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Five years ago, James Geeslin never imagined he would develop strategies for his bank’s hybrid call centers, where some customer service staff work from home and others work in a bank office.

“A few years ago, hybrid centers weren’t even on the menu,” says Geeslin, vice president and director of consumer banking in Waco, Texas. Extraco Banks. “Everyone worked in defined places. But the pandemic has made us rethink our strategy.

Today, around 90% of Extraco Banks’ customer service staff work remotely at least some of the time and, pandemic or no pandemic, Geeslin doesn’t expect that number to change drastically anytime soon.

The situation is not much different at the credit union BCUs in Vernon Hills, Illinois. There, only 10% of customer service staff are fully remote, but the majority of staff work at least one day a week from home, explains Keith ParrisSenior Director of Call Center Operations and Technology at BCU.

But having customer service representatives spread all over the place can create challenges. Employees cannot seek advice from their colleagues sitting next to them when they are confused. Often clients don’t want dogs barking or babies crying in the background when discussing serious business. Supervising and training remote employees can be difficult, and there are security issues to address.

“Our biggest challenge is commitment. When employees do not work face to face, there can be a loss of energy. We have to try to find ways to foster employee interaction,” says BCU’s Parris.

Christina McAllistersenior analyst for Cambridge, Mass. Forrester Research Inc.., notes that contact centers have a high attrition rate, which means there is a need to onboard and train a large number of employees. It can be more difficult when these employees are learning from home and don’t have supervisors and co-workers nearby to help them learn the ropes.

Security can be an issue if a bank does not have full control over what happens in an employee’s home. “You can install cameras to monitor employees, but there are big privacy issues if you use cameras that film people’s homes,” McAllister says.

But banks are finding ways to address these challenges. Extraco has strict rules for the domestic environment. There can be no disturbing noise and employees cannot take care of children when working at home. Video cashiers use background scenes, so customers aren’t watching at home, and there are dress codes for those who appear on screen.

BCU has rules to help with training. New recruits must spend at least two months fully on duty. Once the training is complete, they can move to one day a week at home. Second, the time that can be spent working from home increases with the seniority of the employee as well as their performance standards.

To manage security, Extraco asks its IT staff to verify the systems used at home. Even from home, service workers must use the bank’s Internet service and the bank’s hardware and software. And employees are not allowed to print bank-related documents at home.

As part of security, McAllister suggests that banks limit the information that remote representatives have access to. “The safest thing is not to give them full access to customer information,” she says. “Just give what is needed to accomplish the task.”

Even with these challenges, some banks find that hybrid models are more effective and allow them to attract better candidates. “Our employees tell us that they are happier and have a better quality of life,” says Geeslin. “And we’ve seen efficiency improvements as reps serve more customers than before.”

Benefits for employees include greater job satisfaction, time savings in commuting and greater flexibility in working hours, says Geeslin. And Extraco found it could attract better candidates by offering the option to work from home. “It gives us more candidates to choose from for hiring.”

Parris agrees that the flexibility of working from home can be a big plus for hiring and can also reduce attrition. “For some employees, flexibility is its own motto. There are people who will take a slightly lower salary if they can work remotely.

Lauri Giesen is a BAI Contributing Writer.

Find valuable insights for banks and credit unions as they adapt their customer service strategy across ever-changing channels in BAI’s Executive Report, “Changing Banks’ Customer Service Priorities”