Working remotely, often synonymous with the phrase “working from home,” has become the norm as technology advances and becomes more accessible, and the availability of online or cloud services expand. While some managers and companies remain skeptical of the benefits of remote work, numerous studies have found that many of the common fears—that employees won’t be productive or can’t be trusted to do the job correctly, or at all, when not in the office—are mostly unfounded. According to information gathered by Gallup, as of 2016, 43% of employees worked remotely in some capacity, and this flexibility leads to more engaged employees, which can improve everything from productivity, profitability, and employee retention.1 A Stanford University study 2 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.
Not only is remote work increasing in normal, everyday circumstances, but it can become a downright essential alternative in times of emergency like natural or man-made disasters, or during health emergencies or pandemic like we are seeing right now with novel Coronavirus/COVID-19 where people are encouraged or mandated to quarantine or socially distance themselves from one another. Now, more than ever, it’s time to research and plan for the option of remote work as either a temporary or permanent option for your workforce.
How do you get started with having your employees or volunteers working remotely if this is not a current part of your operations? Your remote work plan will be more successful if you spend time on the front-end planning. Here are some ideas:
Write a Remote Work Policy
A remote work policy does not have to cover every single aspect of working from home, but it should outline when and how employees can work outside the office, who is eligible, and any particular protocols to be aware of. It can also cover whether or not the practice is temporary or permanent, legal rights, and other Human Resources specific rules and regulations. There are many templates and examples online that will give you a starting point to work from. Start with any professional listservs, email forums, or other groups that you subscribe or belong to.
Be sure that any remote worker has read your policy, and understands what is expected of them when working from home. Clearly explain what they are to do, and how they should do it. If their work will be evaluated in a specific way related to remote work, explain this to them so they can be clear on what is expected. Also communicate clearly how they can obtain support or guidance from supervisors in the event they need assistance.
Remote workers might need to access sensitive information to complete their work, so think about their home office setting and the digital security they’ll have in place. Will they be using a personal computer, or one from the office? What types of security applications must they have installed, and what protections does their home network and internet connection provide? Consider consulting with the IT professionals at your workplace and ask for their recommendations.
Provide Support and Supervision
While working remotely has many benefits, one downside sometimes reported by remote workers is a feeling of isolation or missing workplace camaraderie. It’s important to make your remote workers feel as connected as possible to each other and the activities of the organization, and provide them with ample supervision or other supports. Remote workers will still need to be evaluated, have quality performance checks, and be able to easily reach a supervisor for guidance in a given situation. This is not only important for their own effectiveness as an employee, but for the quality of your overall service delivery to the people who contact you.
Run a Pilot Program
A good test run can make any new initiative run more smoothly. If you are looking at adding remote work options to your organization, consider running a pilot program first. A pilot of your remote work plan could involve just a few select workers to start, and be limited to a set period of time to test the plan. Have workers follow the policy, and document what worked for them, and what didn’t. Likewise, from a managerial standpoint you can track what elements you found successful, along with which aspects were unsuccessful and why. Conduct quality assurance measures and evaluate documentation or Live Chat/SMS Transcripts to ensure contacts were handled properly. Analyze sign on logs to check that workers were signed in when they were supposed to be. Based on your findings, you might adjust your policy, make changes and run a new pilot, or use your results to launch your remote work program to more employees and/or for extended periods. Of course, it’s possible that the findings from your pilot may help you determine that remote work isn’t a possibility for your agency at this time.
Choose Technology to Support Remote Workers
All of this careful planning will be worthwhile once you launch your remote work program and start to see the benefits it brings. However, one of the biggest pieces of your preparation plan is making sure you have the tools–more precisely, technology–in place to execute your plan effectively. Processes based in paper and physical files, or in desktop applications that aren’t cloud-based, are very hard to duplicate remotely. How will workers accept and document contacts from their home? How will you provide supervision and coaching when your employee is 20 or more miles away and not at the cubicle next to yours? How will you monitor their work and ensure they are completing their assigned tasks?
If you are not currently set up with technology to make your remote work program a success, it’s not too late to get started. In Part 2 of this blog series, we share information about how the tools and features of iCarol not only enable remote work, but enhance your service delivery, improve workforce connectivity, reduce employee attrition, and more.
2 Does Working From Home Work?
We have been closely watching the developments around the novel Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic. In these and other difficult times, our primary focus always turns to our customers and the people and communities they serve, as well as the health and well-being of our employees.
Many of our customers are playing a direct and active role in the response to COVID-19 by providing emotional support, reassurance, and reliable information and referral, and working directly with their state/provincial and local governments to collect data and rapidly disseminate new information of service to the public.
We want to do all we can to support them in their efforts, and so we have taken the following steps:
- Offer 30 days of free Contact Record or Resource Database sharing tools in iCarol, to help our customers with their collaborations, continuity of operations, or coordinated data collection and reporting.
- Apply an ad hoc Taxonomy update to iCarol that includes new terms related to COVID-19.
- Provide prompt response to all customer requests related to COVID-19, such as assistance with editing Contact Forms, adding new tools, or making system settings changes.
- Monitor system performance and volume, and add additional resources within our Microsoft Azure infrastructure to scale and increase capacity as necessary.
- Listen and engage with key industry organizations to be sure we are prepared for and responsive to our customers’ needs as the situation continues to evolve.
We understand that many of our customers are transitioning their volunteers and staff to a remote work model to maintain continuity of operations while reducing human presence within the contact center. For many, this model is unfamiliar and one sometimes met with apprehension. Being a web-based solution, iCarol provides many tools and features that can make this transition easier. The iCarol functionality needed to carry out their work can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection, while managers can still exercise supervision and ultimate control over volunteer/staff permissions and system access. On our blog, we will share more detailed tips and guidance on how our customers can use iCarol remotely, which will help keep their people and communities safer.
Of course, the safety of members of the iCarol family, customers and employees alike, is at the forefront of our minds. iCarol has activated our own business continuity plan, which specifically calls out provisions in the case of a pandemic. Most of the iCarol team already works remotely, and nearly all of our interaction with customers is through email, live chat, online meetings, or phone calls, which limits the risk of exposing ourselves or our customers to the spread of the virus. Our small number of team members who usually work in an office setting have been working from home and will continue to do so until it is safe to return to the office. There has also been significant cross-training between the iCarol and CityView technology/development teams which expands the amount of human resources available to quickly respond to technology or infrastructure needs.
Our parent company, Harris Computer Systems, has provided excellent leadership throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, and feels that we must all do our part as responsible citizens to enhance the safety of our employees and the communities in which we live and work. Any in-person internal meetings are being reconsidered and either postponed or converted to virtual events, and all business travel is being evaluated and cancelled or postponed as needed. Harris Computer encourages all its employees to follow the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
Our customers always display an unwavering commitment to their communities, and they are courageously upholding these values even in the midst of these unprecedented events. We are inspired by their actions, and honored to serve them however we can. Should you have any questions on how iCarol can assist or support your organization in response to COVID-19, please contact us.
The following iCarol resources may be helpful to you as you research, plan, and act during an emergency:
Data Exporting, Sharing, and Integrations Options in iCarol
Do More Together: A Guide to Collaborations
Using iCarol During a Disaster or Emergency
iCarol would like to extend our congratulations to our friends and customers at North Carolina 2-1-1, who were selected to receive Innovation Awards in the Disaster Preparedness category, and also voted the overall winner of the Innovation Awards. This was the first year for these awards, given by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS).
NC 2-1-1’s submission stemmed from their experience as North Carolina’s disaster response portal, having experienced two major storms in two years’ time.
NC 2-1-1 first took on the role of disaster portal during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. During this historic storm and flooding that followed, many of the county’s 9-1-1 systems were knocked offline, causing residents to call 2-1-1 requesting life-saving intervention including water rescues necessitated by the flooding. This required quick thinking on the part of NC 2-1-1 staff and leadership to establish protocols in how to handle these calls and inform appropriate services to ensure the callers received appropriate assistance as quickly as possible.
While their quick action in the face of emergency surely saved many lives, there were some weaknesses in the process that became apparent. Namely, the 2-1-1 staff did not consistently receive follow-up or confirmation that NC 2-1-1’s referrals to emergency operations were successfully received and addressed, or that callers got the help they needed. In such high stakes situations, this added to the already heightened stress experienced by the 2-1-1 team during this disaster.
Post-disaster briefings provided both NC 2-1-1 and North Carolina Emergency Operations with the opportunity to talk through the situation that played out during Hurricane Matthew, and assess what should be done going forward to improve response during future disasters.
They decided that in future disasters they would implement changes, including:
- The use of an internal web form by 2-1-1 staff that documents vital information about the caller, their location, contact information, emergency request, etc.
- Completed forms would be sent directly to the Commander for Emergency Operations for distribution to the appropriate ground response team.
- 2-1-1 staff would receive immediate confirmation that transmitted forms were successfully received.
The new, formalized protocols that emerged during the post-disaster briefings were quickly put to the test when Hurricane Florence arrived in September of 2018 and some 9-1-1 systems experienced technical difficulties in the face of unforgiving wind and flooding. This time, the 2-1-1 staff felt there was more accountability in the entire process thanks in part to the ability to track the movement of referrals to emergency operations. Confirmation that life threatening situations were successfully handed off from 2-1-1 to emergency services also helped reduce stress on 2-1-1 staff and lessen any unease that might have previously come with the lack of closure they received regarding the 9-1-1 calls.
We are extremely proud of the efforts of North Carolina 2-1-1 for their leadership on the topic of Disaster Response and service to the residents of North Carolina before, during, and after natural disasters. Their Innovation Award is certainly well-deserved, and we look forward to seeing them presented with the award at the AIRS Conference this week.