what many of the agents have at home — the agents especially love the commercial clothes dryers — the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve also seen brands that have supplied their agents with computers configured to meet the brand’s security requirements, including data protection features such as data deletion and anonymization or brands that have created online video game leagues to improve social cohesion for at-home agents.

Again, for many brands, shifting agents to be home workers will force them to absorb more risk. But the options seem to be to accept the risk and work to minimize it or have phones, chats, and emails go unanswered in the long run. And if brands consider their long-term operations, what happens with those agents who are forced to come into an environment in which they feel unsafe? Will agents trust those brands as employers when this current crisis begins to abate and their job prospects improve? Brands that continue to resist the work-at-home model could see higher-than-usual agent attrition when things get closer to normal, a scary prospect given the already elevated rates of attrition most contact centers experience.

So if your agents are not already working from home, now is the time to get agile and remember the hashtag inundating Twitter posts: #SaferatHome.

Use Forrester’s Framework For COVID-19 Customer Service Operations

Agreeing to have your agents work from home is obviously just the first of many steps that you’ll need to take to provide meaningful customer service during this pandemic. You’ll need to make decisions about the technology to provide to your agents, as well as support channel options for your customers; you’ll need to consider employee experience matters, such as stress management; you’ll need to tackle security, risk, governance, and compliance issues; you might need to reevaluate your strategies and selection of outsourcing partners; and the list goes on.

To support you in this ongoing process, we have started work on a framework — Forrester’s COVID-19 response plan for customer service — that tackles your immediate needs, your need to optimize your operations, and the planning you’ll need to do to achieve a new normal. Using Forrester’s battle-tested POST methodology, our framework looks across four dimensions:

  • People — the agents, workforce planners, quality managers, supervisors, and managers that form the backbone of your customer service organization.
  • Operations — the day-to-day operations of your contact centers.
  • Strategy — the business decisions that drive your approach to customer service in the age of COVID-19, including security and risk considerations.
  • Technology — the tools that your team, and your customers, use to create compelling customer service experiences.

Look for the framework itself and the first pieces of associated research soon. In the coming weeks and months, there will be a regular cadence of research built atop this framework.

For now, however, stay safe, stay home, and stay both employee-focused and customer-obsessed.