Point of View

Call center worker power is sustaining the in-office model

April 9, 2021

70:30 is post-pandemic goldilocks ratio of in-office: WFA for contact center services

The benefits of digital services are all about being faster, cheaper, and more profitable—and the work-from-anywhere (WFA) economy had a huge impact on call center services. In short, savvy call center providers can operate without their huge pre-COVID reliance on packed call centers, and they benefit from automation at scale. In theory, this era should be redefining the contact center model. Still, considering double-digital growth in 2021, providers are forced into retaining their talent and creating a work environment that entices their people to stay.

Simply put—many (predominantly) younger call center workers want to go back to work at the office, and there are ample providers willing to hire them. Today’s market leaders have no choice but to create the perfect balance of in-office services in tandem with work-from-home capability if they are to thrive as we limp out of the current pandemic crisis.

The work-from-anywhere economy only works for a third of today’s call center workers

HFS’ Digital Contact Center Services Top 10 briefings are in full swing, and we’re speaking daily to the top service providers managing tremendous volumes of customer interactions on behalf of global enterprises. It’s become abundantly clear that enterprises’ cultural resistance to work-from-anywhere has all but disappeared. The diminishing resistance is accelerated because so many services providers have proven they can make the WFA model work at scale, even picking up the slack where enterprise capabilities were unprepared to make the shift securely. But now, the real question is, “Is WFA sustainable long term?”

Service providers will continue to pioneer the delivery model post-pandemic—and the majority of their employees are already going back to the office

As Exhibit 1 shows, 75% of enterprise clients are flexible and supportive of delivery model changes. It seems most are more than willing to follow their providers’ recommendations, especially in the light of the expertise these partners demonstrated during the crisis of 2020 and continue to display.

Exhibit 1: Service providers will dictate most delivery model decisions moving forward

Sample:  400 executives across global 2000 enterprises

Source:  HFS Research, 2020

We’ve been asking providers in an informal poll what their “Goldilocks” (just right!) number is for an office/WFA ratio when the dust eventually settles. The overwhelming response has been that 70% of the contact center workforce will return to the office once vaccinations are commonplace and office environments are once again deemed safe. Providers added the caveat that the ratio varies by region. For example, the balance will likely be closer to 60/40 for North America, where the work-at-home model was already very mature, mainly due to infrastructure issues being less pervasive than in APAC and regulatory issues less impactful than in Europe.  Many leading providers have promised to reimburse the cost of vaccinations for employees, a move that signals their support of getting staff back in the office.

Exhibit 2: The Goldilocks ratio for contact center services

Source: HFS Research, 2021

While the projected 30%-40% work-from-anywhere workforce is much larger than pre-pandemic levels, in a service environment, it proves the work-from-home model works en masse and continues to gain client acceptance, it is surprising to hear that so many providers plan to shift so much work back to the office. Think of all the missed real estate savings. And aren’t employees ecstatic to have a work/life balance that doesn’t include a commute? It’s not quite that simple. Some contact centers made the shift look easy (and got plenty of praise from clients for doing so!), but the reality has served many new challenges to overcome.

While many of the delivery challenges in a remote world have been primarily logistical, the impact on many call center workers has been a surprise

We frequently heard about numerous infrastructure challenges with limited bandwidth impacting call quality, particularly for employees in places like the Philippines and South Africa, where employees moved outside of the city centers to areas where ISP bandwidth is less consistent. There are other elements—that most wouldn’t think about—that pop up when work traditionally conducted in an office is now relegated to a multi-family home. We’ve all become used to the kids playing or dogs barking in the background by now, but what about nuisances that deteriorate customer experiences on a phone call (think: widespread customer complaints of fan noises in the background)? These challenges are surmountable; however, there are other, much more important employee-driven cultural issues at play.

The absence of social camaraderie and mentorship are degrading employee experience for many workers

The strategy for work-from-home campaigns in pre-pandemic days has always varied greatly from the office-based contact center. Work-from-home programs had traditionally targeted a different employee profile since becoming commonplace in the early 2000s. Early work-from-home programs typically targeted more experienced, often older individuals seeking flexibility for personal reasons, for example, family obligations or mobility issues.

But this new anyone-work-from-anywhere paradigm is much different. It takes traditional office-based roles and moves them to the remote model.

Each organization will approach the post-pandemic “what next?” plan differently, but contact centers are a horse of a different color in many regards. Most have done their best to replicate experiences in a remote environment, but so much of the experience cannot be replicated. Some providers find the work-from-home loyalty the early pandemic days garnered is waning, and they eventually want to return to physical centers to engage people for retention. In fact, many have already made significant shifts back to office-based environments. This shift is due to the contact center’s unique culture, which had a strong sense of community and a social element that helped providers attract and retain talent.

The ubiquitous “campus-like” environments many of the leading contact centers employed are a testament to this: While a ping-pong table in the break room might not be a must-have for a candidate being recruited, it might help sway the decision. Those Starbucks break runs while commiserating about the inherent difficulties of the job helped ease frustrations. And for many contact center employees, the job is their first foray into a professional world where relying on mentors and colleagues for guidance can be an integral part of their initial career development.

The Bottom Line: Work-from-anywhere doesn’t work for everyone—contact centers will primarily shift back to an office environment.

Work-from-anywhere is not a long-term strategy for every function or every individual, and many companies are leaving the decision largely up to employees. It is clear that employee experience is driving a return to in-office delivery for many contact center staff. No doubt, the pandemic has strengthened and reinforced the core elements that make a work-from-home (now work-from-anywhere) strategy tick, but in the long term, when safety concerns have lessened, companies will rely on what makes their employees tick to deliver for their clients on customer experience.



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