How Does Remote Working Affect Working In Customer Service?

Woman on phone at laptop

Remote working is definitely on the rise. This is hardly surprising, when you consider the advances in technology in recent years, which make working from home a reality for more industries. Approximately 1.54 million people in the UK currently work from home for their primary job, according to research from Finder. This figure has almost doubled over the last ten years.

But just because something becomes more widespread doesn’t mean that it’s a more effective system. What are the pros and cons of remote working, and does the industry you work in make a difference?

Who Works From Home?

In the UK, the last decade has shown an increase of almost 100% of people working from home, and worldwide, it’s become just as prevalent. Since 2005, the number of people working remotely has increased by 159%.

More employees want to work from home moving forward too. A study conducted by Global Workplace Analytics shows that the majority of the workforce in the U.S. wants to work from home at least some of the time. Many would also be willing to change jobs to do so - 35% would relocate if they were given the opportunity to work remotely full time, while 37% would move jobs if their new role allowed them to work from home on occasion.

Not only are employees willing to change jobs to work remotely, but people are also willing to take a pay cut. The study showed that more than a third of workers, if given the option to work partially remotely, would take a pay cut of up to 5%. A quarter would take a 10% pay cut, and a fifth would take an even greater cut.

Clearly, a lot of people want to work from home, but how many actually do, and what are the demographics of this workforce?

Working Remotely Around The World

In March 2019, IWG Global Workforce conducted a survey across 80 nations, to investigate the key reasons for flexible working, how it’s used within international businesses, and the obstacles that remain in regards to increasing or introducing remote working in certain industries.

The results of this survey show that the global average for companies allowing their staff to have some form of remote working policy is 62%. European countries such as France, Spain and Italy all fall close to this percentage, while the UK is slightly more flexible, with 68% of businesses allowing employees to work from home in some capacity. The U.S. had a similar figure of 69%.

Germany appears to be the most lenient country when it comes to remote working - 80% of the companies studied allowed flexible working, while Japan demonstrably had the lowest statistic of 32%. Yet Japanese employees expressed some of the highest interest to work remotely, with 80% desiring the option to work from home.

Which job roles work from home most often?

Last year, Owl Labs undertook a survey in America of workers aged between 22 and 65, and determined that remote working is much more common amongst staff members in managerial roles. As an individual moves up the corporate ladder, the likelihood that they will work from home at least some of the time increases in correlation with their seniority.

Across all industries, executives worked remotely 18% more than employees working on site. This was generally due to working from home at least one day a week. The highest proportion of remote workers were amongst the company founders and higher level executives, which was around 55%.

In terms of industry, the five sectors that worked from home the most were as below:

Remote workers also tended to be higher earners. The average salary for those working from home was between $50K and $75K per year, whereas those working on site on average earned between $35K and $50K per year.

Age Groups Working From Home

When it comes to finding a job, one of the highest ranked benefits for millennials is flexibility. This even comes above student loan or tuition reimbursement, according to Global Workforce Analytics. This is reflected in the statistics of those working from home - of those aged between 18 and 34, 70% regularly take advantage of remote working when possible. Of those aged between 45 and 60, the figure drops to 51%.

Alongside this, one of the most popular industries for millennials to work in is technology, while the older generations work more within manufacturing. The former industry has been found to have the highest percentage of remote workers, as it’s an easy job to do from home. When it comes to manufacturing, on the other hand, this industry is more likely to require workers to remain on site, due to the nature of the job.

However, the paradigm that younger employees work remotely more often could be shifting towards a more even distribution. As the age of retirement rises, many people reaching this age are working from home in order to prolong their careers.

The Implications of Working From Home

Evidentently, remote working is on the rise across the globe, and the demographics are broadening too. With success stories in a variety of industries, technological advancements are also being made to improve productivity and morale for employees working from home.

But before you consider looking for a remote position, or encourage your employees to work from home, it’s important to think about how each part of a company is impacted.

Impact on Staff

We’ve seen that a lot of people, especially young employees, want to have the opportunity to work from home. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be for the staff members?

The Negatives

Perhaps the biggest problem remote workers face is isolation. Not being able to have a face-to-face conversation with anyone throughout the day, discussing projects or sharing concerns can have a damaging effect on an employee’s mental health.

A report from the Campaign to End Loneliness predicted that social isolation costs UK businesses £2.5 billion per year, in terms of things such as absenteeism, and losses in productivity.

Polycom have furthermore found that the three biggest concerns when it comes to working from home are as follows:

These concerns are felt more by certain groups of people than others. The second point, for instance, is largely a worry for the older generations. Distractions were the primary concern of those in more senior positions, while worries about appearing lazy were prevalent across the board.

The Positives

Most remote workers agree that the best thing about working from home is improvement of their work-life balance, and the flexibility offered. You can work from wherever suits you, from a home office to a local coffee shop. With a lot of customer service jobs, the hours can be flexible too, especially when you don’t have to factor in the commute time. Parents in particular find this helpful, as it means they can work around school hours and term times.

Some studies have additionally shown that employees are happier and more engaged when they are given the opportunity to work from home. Dell have reported that their remote workforce are more loyal and more likely to positively promote the business than others. Remote workers often feel more trusted, as they need to be self-motivated to be productive.

Employees can also save a lot of money when it comes to commuting. A recent report from Netmeg.com found that UK workers spend an average of £50K over the course of their careers on commuting to work. You’d almost certainly save money on lunches too - there’s often a temptation to eat out when you’re working in an office, whereas you’re more likely to eat at home when working remotely.

How Does Working From Home Affect Businesses?

While the staff who work remotely are arguably impacted the most by this method of working, there are also a number of pros and cons for a company when they allow their employees to work from home.

The disadvantages of remote working

First, let’s look at the downsides. Perhaps the biggest issue is that of communication. According to a survey from Buffer, over 20% of employees working from home felt that communication with their employees was more challenging, and collaborative projects suffer, which in turn can negatively impact creativity. Over half also stated that they felt they were not treated equally by their office based colleagues.

Getting an instant answer to a question also becomes difficult if the majority of your internal communications are sent by email, or if you’re working in different time zones. Not to mention the fact that it’s much easier for emails to be misconstrued, as you can’t determine tone via written communication.

Creating an office culture can also be a challenge with remote working. Employees can find it harder to bond, and may therefore not develop the team mentality they would if they shared an office space.

The advantages of remote working

One benefit to the business in regards to remote working is the opportunity to diversify your staff, and not have geography be an issue. The retail company Williams-Sonoma have stated that remote work "gives us the flexibility to not only attract great talent that otherwise might not want to travel to a location, it also allows us to expand our talent pool by getting us into markets all across the United States."

Another positive factor of allowing employees to work remotely is that staff retention tends to improve. Considering the number of people that would be willing to change jobs in order to have the option of working from home, it makes sense that employees would stay with your business if you gave them the same opportunities.

Harvard Business Review also found that remote employees are more productive. Half the staff in a Chinese call centre were given the opportunity to work from home for nine months, while the other half remained in the office as a control group. The study showed that those working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office, which means they gave the company almost an extra day a week of work.

This increase in productivity was attributed to a quieter work environment, less distractions from colleagues, and longer hours were worked. As there was no commute, staff generally started working earlier. They also took shorter breaks, worked until the end of the day, and took fewer sick days.

Having a remote workforce can additionally cut costs for a company. Businesses are often able to downsize their office space, or even stop renting one altogether. You could also save money in terms of utilities, especially electricity costs.

Impact On The Customer

Obviously customer satisfaction has a direct impact on the success of a company, so how remote working affects customers would need to be considered from a business standpoint regardless. But do customers take issue with speaking to someone who is working remotely?

A big factor to take into account is the industry the employee works in. A study undertaken by a research team looking into remote service by engineers showed that customers preferred having a person visit them at home or on site. Customers were of the opinion that “a physically present person is better able to solve their problems and understand their needs and requirements, he adapts to individual situations and provides customized services.”

It makes sense that when it comes to something like engineering, we prefer to have an experienced person there to resolve an issue. But with most customer service industries, a query can be resolved on the phone or by electronic communication.

Zendesk have found that for simple service requests, 60% of people prefer to email a company. For more complicated service requests, 76% preferred to phone the business. Overall, it was determined that customers wanted a range of communication channels, so that they could choose their preferred method for each query. With this in mind, the customer shouldn’t be concerned by whether someone is working remotely when answering their query. As long as the employee’s writing and language skills are up to standard, and there are a number of ways to contact the business, customer satisfaction levels should remain high.

Remote working can also mean that your company’s opening hours are extended. A lot of employees like the option of flexible hours, so could be willing to work earlier or later shifts. Hiring people in different countries can additionally mean that your business can be reached at any time, as you’ll have employees working in various time zones.

Not working in an office reduces your carbon footprint

Remote working can also impact your environmental footprint. The variables are fairly complex though - you’d need to consider energy use, waste disposal and air pollution, and it’s not always easy to quantify these factors for home workers.

In terms of waste disposal, Gallup conducted a study into such issues, and found that remote working drastically cuts back on the amount of paper used. If your office is looking to go paperless, perhaps employees working from home is the answer.

When it comes to energy usage, the same study concluded that home based workers used half as much electricity as those working on site. If you consider heating a large space too, in comparison to a home office, it’s typically more efficient to heat a smaller room.

The most effective way to measure a company’s carbon footprint though, is through milage. Commuting to work causes countless cars to be on the road, thus remote working can massively reduce the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For instance, in 2015, Xerox reported that allowing employees to work from home that year resulted in 92 million fewer miles driven. This reduced carbon emissions by almost 41,000 metric tons.

The study previously discussed, by Global Workplace Analytics, also concluded that if those who had the ability and desire to work from home did so half the time, “the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road.” This is due to the fact that almost 30% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector.

Conclusion

Overall, despite there being a number of downsides to remote working, the positives generally outweigh the negatives. There are also various solutions you can try in order to overcome any obstacles you and your business face.

The main thing to consider is recruiting the right people. If you employ organised and motivated people, with a strong work ethic, remote working can be successful for your business. Having the right technology and IT training is also essential.

It’s also important to lead by example - make sure you and the company’s managers are easily contactable when working from home, and are transparent about the work they’re doing. You also need to trust your employees to find the best way of working for them, and not micro manage them. Measure productivity, but ensure you get a full picture.

Lastly, remote working needs to be part of the company culture. If some people don’t buy into it, resentments can form, and remote employees could be accused of laziness. You also need to bring your team together regularly, as not all work can be done remotely, and staff often need the opportunity to bond.

Allowing employees to work from home won’t always be easy, and it can take some time for people to become comfortable with the new way of working. But if you do it right, your staff could be happier and more productive, your business can cut costs and grow, and your customers may appreciate the chance to speak to people over longer business hours and through a variety of mediums.