Ample staffing at your non-profit helpline is always a top challenge, but bad weather brings with it a whole new set of staffing hurdles. Snowy and icy conditions* can especially spell trouble for seamless shift coverage. Particularly powerful storms not only disrupt travel for days, but they have the potential to impact essential infrastructure like electricity and running water. These weather events take strategy and pre-planning to work through them successfully.
Depending on the severity of the storm, you may have no special plan at all except to tell your specialists that they are expected to be there for their shift or find a substitute to cover for them. In many snow storms, travel is possible so long as precautions are taken, such as driving at slower speeds and being extra vigilant. Call centers in urban settings may also benefit from having volunteers living within walking distance or taking public transportation.
But sometimes travel conditions can become extremely hazardous or even impossible. What then? Here are some methods we’ve commonly seen:
- The show must go on – Shifts go on as scheduled no matter what. Workers who can’t make it in must give ample notice and find substitutes who are able to travel. iCarol’s shift scheduling tools support you and your staff throughout this process; automatic substitute request emails greatly improve the visibility of your needs and the chances of pick-ups from others.
Pros: Little to no prior planning or change to your normal operations.
Cons: The absence of any back up plan can spell trouble, so you should have some alternative options in mind just in case. Your volunteers may have the best intentions of making it in, but the reality is that Mother Nature can easily stop us in our tracks and there’s only so much a person can realistically do when faced with heavy accumulations and impassable roads. You won’t want to be faced with the scenario where the previous shift is stuck with no relief. Take a moment to also consider the consequences of a potential road accident and injury to your volunteer when traveling in dangerous conditions, and the emotional and potentially litigious repercussions of demanding that volunteers travel in unsafe conditions. Further, when a State of Emergency is declared, it often requires that road travelers have their vehicle outfitted with special equipment, and drivers disobeying the order may even be fined.
Work from home – Technology has made it easier than ever to turn any setting into a call center, even your workers’ homes. Calls could get forwarded to that worker’s personal phone or a phone loaned to them from the office. Chats or texts can be taken from virtually anywhere as well. Special tip for iCarol users who might employ this method: You must either turn off ‘Restriction’ (the feature that makes it so your workers can’t see call reports from a personal computer outside the office) or give your staff and volunteers permissions to install the iCarol Certification Tool on their computer. You can read more about this here.
- Transfer your calls – In some instances there may be a partner agency, satellite office of your program, or a back-up center in an area unaffected or less affected by the weather, and they can take the lead on operations for a period of time. Our Call Report form sharing functionality makes it easy for you to pass your service delivery on to other centers, while they use your preferred form(s) to log the interactions they’re taking on your behalf. This also ensures your data collection and the resulting reporting can be seamless regardless of who is actually providing the service.
Pros: Less direct impact on you, your volunteers, and staff during the event. Being able to simply forward your service to someone else is very convenient.
Cons: This does come with a few sacrifices. First, your service delivery is being entrusted to others for a period of time. Necessary MOU’s and other contracts should be in place well in advance to ensure that same or acceptable level of service will be provided by the back up center. Consider any financial compensation that must be paid out as well. And you’ll want to have understandings about proper data collection, call handling policies, and more.
Pros: You’re unlikely to get much push back from your volunteers or staff about this plan; the idea of staying warm, cozy, and off the roads will send many a helpline worker to their happy place. Plus, you won’t have to worry about people physically making it in to the call center for their shift. Worried about productivity? The term is referred to as “shirking from home” — the concern that your employees won’t actually get anything done and left to their own devices will shirk their responsibilities. The good news is, numerous studies have discovered that this is a generally unfounded fear. A Stanford University study of call center workers found home work resulted in a 13% performance increase, people took fewer breaks and sick days, and 4% more calls per minute handled thanks in part to a quieter and more convenient working environment. Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and their attrition rate was cut in half. These days there are plenty of communication methods available making it so that remote workers won’t feel disconnected. Keep in mind that with iCarol your supervisors can remotely silent monitor chat and text conversations, leave feedback on logged interactions, put out News alerts, send instant messages to your workers via Internal Chat, send emails and SMS messages, and more. Technology has made us more connected with one another than ever before, even if we’re physically separated by many miles.
Camping out – Marshmallows optional. When the forecast calls for dangerous weather and snow accumulations that might make travel impossible, make a decision ahead of time to suspend the usual schedule, and instead have a crew arrive prior to hazardous road conditions developing. This crew will stay for a period of time until travel is safe again and shifts can resume.
Cons: Most modern phone systems have many remote controls that allow you to sign in remotely and forward calls as needed, but some might require you to be on-site to activate the call transfers. If there are no remote capabilities for controlling where the calls are landing, then that means someone has to make it into the office to flip the switches, possibly rendering the work-from-home scenario moot. You’ll also want to consider home office digital security, and whether or not having employees work off-site violates the terms of any of your contracts. There’s also the matter of assuring your volunteers and staff have a suitable work environment free from distraction or disruptive noise or potential confidentiality violations. They also won’t be able to take advantage of some of the infrastructure that may be available at your center, like battery backups or generators in case of a power outage.
Pros: Again, you’ll be free from having to worry about workers traveling or one shift getting stuck because relief didn’t arrive. The whole idea here is that they know they’ll be stuck for awhile, and they’re (hopefully) okay with that. This is a policy you could develop long before winter weather strikes, so that you aren’t faced with a chaotic scramble for a solution just before a blizzard hits. You may even cultivate your list of willing participants ahead of time as well. Being able to make these decisions in advance without the storm bearing down on you is certainly a benefit, simply activate the plan when needed.
Cons: Directors, Managers, and other decision-makers will want to stay in close contact and clearly communicate expectations, especially concerning staff arrival time and decisions about when normal operations should resume. Volunteer or staff health and well-being is a concern. Does your call center have adequate facilities to keep them comfortable for an extended stay of 24 hours or more? Think about bathrooms, bathing and personal hygiene, and food access and preparation. Mentally and emotionally, how will your staff deal with being at the office for a long period of time? They’ll need to have regular breaks and take time for uninterrupted sleep, which means this plan usually requires at least two participants. You’ll also want to review labor laws in your area to be sure your policy doesn’t violate ordinances relating to a worker’s right to ample breaks, and whether or not additional financial compensation is required.
How do you keep your helpline operating in spite of dangerous travel conditions for your volunteers and staff?Do you employ one of the strategies above, or do you handle winter storm scheduling some other way? We’d love to hear about it! Leave us a comment!
* While this article refers specifically to blizzards and other winter weather conditions, these strategies could be employed during any disaster scenario, natural or man-made.
Earlier this year we added a feature to iCarol that had proven to be one of our most popular feature requests from our clients. You wanted the ability to exchange typed messages with other workers signed in to your iCarol system.
It was popular for a good reason: there are so many great ways this tool can be used. Here are just a few ways our clients are already putting this to use…
Resource searches - Your Resource Managers are great sources of information and have an answer for everything. If a Call Specialist needs help finding the right resource for a caller, but can’t quite remember its name or the way it’s categorized, they can send a quick, typed message to the Resource Manager for some assistance.
Guidance when working with clients - Whether it’s working through assessing risk or sending rescue, or you’re just having trouble connecting with a client and need some tips, a second pair of eyes or ears from a colleague can be super helpful. If your shift leader is across the room or in another location, no need to throw office supplies to get their attention. Send a quick message to say, “Hey, can you come listen to this call?”
Supervisor check-in - Helpline Directors have a tough task of needing to be available and on-call practically all the time. Internal Chat allows you to quickly check in with your staff even if you’re already home after a long day. From anywhere with an internet connection you can sign in to see that folks have arrived and signed on, and send a quick encouraging note as they start their shift.
Have fun! - Collect lunch orders, check and see who wants to hit up karaoke after shift, or send a goofy joke to brighten someone’s day.
These chats are also protected — the security you enjoy throughout the rest of iCarol extends to Internal Chat, and your Internal Chat conversations are expunged on demand, and also when you sign off. So you can feel confident discussing confidential information via these conversations if needed.
Bottom line: We wanted this new feature to be one more way that your volunteers and staff can feel connected to their colleagues, their supervisors, and by extension connected to the mission of your organization. We truly hope this feature has done this for your center.
Internal Chat is included as a part of any iCarol system, it just needs to be turned on by an Admin user and then permissions granted to workers to use the feature. For instructions on how to do this and more, check out our help videos or watch our webinar.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the new Internal Chat feature, please consider giving it a try. We launched it a couple of weeks ago, and have been hearing how it’s helping centers get rid of passing paper notes, avoid putting callers on hold, fosters a greater sense of community, and just helps day-to-day communications.
Bottom line, it’s a convenient new way to exchange short, typed messages with colleagues, right from the security of your iCarol screens.
It’s available at no extra cost now, to all subscribers. For more information on how to turn it on and enable staff, and other functions, check out the help videos for more information, or register for our February 4th webinar.
Starting today, you can now exchange typed messages instantly with colleagues, right from within iCarol.
Use it however you’d like to improve communication in your center:
- Call-takers can ask a colleague for help finding a resource, without needing to put the caller on hold
- A counselor on a difficult messaging session can ask for assistance from any online colleague, not just their supervisor
- A new resource editor could quickly check with a colleague about style points when editing a new resource
- A call center manager could ask a call-taker to stay an extra 15 minutes, to cover for a colleague stuck in traffic
Videos located here provide detailed instructions on how it works, show how Admins can turn it on for your organization, and how to enable/disable it on a person-by-person basis. You can also access Help Articles on the help page. Or, if you prefer to join us for a webinar, we’ll be announcing those dates and times here shortly.
There is no extra charge for this feature — it’s part of our continuing effort to make iCarol better, to help you help others.
Our clients make some excellent suggestions for features that they’d like us to add to iCarol. We’re excited to announce that one popular request is making its way to iCarol very soon.
We’re just putting the finishing touches on a new feature which will let you exchange instant typed messages with your colleagues, right from within iCarol. We’re calling this “Internal Chat” and Admins will be able to control if/when to introduce this feature to your team. Admins will also be able to control who can use it, on a person-by-person basis. This new Internal Chat feature will be available to all subscribers at no extra charge.
This feature will use familiar logic and work similarly to other chat applications you’ve probably seen and used before, making it really intuitive and easy to start using right away. You’ll be able to create “Buddy Lists” and add and label different groups of buddies in your list to keep things nice and organized. You’ll be able to chat one-on-one, or in a group. These are just a few of the functions.
A select group of iCarol clients have been testing the feature for us. Here’s what they’re saying:
“The Internal Chat feature allows our Specialists to reach out to a supervisor or the resource staff for assistance without having to put a caller, who is in crisis, on hold. This is definitely a useful tool for those of us who are not all seated in the contact center. Thank you iCarol for always introducing new features to help with call handling, as well as reporting.” – Cheryl at Crisis Center Tampa Bay
“It’s definitely a much needed feature, as volunteers/staff in many agencies cannot communicate out loud during calls or chats, or are located far from each other, or even in different buildings/location. So it is a secure internal communication network.” – Elena at IMALIVE
“iCarol’s Internal Chat is a valuable tool that has allowed us to connect with staff at other sites with ease! The simplicity of this Chat platform has decreased barriers to communication that our staff experience while working in different offices.” – Maureen at NEED2
Please keep an eye on the Dashboard for notification that the feature is available. Of course when the feature is launched, we’ll be providing you with plenty of information and how-to’s in the form of Help Articles, Tutorial Videos, and a few Webinars, too.
We’re really excited to release this to all of our clients next week so you can start using it. It’s another example of how we’re committed to enhancing the product to help you meet the challenges of your demanding job.
We’re working on several enhancements in our labs you should expect to see shortly:
Internal Messaging – Soon, folks with logins will be able to to send short, typed messages to each other. See here for details. Administrators will be able to choose to have this enabled in your system. It’ll be off by default when we launch it, so you can decide when to introduce this new feature to your team. Keep an eye on the Dashboard for details shortly.
Integrated Messaging – Folks who use instant messaging or text messaging will enjoy an improved workflow once we launch enhancements to that feature. We expect it to go into the internal testing phase in late November, and into client testing after that. Please let me know
if you’d like to participate in that testing. We recognize this improvement will require plenty of advance notice, details, and training materials before we make this available, and we’ll be sure to provide those. The improved workflow comes directly from requests clients have made — we always appreciate your feedback and are happy to deliver.
Call Report Editing Tools – We’ve always prided ourselves on our speedy response to making changes to your call report forms, but we’re working on a nifty way to improve upon that. How does an immediate turnaround sound? Yes, soon we’ll introduce a tool that gives Administrators greatly expanded abilities to edit aspects of your call report forms yourselves. That’s in client testing now, and we’re busy preparing training videos and help articles in preparation for an imminent release.
Also thanks to all who joined us for our webinar on October 6, where we talked about these enhancements and a few others we have in store for you, as well as the new processes we have in place to better serve you. Please join us for the next webinar — we’ll announce it on the Dashboard and will send emails out to all Admins.
Here at iCarol, we sure appreciate the critical nature of your work. That’s why we’re always looking for ways to make your workday tasks easier. One of the features in our engineering labs right now is a way for users to communicate with colleagues more easily from within iCarol. This feature will let those with logins send typed messages to each other easily and instantaneously – the conversations will pop up on the bottom of your screen, wherever you are in iCarol.
The sky’s the limit on how you could use this feature. Here’s some ideas:
- Ask a colleague for help finding just the right resource. Because back-and-forth with your colleague is typed, not verbal, you won’t have to put the caller on hold while you get assistance.
- While editing a resource, you have a formatting question. Quickly message a supervisor for clarification.
- You’re training a new call-taker. Coach them through calls by typing suggestions to them.
- Bad weather is delaying the arrival of one of your call takers, so she’ll be a bit late for her shift. Ask someone currently on shift if they can stay an extra 15 minutes to cover.
Note that your colleagues with whom you’re messaging could be right next to you, across the hall, or miles away.
As you’d expect, we’ll offer settings to let you control how this feature works in your organization. Administrators could decide if and when they’d like to enable it for their team.
The feature is in late-stage development and we expect to move it into our testing labs in a few weeks. We expect a release before the end of the year. Stay tuned!