Following a dip in client interest that lasted around a decade, the work-at-home agent (WAHA) market in Canada’s call center industry is undergoing a semi-revival, as two sizable BPOs – Teleperformance (TP) Canada and Transcom – begin a new phase of ramping up their at-home workforce in the country.
The question is, why work-at-home, why Canada, and why now?
Flexibility and Availability Driving WAHA Strategy
“There are a number of advantages that work-at-home provides, the top of which is availability,” said Chris Hollamby, Country Manager for North America at Transcom. “If you are hiring from a much larger, less constrained labor pool then you can be more selective about employing people with the right skill sets.”
Transcom is ramping up its work-at-home offering in Canada for two clients, while also reducing its bricks and mortar presence in North America. Teleperformance Canada has less than 100 WAHAs right now, but aims to ramp to several hundred people by the end of 2018 to serve several existing clients, as well as a number of prospects interested in deploying.
“We’re literally just kicking this thing off, but we have high expectations and clearly see it as a way to expand our presence in Canada without necessarily having the impasse of additional overhead expense,” said Terry Rybolt, CEO at Teleperformance Canada. “It won’t compete with our bricks and mortar facilities, but will certainly compliment them.”
Both Transcom and TP cite flexibility as one of the primary drivers for clients looking for WAHAs, explaining that BPO buyers are increasingly looking to fill bookend split shifts – an example would be 07:00 – 12:00 and then 17:00 to 22:00 – which is difficult to accommodate in a conventional bricks and mortar call center.
“We see a cost reduction by not having facilities, not having third-party vendors for HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), maintenance, cleaning, and security, for example, and our experience in the industry leads us to expect at least a 5% reduction in the total cost base as a result. This becomes meaningful in a market where margins are generally low single digits,” said Hollamby.
Furthermore, as the topic of business continuity is driven to the forefront in the Nearshore region – with hurricanes, flooding, snowstorms, and even earthquakes upending service last year – client sensitivity on this matter has increased, so work-at-home is allowing for teams to be spread across a range of locations, thus mitigating the impact of agent disruption.
When you consider this aspect, Eastern Canada’s climate during the winter months makes the location an ideal spot for the work-at-home model.
The Canada Factor
TP Canada is initially casting its net in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, both of which have plentiful resources with contact center experience, according to findings during the company’s due diligence. While work-at-home is new to Teleperformance in Canada, the company already has experience with it globally. In the US, for comparison, TP’s national work-at-home talent pool is spread over 27+ states.
“We are being very selective about the type of people we are hiring for work-at-home,” said Rybolt. “For our work-at-home clients, we are looking for specific agent profiles with an understanding of technology and a certain level of call center experience.”
Due to a less-than-favorable exchange rate in the past, much of Canada’s value was beaten by the Philippines, so offshoring became a more attractive option than work-at-home in Canada. As the Canadian dollar grew in value, the BPO market was almost wiped out, which was reason enough for Transcom in particular to leave the country behind. As the company now returns with work-at-home, and TP Canada begins providing the model for the first time, both companies tell us that the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives, but there are still fresh challenges to consider.
Mythbusting the Downsides of WAHA in Canada
In order for agents to jump into the WAHA role, they need a certain level of technical knowhow and equipment, including a reliable internet connection and a decent computer. TP’s agents need to have access to a minimum of 12MB download speed and 1MB upload speed, which is confirmed by a speed test ping and a screen capture of the results. This is also done for PC specifications, both of which are a condition of employment.
Security has long been a reason for the tough sell when it comes to work-at-home, but technology is catching up, according to Rybolt. “As an industry, there is a lot of interest and discussion surrounding work-at-home, but we still need to educate the marketplace about the security side of it,” he said. “We also need to educate clients and employees on the benefits of work-at-home as we evolve toward using the model for management, trainers, QA, and workforce management.”
Both of TP’s clients provide access to VoIP (Voice over IP), giving them direct connection to the agents’ computers. They are also using ThinScale technology (ThinKisok) as their thin client – a downloadable application that replaces the old-school thin client hardware historically used by WAHAs. This type of software prevents agents from copy pasting, printing, screenshotting, or doing anything that would enable them to extract data or information from the client’s platform. TP also has some in-house proprietary tools that can monitor agent behavior by keylogging and pulling information on specific words, for example. This is especially necessary for credit card information and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance.
Now that security has been addressed, the main downsides of work-at-home come from internet downtime, which is not a massive challenge in Canada due to the country’s solid base of ISPs. There’s also the solitude factor, meaning that agents may not feel part of the company when hunkering down alone at home all day.
“From a work-at-home perspective, you need to replicate the social work environment of a call center, building camaraderie and collaboration, so agents may meet at local cafes and are invited to all events, to get them involved,” said Rybolt. “For example, if we have an in-house pizza party, we would send our WAHAs a gift certificate to get some slices at their local pizza place, which gives them a sense of involvement.”
The Canadian workforce still has some minor downsides when it comes to Nearshore work-at-home.
“Canadian resources deliver good quality in terms of voice of the customer, first call resolution, average handle time, and compliance, and there is a familiarity of general nearshore concepts that may not be found offshore,” said Hollamby. “The only real differentiator is an unfamiliarity with some products and brands, as it’s sometimes valuable to have an agent as a customer and using the product, which isn’t always as achievable in Canada as it is in the US.”
Outlook on North American Work-at-Home
According to Transcom, the work-at-home market in the US is growing in the high-teens percentile annually, showing strong support for the model and increasing competition. Even so, it’s not for everyone.
“There will always be a group of clients that work-at-home is suitable for and others that it’s not,” said Hollamby. “It’s always a tougher proposition to convince financial services firms that PCI compliant really means PCI compliant, so you have to demonstrate the capability to completely mask credit card numbers in a home environment. The same is true for healthcare.”
While those industries aren’t a perfect fit, the model matches up well with technical support for telcos and cable companies, as well as other verticals that don;t rely on masses of sensitive data.
“The real beauty of work-at-home for clients is the flexibility and the chance to be selective,” said Rybolt. “Companies regularly experience big swings in their call arrival patterns, so staffing that in a bricks and mortar facility can be difficult and expensive. The benefit of split shifts means there are more people available when volume is high, so the two models are complimentary to each other, with nights, weekends, and seasonal ramps being covered by work-at-home, much to the benefit of bricks and mortar operations.”
Transcom chose Canada by looking at the size of available labor pool, the unemployment rate, the direction of that unemployment rate, and the extent of existing call center penetration, as well as analyzing the labor rate, which includes any changes to the statutory minimum wage, according to Hollamby. With Ontario’s wage rate increasing, the province is becoming less attractive, and minimum wage for WAHAs in the province is actually higher than for bricks and mortar employees under law. Even so, the abundance of the right talent in Eastern Canada seems to be a key motivator for both firms.
“As Canada starts to show an increasing trend toward full employment, a lower unemployment rate, and higher competition for labor resources, work-at-home enables you to morph your representation of the labor pool to areas where you can get the optimum skillset at the optimum price, making it much more fluid on the supply side,” concluded Hollamby.