CBC News Spotlight: VoIP At Work

Five nights a week at around 10:30, customer service representative Cheryl Murray logs into her home computer to start her work shift for AnswerPlus, a contact-centre (call centre) service based in Hamilton. Last spring, Murray’s employer set her up with voice over IP, or VoIP, at home so that she can connect with the office as if she were occupying a seat right in the building.

Were it not for VoIP, Murray would have had to quit work altogether and AnswerPlus would have lost a highly valued and dedicated employee. Having the opportunity to do her job from home has been a big boost for Murray, who has been battling health challenges since being diagnosed with cancer in 2001.

Despite her physical limitations, putting in a 40-hour workweek has done wonders for her emotional well being, she says.

“I tried to go into work, but had trouble getting around,” she said. “I still wanted to do my job and I didn’t want to go on disability. [With VoIP at home], it’s just like being at the office. All I have to do is dial in, log in to the computer, and I’m ready to start.”

“We have such a great group of people,” said Dave Kenyon, manager of technology for AnswerPlus. “In the past we lost those people” along with that valuable experience and training. With VoIP, we don’t have to.”

The company has now set up at-home VoIP services for half a dozen staff members who would otherwise have had to resign because of moves or family circumstances. The remote worker just needs a regular telephone line, a high-speed connection and a computer to connect to the contact centre system, Kenyon says.

“Everyone shares the same data and network. No information travels outside our operations. And it’s all seamless. No one calling in would ever know whether they were talking to someone at a call centre seat or at home,” he said.

Growing industry

The ability to hang on to skilled employees is a godsend in an industry where talent is scarce and turnover is typically high. Call centres in Canada have been growing by leaps and bounds. According to the Grimsby, Ont.-based Canadian Call Management Association, there were just over 4,000 contact centres in Canada in 1995. By 2000, the number had swollen to more than 13,400.

Linda Osip, the association’s executive director says: “I’m guessing we’re close to 30,000 centres today.

The competition among employers to fill the growing number of call-centre vacancies is brutal. Add to that an annual employee turnover of 25 to 35 per cent, making the average tenure for an employee less than a year, and the cost of hiring and training new employees grows exponentially.

Osip estimates that it costs a minimum of $2,000 to train an employee for “scripted” calling services such as telemarketing surveys. “If their job requires multi-tasking and more complicated services, training costs could be as high as $10,000 per employee,” she added.

VoIP is starting to play a big role in helping companies retain trained staff, she said.

“For one thing, it’s a very economic way to deploy remote agents. Secondly, it cuts down on telecommunications costs, which represent the second biggest expense in our industry. Three, it opens new markets in other cities. For example, one centre in Drayton Valley, Alta., that had trouble finding local staff set up eight seats in Brantford, Ont., because there were people to hire there.”

Osip also sees VoIP as a “wonderful, wonderful opportunity” for companies to reach new categories of employees, such as young mothers, workers with disabilities or people living in remote regions.

That’s certainly a factor in Vancouver-based Panago Pizza Inc.’s newest VoIP initiatives. The rapidly expanding company already has two physical contact centres up and running on VoIP and is now looking to extend its reach to remote workers.

“Our chain is growing so quickly, we’re at the point where we ask ourselves whether we look at building more brick and mortar sites” and all the associated capital costs ” or do we go to a remote-agent model,” says Amyn Somani, vice-president of corporate services.

Given the growing competition among western Canadian businesses to attract employees, going with remote agents definitely holds appeal, he adds. “We can easily access labour pools outside our current geography without having to invest in real estate.”

At the moment, Panago is planning a pilot in which it will offer some of its top agents the opportunity to work from home, Somani said: “When that’s complete, we could expand to upwards of 100 virtual seats across Canada.”

It’s not just a cost-cutting and recruitment tool, Somani says. It’s also about creating an appealing and flexible work environment for staff.

“We can help people avoid long commutes, eliminate transit and meal costs, and let them work flex hours if they need to,” he said. “If we have someone with family responsibilities who is only available in certain pockets of the day, we can satisfy that. It also lets us keep people if they have to move.”

AnswerPlus’s Kenyon agreed that having another way to keep dedicated workers such as Cheryl Murray on the payroll is the biggest benefit for companies. Accommodating employees’ needs works wonders: AnswerPlus’s average employee tenure is an unheard of nine years versus an industry average of nine months. “We do everything we can to keep them working for us rather than losing them,” Kenyon said.

September 24, 2007
By Denise Deveau, CBC News