gig agent with phone laptop coffee

Vying for — and winning — an agent’s time, attention, and loyalty in a gig economy

The competition for talent no longer ends when a candidate signs an employment agreement, especially in a growing gig economy

More and more, contact center staff are taking ownership of structuring their workweeks to match their personal interests, goals, and obligations. In becoming their own boss, an empowered agent may have a day job and an evening or weekend job, may have a successful “side-hustle,” or may be cobbling together multiple “gigs” to create a full-time-like job.

Pew Research estimates that 16% of US adults are current or recent gig workers, while other analysts estimate that up to 35% of the US population is, or has been, involved in gig work. McKinsey posits that gig-weighted staffing models are leading to “an on-demand revolution in customer-experience operations.”

A mix of in-house and external talent with gig-style staffing models can infuse new energy and flexibility into many contact centers. Relying less on full-time roles can be advantageous for both workers and employers. However, when a gig worker has several companies demanding their time and attention, employers essentially compete for loyalty and engagement.

To make matters more challenging, an agent’s responsibilities are far from what they once were. Cognitive loads are increasing to levels that are especially inappropriate for gig work. Agents must remember hundreds of details. They are simultaneously listening, researching, writing, screen-toggling, problem solving, following procedures, and striving for targets during every interaction. They switch among channels, products, call types, and customers with increasingly complex issues.

Consider agents in the telecommunications space. NPS® is often low (relative to other industries), regardless of agent performance. Callers have high expectations and are stressed and emotive. In these environments, agents draw from their own emotional reserves to serve callers professionally, with empathy, day in, day out. Higher turnover results, as it is challenging for agents to feel they have actually helped someone. Answering the same tech questions repeatedly may not be intrinsically rewarding, so managers must invest more in agent retention. Layer in gig work and competition for an agent’s time and attention, and managers truly must look at the agent experience differently. Self-scheduling, cognitive contact center technologies, and applying tenets of organizational psychology may be good places to start.

Note: The definition of “gig” varies. For the purposes of this article, a gig worker broadly engages in multiple revenue-generating activities, including a mix of full-time, part-time, freelance, contract, side-hustle, and true on-demand “gig” opportunities offered, such as ridesharing services.

On-demand, smart scheduling

Mom and baby with tablet

In this labor market, a total rewards compensation package for agents must factor shift-scheduling empowerment. The good news is that agent-inclusive contact center scheduling applications already exist.

Offering a mix of traditional full-time hours, part-time hours, split shifts, micro-shifts, and 4/10 compressed workweeks — and giving agents the ability to select a schedule, pick up extra shifts, or swap with co-workers all in the palms of their hands — helps employees of all types balance the work they do with the life they want to live.

Consulting with agents and job candidates is a must for ensuring self-scheduling options are satisfying their interests. Agents should have the opportunity to share their work-hour opinions freely and without structure. While recruiters may inquire about availability, questions are often biased and binary in nature (e.g., Are you willing to work weekends?). Making assumptions about agent scheduling preferences does not lead to becoming an employer of choice. Once agent desires are known, flexible scheduling can be an organizational perk.

As there will inevitably be less desirable time slots to fill (e.g., overnights, holidays), agents need to understand when and how they can gain the ability to be among the first to choose the schedule that works for them. Clear policies on shift swapping, absenteeism, vacations, minimum and maximum hours, overtime, etc. should be documented, highly available, applied consistently, and reviewed periodically.

While building modular, mix-and-match scheduling flexibility may be time consuming for managers, it is critical for retention. One Harvard Business School study quantifies the cost of flexibility and freedom at 17% of an employee’s pay, so there’s no doubt that agent ownership over scheduling affects recruiting, retention, results, and the bottom line.

“Scheduling is a form of compensation — but a good schedule does not necessarily make an employee more motivated or satisfied in their job. It will, however, make them less dissatisfied. When inspiring the workforce to be reliable and loyal, smoothing out employee experience friction points that are inherent in contact center work is just as impactful as offering activities that increase job satisfaction.”

Cognitive contact center technologies

Young man with headset at computerFrom labor shortages to remote working environments to increasing customer expectations, the stakes are high for all contact center agents — gig workers or otherwise — to perform. Adopting the latest technologies can help to improve the agent experience by lightening the cognitive load and expediting the learning curve.

With support for multiple channels, real-time agent and team analytics, tools to quickly send information to customers, and detailed customer profiles, cognitive contact center technologies eliminate the need for an agent to switch among multiple applications to find and capture information. With a 360⁰-view of each customer, agents can access all queries, insights, and history — and gauge sentiment to respond accordingly.

Perhaps more important to gig agents are live-assist features to help formulate responses based on context-sensitive auto-lookups, smart automation to streamline the completion of tasks and forms, and co-browsing features to reveal root causes of customer issues faster. Built-in, wiki-type knowledgebases facilitate ongoing learning and can foster a sense of community. A modern cognitive contact center tool is critical to unify and gain the loyalty of a hybrid traditional and gig workforce while optimizing the customer experience.

“Cognitive contact center technologies are designed to support the agent experience as much as the customer experience and are, therefore, ideal for use in a gig economy.”

Training microbursts

Man in wheelchair with computer and headset

Contact center training is often highly structured, strictly scheduled, classroom- or virtual-classroom-based, and designed to be completed on consecutive days, over multiple weeks. This one-sided, company-oriented approach rarely works for gig staff.

Training, too, needs to be redesigned, condensed, and flexibly scheduled for a higher number of agents working shorter, hand-picked shifts. Because AI and automation does some of an agent’s heavy lifting, cognitive contact center technologies facilitate a switch to shorter training durations. Similarly, interactive microburst-style training delivered through self-led computer-based training, online simulations, recordings and videos, peer forums and agent communities, and on-demand mentoring can enable an agent to set the cadence for optimal performance and retention.

Conceptually, microburst-oriented training involves teaching an agent a particular skill in bite-sized chunks, letting them apply the skill briefly to reinforce learning, and then moving on to the next skill and reinforcement. This approach varies dramatically from traditional contact center training, which tends to deliver all training components at once, followed by one big nesting period. A microburst training model puts the agent more in control of the learning cadence and timing, and has a company doing more to work around the agent’s unique needs.

“Multimedia microburst training, delivered and applied in small blocks according to an agent’s preferred schedule — and enriched with always-available peer support — is more in line with gig workers’ be-your-own-boss philosophy.”

Two-factor theory of motivation

Happy and engaged agent with headset

Employees leave managers, not companies. When attempting to maximize the number of hours a gig agent dedicates to your organization, team leaders and managers become purveyors of the corporate value proposition. They have the ability to develop meaningful relationships with agents and to identify individual agent satisfiers — and dissatisfiers. Acting on these employee satisfiers and dissatisfiers can make all the difference.

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg theorized that there are two underlying elements of job satisfaction — motivators and hygiene factors:

  • Motivators, in line with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, relate to the intrinsic worth of a job and lead to a person’s self-actualization, enrichment, empowerment, and personal growth. Motivators drive agents to continually improve their performance, provide a sense of gratification, and entice them to stay at a job longer.
  • Hygiene factors — such as salary, schedule, vacation, and co-worker relationships — are extrinsic to the job and do not alone lead to job satisfaction, career development, or self-actualization. A wage increase, for example, does not lead to a more satisfied or motivated employee — it only reduces job dissatisfaction.

A healthy relationship among a manager, team leader, and an agent is the glue that binds. Managers working to ensure challenging, purposeful work, and team leaders working to identify the employee’s personal motivators and dissatisfiers can answer “what’s in it for me” and ensure whole-agent needs are met.

“Wage increases, modern technologies, and self-scheduling are unlikely to make an agent stay for the long term. However, if they are tied with a defined path to promotion, clear indications of work purpose, and the opportunity to truly help people, they may.”

Combining opportunities for self-actualization with fair compensation, helpful technologies, on-demand training, and flexible scheduling ensure the conditions are optimal for an agent to stay and make your organization an employer of choice in the gig economy.

Ross Duff

Ross Duff, Senior Vice President of Operations, HGS

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