Do Virtual Teams Need to Work Together in a Call Center?
Bringing Teams Back to Call Centers vs. Continuing Remote Work Arrangements
As COVID-19 case counts drop nationwide, pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotech companies—like many other industries—are considering whether to reopen the call centers that once housed inbound and outbound teams. These virtual teams communicate with patients and health care providers over the phone and through internet-based tools. For the purposes of this paper, we are using the following team definitions:
Inbound teams (or “reactive” teams) include customer service representatives and patient services teams trained to answer questions via phone, email, or chat about topics such as side effects, insurance reimbursement, medication access, and whatever else patients or providers need.
Outbound sales teams (or “proactive” teams) reach out to providers’ offices, health systems, academic centers, and key opinion leaders (KOLs) via phone calls as well as other forms of digital communication. Their goal is not only to raise awareness of specific therapies, medical devices, and other products, but also to educate health care providers about these products’ clinical value and the benefits to their patients and practices.
Whether companies have their own call centers or outsource them to a contract sales organization, many are grappling with whether to continue the decentralized work-from-home arrangements made necessary by the pandemic or instead move back to centralizing their teams in a call center. Teams have grown accustomed to working from home and have adapted to their remote setups. After investing the time and resources in the technology that allowed this arrangement to work, companies are wondering whether they need to bring their teams back into call centers.
Certainly, there are pros and cons to each approach, so companies need to consider what works best for them, their culture, and management style. Here are what we have witnessed as some of the advantages to each arrangement.
YES, teams need to be in a call center.
There are certainly advantages to having team members housed together in a dedicated call center.
Building a strong culture and teamwork. When team members have in-person exposure to leadership and one another, this lends itself to team building and sharing best practices. Team members have opportunities for direct guidance from managers, more experienced colleagues, and colleagues in other areas, and they see pathways for advancement in their careers. The term “water-cooler talk” may be something of a cliché, but it speaks to the relationships that form when co-workers can have meals or coffee together — and these strengthen the team as a whole. If any conflicts or differences of opinion arise, these are easier to resolve in person.
Real-time monitoring, management, and coaching. In a call center, it is easy for managers to pull up a chair and put on a headset to listen in on calls. Every company has its own requirements for quality monitoring on inbound and outbound calls, and it’s simpler for managers to meet these requirements in a call center. When team members work remotely, call monitoring and feedback take more planning and coordination.
Sharing best practices immediately. When new information or new processes need to be shared, this can happen immediately in a call center, without having to set up virtual meetings. Also, the back-and-forth of a team huddle tends to be more efficient because team members can ask for clarification right away. If individual team members have questions over the course of a workday, they can consult with each other and their managers directly. Leaders have more information about how these practices are being implemented and can see where there are coaching opportunities.
Greater efficiency and productivity. Some people tend to be more productive when they spend time in an office environment rather than at home. They may be more accountable for their progress when working in a call center, and team leaders benefit from seeing what is happening with teams on a day-to-day basis.
Noise control and tech support. Whether inbound teams are taking calls from patients and caregivers, or outbound teams are reaching out to key customers, they need a quiet space free from distractions—which can sometimes be difficult to achieve at home. If the Wi-Fi goes out or they have problems with their computer or headset, there may be a delay in getting help. This doesn’t happen when they are working in a call center with a dedicated IT team ready to assist.
Client connectedness. Understandably, pharmaceutical and biotech companies that hire contract sales organizations want the opportunity to sit side-by-side with the teams to observe strategies in action, offer feedback, and connect one-on-one. This is easier to do when teams are housed in a call center.
Confidentiality. For patient services teams in particular, keeping patient information confidential is of utmost importance due to HIPAA regulations. This can be difficult to do if they are working from home within earshot of family members or housemates. There is an argument to be made for housing team members in a call center when they are dealing directly with patients and handling sensitive information.
NO, teams do not need to be in a call center.
As long as team members have a quiet, private home office environment and are set up with the right equipment and technology, there are key advantages to this approach.
Greater appeal to today’s workforce. As a result of the pandemic, many staff members have grown accustomed to work-from-home arrangements—and studies suggest that a majority of them are not ready to give that up. Requiring teams to work on site at a call center could hurt companies that are looking to hire to best employees. The past few years have shown that team members appreciate being trusted to fulfill their responsibilities as they see fit. They may prefer a results-oriented culture to a workplace that requires on-site hours.
Ability to use technology with intention. Remote work during the pandemic showed that it is possible to build a strong team culture and foster collaboration using video-based calls and other online tools. People have become quite comfortable with this way of working, and some staff members prefer this to in-person meetings. For managers, it sometimes can be more efficient to gather a team online rather than in person, as people can participate from any location.
Access to a wider pool of talent. If people can work from anywhere, companies are no longer limited to hiring people who live within driving distance of an established call center. It can be easier to find the best person for a specific role if geographic location is no longer a factor.
Better understanding of the market by team members. When representatives can live in the geographic area they serve, rather than living close to a call center, they have a better working knowledge of the local healthcare landscape. In addition to making connections with healthcare providers, they also can meet with field representatives who serve the area—a great benefit to everyone involved. Embedding teams in the local market may be more effective than requiring them to work in a set location.
Elimination of background noise and distractions. A call center is often filled with background noise from colleagues (talking, coughing, etc.). If team members have a quiet home office away from household bustle, this can be more conducive to better attention and higher productivity.
Ease of getting to work. When team members don’t have to commute to a call center, it is easier for them to start work on time. Inclement weather is no longer an issue because they have everything they need at home to put in a full work day. Minor illnesses or childcare emergencies no longer have to mean a full missed day of work.
Employee retention and morale. People find it easier to balance their work life and home life when they are able to work remotely. Obligations that might force them to take a half day or full day off from a call center shift can often be handled more seamlessly within a remote workday. Many employees are happier and more productive when they are not forced to choose between work and home responsibilities—and this can reduce the costs of frequent turnover.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Based on what Amplity Health has experienced over the past two years, we believe that either a call center or home-based arrangement can work well—or even a hybrid model that represents some combination of in-person and remote work. We have not seen any impact on performance since all our teams started working remotely in March 2020.
Amplity Health can support our clients either way, and we can help them assess the upsides and downsides of each arrangement and make the decision that suits their needs and culture. Our Right First Time program ensures that we agree on deliverables and timelines up front, and that we have a specific set of metrics in place to ensure our inbound and outbound teams are on track—regardless of whether or not they are in a call center.
In our view, what’s most important is staying focused on the qualities that make for a strong team: efficiency and productivity; camaraderie, support, and empathy; and connections and transparency with client leaders. These translate into the best possible service and results for our clients. With outbound teams, we also are true believers in the total office call: forging relationships not just with the prescriber but with the entire staff at an office. You can read more about that here.