The Work At Home Agent (WAHA) phenomenon is well-established in the United States, and the market is now looking to the Caribbean basin for opportunity. This makes sense, given the Caribbean’s close proximity, diverse-language skills, and high education levels. However, these are still early days.
“I think it’s an exposure thing – the right person hasn’t checked the Caribbean to consider if it’s a viable solution,” says Yoni Epstein, Executive Chairman, itelbpo, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. “We’ve tested it in the Bahamas, and the workflow and KPIs were on point with an agent working in the office.”
A number of factors have hindered the growth in WAHA in the Caribbean. These include the relatively high cost of internet and phone services, concern over the stability of the infrastructure during extreme weather events, and uncertainty as to whether the culture can adapt and incorporate a solid work ethic into a home environment. That said, there is more diversity in the region than many people realize, and that can spell opportunity.
“When looking at WAHA you have to divide into specific countries of interest,” says Heather Littlejohns, a Barbados-based Nearshore BPO executive who has worked with Minacs, Startek, and Alorica. “The Caribbean region is a broad brush stroke.”
The Caribbean’s Perfect Positioning for Work at Home
This is of note, because it means that the Caribbean can provide more depth to those considering a WAHA option. The Caribbean includes English, French and Spanish-speaking islands, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) includes Northern South America. As well, Guadalupe, Martinique and French Guiana use the Euro, and are subject to French law.
“When assessing the WAHA opportunity by country, rather than simply determining the model – as you would in the U.S. – you have to examine the labor laws, HR customs and practices, and seek legal advice from a local market expert,” says Littlejohns. “Contracts need to be very precise, including reviews of requirements related to hours worked – overtime, and part-time versus full-time.”
That sounds like a lot of leg-work, but an initial needs-assessment will narrow the options quickly. If this is an English-language engagement that needs to scale, a large island like Jamaica might be optimal. Many smaller islands would be eager to embrace WAHA for niche operations, and may be willing to offer incentives. In every jurisdiction, no matter the size, it is critical to have a solid take on unique legal requirements, and cultural practices.
“I could imagine a very creative recruiting strategy for WAHA in the Caribbean; I don’t believe there would be a shortage of interest,” says Littlejohns. “There could be interesting target demographics – moms returning to work, ex-pat wives who want to stay busy, men looking to do something out of the traditional hospitality industry. The autonomy and advancement are key factors that could make WAHA attractive. As well, a creative solution for people to procure computing equipment in a cost-effective manner could be a great recruiting tool.”
Growing Interest in WAHA
From the clients’ perspective, it’s unlikely that there would be significant resistance from U.S.-based businesses to having agents working from home. Sitel Group, which has a strong presence in the Nearshore WAHA market, has told Nearshore Americas that its WAHA agents are 15% to 20% more productive, and can serve a range of markets, providing front-office and back-office services. This is often a mature workforce, with a lower attrition rate. According to U.S. census data from 2017, over 3.7 million employees in the United States work from home at least half the time, representing 2.8% of the entire workforce.
“We have over 400 agents working at home across the U.S., and we feel bullish about scaling WAHA in the Caribbean region,” says Epstein from itelbpo. “I believe that this is the next generation of call centers in the Nearshore region.”
One obvious requirement is a clear-eyed assessment of the telecommunications and internet infrastructure. In the Caribbean, there are a large number of small operators in localized markets, with only two regional operators: Digicel and Liberty Global. Though a duopoly can inhibit competitive pricing, these two providers have been moving aggressively to gain market share in bundled services, while also investing in LTE and mobile networks.
“In Barbados, I have personally seen an enormous improvement in reliability with investments made to the home with fiber, and movement away from the original copper lines,” says Littlejohns. “Another positive factor is that in many places you don’t pay for the amount of data you stream at home – it is still ‘unlimited’.”
One ongoing issue that BPO providers throughout the Caribbean face is transportation. Even on smaller islands, poor road infrastructure, demanding terrain, crowded public transit, and snarling two-lane traffic can make an agent’s commute to a BPO facility less than ideal.
“The transportation issue is a big win for WAHA,” says Littlejohns. “Compared to bricks-and-mortar, WAHA lowers the risk [of agent absenteeism].”
It could be argued that smaller Caribbean island nations are at some disadvantage, in that it is harder for them to scale, and the prices for everything from food, to housing, to phone service, can be higher than in larger markets, where commoditization, supply, and competition keep inflation in check. It is also critical that these smaller markets deliver reliable connectivity.
“Consistent power and broadband connectivity is crucial to success, as is prior call center experience, to be a successful WAHA,” says Len Linton, Chief Finance, Administration and Corp Development Officer at ViaSource Solutions, which has a significant WAHA presence in the United States. “To the extent that there is a call center infrastructure for agents to learn the soft skills, the consistency of power and internet, and a work ethic that lets individuals be self-motivated, there should be no reason it is not feasible [in the Caribbean].”
Some smaller Caribbean nations are meeting the infrastructure challenge head on. The island states of St.Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Saint Lucia have recently signed a contract with Digicel to build advanced Government Wide Area Networks (GWANs). By 2020, these GWANs will connect homes, schools, government offices, and businesses – potentially providing a real boost to WAHA opportunities, assuming they can get the word out.
“I think there are some stereotypes and underlying assumptions that impede the way a sales team would go after a client to take the risk, or to do a pilot,” says Littlejohns. “One of the biggest business challenges is confidence by the BPO provider.”
With training and a clearly-defined program specifically targeted to match local skills – including partnering with schools and universities – WAHA has plenty of room to grow in the Caribbean. The managerial class is available to lead such projects, and in the Spanish and English markets the labor is generally cheaper, with additional savings from moving away from bricks-and-mortar allowing for investments in higher quality candidates.
“I do think the Caribbean region is fit for WAHA” says Epstein from itelbpo. “As the countries in the region develop, and the workforce evolves, it will find its place, just as in developed countries.”