Many remote employees are overworked and unhappy. What does that mean for the future of work?

These days, we hear a lot about the positives of remote work: shortened commutes, more time with family and a greater work-life balance. But for employees outside of professional services and knowledge work, who may not have full autonomy to complete tasks on their own time, remote work has been a nightmare.  Consider contact center […]

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These days, we hear a lot about the positives of remote work: shortened commutes, more time with family and a greater work-life balance. But for employees outside of professional services and knowledge work, who may not have full autonomy to complete tasks on their own time, remote work has been a nightmare. 

Consider contact center agents. Their day is entirely structured for them, and agents are expected to answer and resolve a set number of calls each hour. Since March, however, their workloads have exponentially ballooned and customers have grown increasingly frustrated. 

For these workers, the remote environment has been stressful and mentally draining. This is an issue that industries plagued with high attrition rates cannot afford to let fester, and technology unfortunately isn’t a silver bullet solution to mitigating the impact on the business.

Exploding demand leads to a customer (and employee) experience spiral

While knowledge workers may find themselves with time to spare, workers in fields like customer service have been inundated with tasks — often without the technology to accommodate the surge. The customer service industry standard, for example, requires that 90% of calls are answered within 30 seconds. But with the increase in customer requests and shift to remote work, contact center agents are hard-pressed to meet this standard without help.

Reduced capacity and increased demand quickly trickle down to the customer experience, which has psychological ramifications for workers who have to deal with the effects. In a contact center, long wait times lead to impatient, distressed customers who take out their frustration on agents. Now, the first half of a call is spent consoling or talking down the customer rather than solving problems. This delays call resolution and further lengthens wait times for other customers in the queue, which only adds to their frustration — a dangerous snowball effect.

At the same time, some iterations of digital transformation are backfiring in the work-from-home environment. Artificial intelligence (AI) and self-service technologies created efficiencies by removing transactional tasks and leaving only complex problems that require a human to resolve. Although volume is lessened, the highly emotive nature of these tasks can create more stress and pressure for workers already struggling to keep up. While the technology supports high levels of productivity, during present circumstances, it’s taxing on the mental health of staff. 

Isolation takes a toll on the mental health of remote workers 

Under normal circumstances, workers can vent or unwind with their colleagues after a bad call, meeting or round of feedback. But in March, that organic release valve disappeared. After negative experiences, remote employees must now work through their emotions in isolation and move on to the next task without an opportunity to release stress, express frustration or just be heard. What’s more, this negativity is occurring in (even invading) the home — their previously sacred personal space — making it increasingly difficult to escape the stresses of work. 

Additionally, in industries disproportionately staffed with younger workers — like customer service, where the average contact center agent is in their late twenties — employees lack fully developed emotional maturity. When customers or situations are hostile, this age cohort is more severely affected and more likely to feel alone, personally attacked and generally unhappy during work. 

Negative WFH experiences impact the bottom line. But what’s the remedy?

The picture we’ve painted of the non-knowledge worker remote experience is bleak. And if these workers fall into a state of despair, they will simply quit or disengage and plan to leave as soon as another job becomes available. 

Continuing with the example of the contact center, the customer service industry already has an astronomically high attrition rate — ranging from 17% for small-sized call centers up to 44% for large ones. If attrition is intensifying because of remote work, what will it cost the industry, which includes any organization with a customer service department?

The answer? A Cornell study estimates that replacing one agent costs around 16% of their gross annual earnings. 

So, how can we prevent further revenue loss and attrition while remote work remains a necessity? Start with the following strategies: 

  • Increase manager-direct report connection. Managers must be hypervigilant about checking in with their direct reports, increasing the cadence of conversations during remote work. Set behavioral KPIs for managers to ensure one-on-ones happen regularly, measuring and reporting how often managers reach out to and coach their employees. For example, require that managers record the check-ins and submit them to leadership once completed. 
  • Create channels for team camaraderie. Employees working from home may find themselves navigating negative feedback or customer interactions without their team as a support system. Combat the isolation by setting up virtual team-building environments. One method involves inviting all team members to scheduled video meetings where everyone works on their own tasks with microphones muted. Then, should someone encounter a negative situation and want to talk about it or collaborate through it, they can unmute their mic and converse with a teammate for support.
  • Gin up gamification. For more structured environments, gamification provides employees with fresh motivation to power through an influx of work. Create a contest in which team members who complete X number of tasks are rewarded with points or prizes. Receiving even a small token like a gift card or food item can go a long way towards raising the spirits of employees feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated. 

The scenario of overworked, unsupported and mentally drained employees struggling to stay productive and engaged in remote environments is not unique to contact centers. This is a larger work culture issue, with thousands of organizations and their customers set to suffer significantly should the employee experience continue to deteriorate. 

Beyond the suggestions offered above, leaders must begin to honestly consider how long-term remote work is affecting their employees, and recognize that it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. With a year of continued uncertainty ahead, finding strategies to alleviate stress, isolation and unhappiness among workers now is a clear requisite for the future.

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