Customer service and support leaders have joined the growing list of executives considering making work-from-home (WFH) policies a part of their postpandemic operating strategy. For the service and support function, the shift is monumental.
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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority (72%) of customer service and support functions operated almost exclusively in-office, with fewer than 10% of employees working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“Service employees, who traditionally did not have many work-from-home opportunities, have become used to it and like it, and the majority (about 70%) wish to continue”
Now, 76% of customer service and support functions have 80% to 100% of their staff working from home. And 89% of service leaders forecast 30% to 80% of their workforce will still be working from home two years from now.
“As customer service and support leaders work to formulate a lasting, postpandemic work-from-home strategy, they need to understand the impact that this transformational shift has had and will continue to have on the employee experience,” says Lauren Villeneuve, Director, Advisory, Gartner. “Understanding employee preferences will be a key aspect of building a work-from-home strategy that will last over the long term.”
New policies could enable more service employees to work from home
Before the pandemic, WFH programs at most service organizations had strict qualifying criteria (e.g., performance, tenure, etc.), so few employees were offered remote flexibility. Other organizations offered informal or temporary arrangements, in which managers would allow employees to work from home on a case-by-case basis for personal matters that required time away from the office (e.g., medical appointments, home maintenance issues).
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Some service employees have continued to work on-site during the pandemic, but most have shifted to remote work. A Gartner survey found service employees, who traditionally did not have many work-from-home opportunities, have become used to it and like it, and the majority (about 70%) wish to continue working from home in some regular capacity once the pandemic is over. (The survey polled 5,000 employees, of which 550 were customer service professionals.)
“Prepandemic bias against remote workforce models now seem particularly unfounded given that employee performance has largely remained consistent or, in some cases, even improved”
“As service leaders weigh the future of their work-from-home programs, they’ll have to balance their own visions for the future with employee wishes,” says Villeneuve. “It is not difficult to envision a scenario in which employees, content with their current work-from-home arrangements, start looking for new jobs if their current organization is unable to offer that arrangement in the future -- and companies need to be prepared for that potential outcome.”
Key success factors in WFH policies for service
Customer service and support leaders working on long-term, post-COVID-19 work-from-home strategies should consider these success factors:
Since the mass shift to working from home, many service leaders report growing concerns for the future of their company culture. However, Gartner research shows remote and hybrid workforce models don’t challenge culture as much as anticipated. In fact, most customer service employees who work remotely say organizational culture has remained the same — and most of those who do think it’s changed actually say it’s improved.
“Ensure that two distinct cultures — on-site and remote — don’t begin to emerge as some employees begin to return to the workplace”
Service leaders should continue to monitor culture within their own organization but may not need to invest time and resources in culture building.
While service employees have expressed that working from home has not negatively impacted their culture, they are noticing a decrease in collaboration opportunities. Service leaders have invested in collaboration technologies, but they should make sure they also create opportunities for collaboration, model collaborative behavior and reward collaboration when it occurs to ensure that the technology is used.
Prepandemic bias against remote workforce models now seem particularly unfounded given that employee performance has largely remained consistent or, in some cases, even improved throughout the pandemic. But service leaders and managers will need to ensure that two distinct cultures — on-site and remote — don’t begin to emerge as some employees begin to return to the workplace.
Among the risks to watch for: Remote employees feeling disenfranchised or on-site employees reaping benefits solely because of their physical presence — either directly through being assigned certain work due to their location or indirectly because they participate in more in-person collaboration.
To prevent manager bias from manifesting as a barrier to career development for remote employees, service leaders should work to uncover why these biases exist and upskill managers with the right strategies for managing remote employees or hybrid teams.