DSC Tech Library
This section of our technical library presents information and documentation relating to Call Center technology and Best Practices plus software and products.
Since the Company's inception in 1978, DSC has specialized in the development of communications software and systems. Beginning with our CRM and call center applications, DSC has developed computer telephony integration software and PC based phone systems. These products have been developed to run on a wide variety of telecom computer systems and environments.
The following article relates to call center technology or customer service best practices and techniques.
Why Telecommuting Makes Sense for Call Centers
William F. Marren
What is Telecommuting? The term "telecommuting" refers to the
ability of workers to either work out of their homes or drive only a few minutes
to reach a telecommuting complex in their immediate neighborhoods. Telecommuting
describes several variations of non-traditional working environments:
- Work at home - using computer, telephone and communications technology,
the employee is linked to the office and work is delivered and completed at
the employees home.
- Hoteling/Free address - shared space where the employee is assigned a
workstation for the day. Based on the workers needs, the appropriate level
of technology support is enabled for that workstation for that day.
- Remote Centers - a hoteling/free address company complex that is located
near the homes of multiple commuting employees. For example, the General
Service Administration (GSA) has deployed a remote center to replace the
federal office building workspace destroyed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Who is Telecommuting?
Many types of information-based jobs are telecommuting today. Sales, human
resources, technical support, customer service, and "back office" work
predominates telecommuting today. Most organizations are transitioning away from
management by process or physically monitoring workforce habits (such as
reporting time, dress code, mood, personality) to a focus on management by
results or product output. This change, coupled with telecommuting, can yield
excellent increases in productivity. Planning, forecasting, executive staff,
remote management, help desks, legal, accounting and information technology are
job families where increases in telecommuting are expected in the near future.
The list of companies telecommuting, in one of its various forms, comprise a
Who's Who of today's leading companies: AT&T, IBM, Ernst & Young, Arthur
Andersen, Hewlett-Packard, Indiana Bell, Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, and
Intuit are just a few examples. This report focuses on telecommuting from call
centers. Call centers are a rapidly growing segment of business and product
delivery, and the telecommuting workforce. Predictions indicate the number of
call centers will double in the next five years, and that 25 percent to 40
percent of all call center agents will work from home as telecommuters.1
Companies that have established call center telecommuting programs include
America West Airlines, Virginia Power, J.C. Penney, Intuit, Chase Manhattan
Bank, and Hilton Hotels.
II. WHAT IS DRIVING TELECOMMUTING?
Need to Increase Productivity
As the corporate culture embraces telecommuting, productivity gains are
commonplace and are an expected result of telecommuting programs. The shifting
focus from physically monitoring employee behavior to measuring employee
performance through results redefines the criteria for acceptable employee
performance. In the call center environment this is easily accomplished through
the use of Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) reporting systems that measure
employee performance in multiple call handling tasks and availability. An
immediate benefit from converting to an ACD-based employee reporting and
compensation system, and away from the traditional time clock, is the
elimination of "shrinkage" or that time lost traveling between the
time clock and the workstation. Telecommuting call center agents have also shown
increased availability as a result of decreased or eliminated absenteeism, fewer
distractions from call handling tasks, flexibility in work hours, elimination of
commuting delays, immediate availability for overtime, and preparedness to
handle weather and natural disasters.
Real Estate Utilization
Real estate and real estate development factors are primary drivers for the
increase in call center telecommuting programs. Today's trend is toward smaller,
regionalized call centers. Using this as a base, the company can use the smaller
call center as a hub of operations and multiply its agent staff through the use
of telecommuting and in-office employee team rotations.
While the call center industry is facing explosive growth with some estimates
placing growth at 20 percent per year for the next three years,2 real
estate planning and cost absorption are not keeping pace with changing
requirements. Many companies write down call center capital costs over a twenty
year period. Through increased business competition, ever changing product mix,
and competition for suitable call center employees, the useful life of the call
center real estate investment may be less than five years. As planning and
forecasting are inexact sciences, many companies have chosen to hedge the
investment in major call center real estate investment by establishing
telecommuting programs. The "facility seat cost" (the cost to
establish a call handling workstation in a new call center) is currently in the
range of $30,000 to $35,000 per workstation.3 Telecommuting
workstations can be provided at less than one half of this cost.
Attract and Retain the Best Employees
The investment a company makes in hiring and training employees is easily
lost through excessive turnover. This issue plagues the call center industry now
more than ever before. Some firms report high call center turnover which
translates into additional recruiting and training cost. These costs often
exceed $10,000 per new hire employee. While this may seem exceptional, no firm
is immune. A recent survey4 indicates that fully 25 percent of the
employees surveyed would change companies if the new company offered a
telecommuting alternative. Firms offering telecommuting programs for their call
centers are witnessing surprising numbers of prospective employees attracted to
the company by word-of-mouth advertisement of the firm's telecommuting program.
By offering telecommuting programs, a company also broadens the potential
employee demographic base. Untapped markets include the physically challenged,
senior citizens, homemakers, college students, military dependents and rural
residents. Part time work has become mainstream and beneficial for call centers
for flexibility in scheduling, reduced benefit costs, and preparation for full
For the employee, telecommuting offers "quality of life" changes
that can help retain the best employees in the workforce. Generally, companies
that allow employees to work at home select the top performers in the
organization. Trust has been established with these employees and the employer
"feels" better about the telecommuting decision. By allowing these
trusted employees the opportunity to telecommute, collateral benefits include a
better balance of work/family time, and an overall reduction in employee stress
associated with the traditional in-office workplace. Telecommuting also provides
an indirect pay raise that has been estimated at $4,000 for each employee in the
program through reduced needs for business clothing, food, and commuting
expenses. The result is decreased new hire costs through improved employee
A telecommuting call center workforce protects the employer from the vagaries
of weather, natural disaster and widespread inability to commute. The examples
of how this works to the employers benefit are numerous and obvious. Specific
- The lack of a telecommuting program for federal workers after the Oklahoma
City bombing resulted in massive losses in employee manmonths and the
establishment of a telecommuting program in the weeks and months following
- The Northridge, California, earthquake that spurred the development of
telecommuting for Pacific Bell employees and other firms in Southern
- The Blizzard of 1996 on the East Coast resulted in the complete shutdown
of many call centers, and massive losses in revenue and customer service.
The proliferation of nationwide, inbound 800 numbers for sales, marketing and
customer service removes the regional identity from many call center operations.
While many callers to these inbound 800 numbers were unaware of and unaffected
by the events cited above, the failure of the company to answer the phone,
despite the employee commuting problem, causes negative public perception of the
company, business lost to competitors prepared for these events, and the
complete loss of sales for products with perishable shelf life such as
transportation seat miles.
III. WHAT ARE THE RISKS AND DRAWBACKS OF TELECOMMUTING?
Telecommuting has its negative aspects as well. Isolation, procrastination
and boredom can affect some inappropriately selected telecommuters. Temptations
such as neighbors who think work-at-homers aren't really working, the lure of
household chores, and family distractions can undermine others. According to a
survey completed by AT&T5 in late 1995, many workers would like to
telecommute but are afraid to. Six out of ten said they would like to
telecommute, but hadn't approached their bosses. They were worried that their
companies might think they were less committed to hard work. Worker safety under
OSHA guidelines extends beyond the office door. The legal and liability issues
associated with the home workplace require the specific definition of the
worksite within the home, as well as the tasks that are to be performed therein.
The best protection a company can provide itself is to recognize the potential
negative aspects of telecommuting and formulate an effective plan for
telecommuting employee selection, performance expectations, worksite
configuration, training and communication.
Telecommuting employees must be supported through the company culture in
addition to ongoing technical support, training and performance management.
Development of a telecommuting policy and procedure, as well as a well thought
out company-employee telecommuting agreement significantly reduce the risks and
drawbacks of telecommuting.
Specific call center telecommuting issues that deserve further consideration
- Performance measurement - use of ACD-based reporting and compensation
systems allows performance management that is equal to in-center agents.
- Loss of control - this issue plagues many managers, but in the call center
environment agent service observation via technical means is an established
management practice. Staffing systems and shift assignments function as well
for telecommuters as for in-center agents.
- Employee satisfaction - company telecommuting policy and procedure must
include a "career ladder" that protects the telecommuter from
being ignored, production incentives must be equal to in-center
counterparts, and training must be appropriately devised, scheduled and
reinforced for the telecommuter. Call center teaming must be reinforced
through in-office rotation and regular supervisor contact with the
- Security - in some industries (financial services, defense, high
technology) data security will be a primary concern. Fraud and infiltration
by organized crime can have a significant impact on a company's financial
status. Company policy and procedure must be used to address these
considerations. Most companies in this position believe that the integrity
of data security and company trust in their best employees are synonymous.
Data encryption techniques, while not foolproof, also deserve due
consideration before telecommuting systems are selected.
- Safety, ergonomics and OSHA - by selecting appropriate telecommuters with
adequate home office worksites, supplying ergonomically designed furniture
systems for telecommuter deployment, and carefully crafting the
company-telecommuter agreement, companies can define the workplace in the
home and protect themselves and the employee from excessive risk.
- Inability to sustain telecommuting programs - telecommuting programs
require ongoing program management, employee administration and management
attention if they are to be successful in the long run. While an attractive
work alternative, telecommuting can fail if ignored after initial
implementation. Recurring telecommuter training and ongoing telecommuter
support in all technical and human resource areas must become priorities for
operations management for long term program success.
IV. WHY TELECOMMUTING SHOULD BE A STRATEGIC PRIORITY FOR CALL CENTERS
- Leading companies in many industries are moving forward with telecommuting
programs and will attract those prospective employees who desire this
- Unit costs for calls handled are reduced for call center operations that
employ telecommuting (two to three agents can be equipped for telecommuting
for the same cost of one in-center position). This results in a better
cost/benefit ratio and return on investment, especially so for contracted
call handling firms where unit costs and call quality are significant
- Ability to handle unanticipated fluctuations in call arrival patterns as a
result of marketing efforts, product changes and external factors such as
competitors labor strikes and service disruptions.
- Telecommuting employees indirectly receive an average annual raise of
approximately $4,000 as a result of reduced commuting expenses, clothing,
lunches, etc., and at no cost to the employer.
- Total office space reductions and real estate cost containment at firms
that employ telecommuting provide for lower overhead cost structure. More
draconian measures, i.e. individual employee space allocation reductions,
are avoided or reduced.
- Customer Service Enhancement Quality of calls handled improves as the firm
has access to higher skilled workers.
- Flexibility in staffing allows the firm to handle more calls in the normal
call arrival pattern and reduce the percentage of calls that receive busy
signals or long queue time.
- Dependence on computer-based interactive voice response (IVR) systems is
reduced through increased availability of live agents. When given the
choice, most callers prefer human interaction over IVR's.
- Cross-trained telecommuters can handle a variety of call types versus
product dedicated call handlers. This provides an emergency outlet for all
call types when the call center experiences weather and natural disasters.
- Telecommuters sharpen their focus on call handling tasks when in-office
distractions are eliminated.
Telecommuting Enhances Team Performance
- Structuring telecommuting teams separately from in-office teams results in
supervisor concentration on their telecommuting team and the needs of the
- When managed as a telecommuting team, the performance results are equal
to, or in most cases, better than the in-office teams. While telecommuter
selection from the top performers has direct bearing on this, the
elimination of in-office distractions and time lost to commuting and
absenteeism more than outweigh the differences in top performer versus
average performer work habits.
While this topic has been discussed previously within this document, the
ability to continue normal call handling operations despite weather and natural
disasters is a key differentiator for call handling operations that employ a
telecommuting program. Revenue and service protection are provided by
telecommuting as well as improved public perception of the firm.
V. ISSUES TO ADDRESS TO MOVE COMPANIES AHEAD IN TELECOMMUTING
Technology must be viewed as an enabler for telecommuting and not as a reason
to telecommute. The technology required to institute a telecommuting program
encompasses the user home equipment, such as a PC, laptop, modem, telephone, fax
machine, printer, and the network equipment/services such as dial-up telephone
lines, ISDN and appropriate enterprise network access nodes, such as ACD's,
PBX's, LAN servers and routers. The level of technology sophistication required
for telecommuters is dependent upon the work performed by the telecommuter and
the comparable in-office technology service levels of the firm.
- Automatic Call Distributors from industry leaders such as Rockwell
Switching Systems and Aspect Telecommunications provide telecommuter support
through specific home agent products.
- PBX manufacturers such as Lucent Technologies (formerly AT&T), NORTEL
(Northern Telecom) and NEC provide various levels of telecommuter support
through OEM products such as off-premise EXTenders from MCK, as well as
through third party product providers.
- Data systems are increasingly able to support telecommuting. Mainframe
dial-up has long been available and the latest developments in client/server
architectures through LAN gateway servers and routers and network software
produce a data delivery environment that equals in-office systems. Some of
these solutions are beginning to provide remote telephone access along with
- The proliferation of Internet use, Intranet use and e-mail provides
communication channels that were seen as "bleeding edge" by the
mainstream user just a few short years ago.
- Availability of data and voice connectivity products through the Regional
Bell Operating Companies is robust and diverse in most metropolitan,
suburban, and many rural communities. The firm developing telecommuting
program plans must consider these elements as well as data/voice security,
and develop the appropriate mix of hardware/software/connectivity that
supports the tasks assigned to the telecommuter. The cost/benefit
relationship of telecommuting is more than the simple sum of its parts. An
integrated approach to telecommuting results in a better cost/benefit model,
and incorporates the costs of technology and support, weighed against the
benefits of performance increases, reductions in employee turnover, etc. In
this way, technology becomes a single supporting factor rather than a make
or break corporate decision point. Finally, integrating the telecommuter
technology mix into the existing corporate Information Technology structure
and providing prioritized telecommuter technology support services, is
essential for the long term success and sustainability of a call center
Impact on Teams and Culture
Several team and cultural issues are key to the success of a call center
telecommuting program. Issues that require close examination include:
- How will the telecommuting program work within the existing culture and
enhance call center performance?
- Shared responsibility for the at-home workplace between the telecommuter
and employer facilitates mutual accountability.
- Many firms will be required to change their management perspective
regarding performance measurement. Results driven measurement will have to
replace physical accountability.
- Channels of communication will change between the employer and the
employee. While some amount of face to face interaction will remain vital to
telecommuter well being, face to face time will be reduced and replaced by
new approaches including teleconferencing, e-mail and on-line
Scaleability and Sustainability
To be successful in the long term, a call center telecommuting program must
be able to ramp up when business dictates and at a speed that matches demand. To
address the corporate needs beyond the current time frame, the well managed
telecommuting program will also be able to sustain the firm's business
activities of the future and support the telecommuters' needs along the way.
- Moving from a telecommuting pilot program to a mainstream work arrangement
requires distinctly different approaches.
- The firm must focus on telecommuting within the existing business
objectives and consider telecommuting as a tool for process improvement
rather than a magic solution.
- The firm will need to build and communicate telecommuting success stories
internally to further corporate acceptance of this initiative and to sustain
the long term benefits of telecommuting.
- An integrated approach to telecommuting that addresses the organizational,
cultural, operational, technology, human resource and performance
measurement issues is the best and most efficient way to ensure the success
of a telecommuting program.
VI. WHY USE AN INTEGRATED APPROACH?
An integrated approach to telecommuting blends and balances the often
competing areas of people, technology and work environment. Strength in one area
does not guarantee success in all areas.
- Appropriate employee candidates for telecommuting are the firm's proven
- Failure to support any of the telecommuter's requirements in one area may
cause employee alienation and failure of the telecommuting program in all
- Equity with in-office counterparts must be established and reinforced on a
- Ongoing company communication with the telecommuter must be a priority.
- For a successful implementation, a telecommuting program must be properly
planned and managed. The organization and culture must adapt to the new
method of working, the right mix of technology and the right people must be
selected, training must be timely and address the new way of working,
performance and compensation must be measured using new methods, systems and
furniture for the telecommuter must be appropriately selected and installed,
and the telecommuting program and its deployment must be managed as a whole.
- The full cost/benefit model for telecommuting incorporates the firm's
employees, culture and organization, real estate, technology, performance
and results measurement, and customer service effectiveness.
- Far too often, well intentioned telecommuting programs go astray because
of a lack of internal resources to support a telecommuting project and the
turf issues associated with the various internal forces assigned to the
Call Centers are an ideal environment for telecommuting. Call center
employees adapt well to telecommuting and are accustomed to performance
measurement based upon Automatic Call Distributor reporting and monitoring
systems. Real estate costs, competitive factors, customer service enhancement,
gains in team performance and disaster preparedness are driving the
establishment and expansion of call center telecommuting programs. With double
digit growth projected in the demand for call centers and for call center
agents, telecommuting becomes a viable alternative to creating expensive, new
call centers while attracting and retaining a more diverse and a more highly
skilled base of call center agents.
Telecommuting programs require measurement through a full cost/benefit model
that incorporates much more than simple costs of technology versus real estate
cost containment. Cultural change, customer service effectiveness and positive
employee life style changes are cost/benefit components that require equal
For a telecommuting program to be successful, and the results
sustained over time, the telecommuting program within the call center network
requires an Integrated Approach to program establishment and ongoing
administration. Balancing and blending the people, technology and work
environment factors are the key components that differentiate a successful
William F. Marren is Senior Project Manager with Telecommuting Success, Inc.
(www.telsuccess.com), an Englewood, Colorado company that specializes in
telecommuting consulting, implementation and management. TSI works with
organizations to develop telecommuting solutions that integrate technology,
people, work processes, and work environment in programs that can be scaled
across the enterprise and sustained over time. In addition, TSI works on a
consulting basis with call centers in design, project management and performance
improvement. TSI also has offices in Philadelphia and MountainView, California.