It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the world of work on its head.
There’s now more than eight million people in the UK working from home – including 95% of our UK-based Sigma Connected workforce.
But the transition from office to home working is not always a simple one for an employee more used to the daily banter, support, guidance and solutions on hand in the office, that we had all become used to.
Like all industries, here in the BPO sector we were thrown into the deep end with a new ‘norm’ of working introduced almost overnight, and we set about immediately finding solutions to the challenges that we found this presented.
Engagement with our staff – both those just starting out with us and the longstanding colleagues whose practices were changed beyond recognition – has been crucial in overcoming the challenges we have faced.
Ensuring the ongoing job satisfaction of our employees, making them feel just as much part of a team as they would in an office setting, and providing them with the skills and opportunities to develop and progress professionally, has also been key in improving recruitment and retention rates in the most difficult of circumstances.
Here in our latest Q&A, we sat down with Richard Furlong, our Director of Operational Delivery who has responsibility for all 1,850 of our homebased and office-based employees in the UK, to talk about how we have risen to the challenges to fully engage our workforce.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in engaging employees since Covid-19?
Richard responds: One of the major themes of the past two years has been the difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees. Because of Covid and people working from home, we have found that they don’t always feel the same sense of loyalty or connection to an organisation as they once had.
We found that when candidates go through the recruitment process we are often one of many companies they are applying to. They may even actually start working for us, but some days later leave as they have taken another job elsewhere.
So, with this in mind, we had to look at how we stand out from the crowd and how do we make ourselves more visible to those candidates, improve our engagement with them so that even if they do get another offer, that we’ve made a good impression on them and they want to stick with us.
We have also found that the competition from other companies offering very attractive working from home packages has also been an issue. While we have been able to recruit some fantastic candidates that we perhaps would not have been able to employ in the past due to this flexibility of home working, we are competing with lots of companies doing the same, some who may be able to offer London wages for the same job.
Q: What actions have you taken to counter these challenges?
Richard responds: We have looked at our engagement strategy with employees before they have even started their employment with us.
The old process was that they received a laptop in the post with some instructions and a ‘Welcome to Sigma’ pack. Feedback was that it didn’t really hit home who we were, our cultural values or how important it was for us that they had joined the company.
Now our new starters not only get a laptop delivered, but they also receive a goody bag and a video call with their manager. This ‘meet the manager’ is important to make sure they have got everything they need and can ask any questions before they start work. We then do another video call so they can meet the rest of the team.
These calls mean they can really get to know us, who we are and how we work, as well as the practical elements of how they get logged on to the system. We also send them the links to our learning platform, Sigma Discovery, which offers all employees the opportunity to develop, upskill or learn something totally new from the hundreds of courses available. These courses include business management, desk yoga through to learning a new language. Giving access to the platform ahead of their start day, is all about really starting that engagement right from the very beginning so they already feel an important part of the organisation.
Q: Has this approach of ‘pre-employment engagement’ made any difference to our recruitment and retention levels?
Richard responds: We are currently running a piece of work which we initially started recruiting for around this time last year and we really struggled with staff retention. There is a big lead time, approximately three weeks, between jobs being offered and employment starting, and previously, at least half of the people who had accepted offers with us left before they even started work.
We have just finished a second recruitment campaign since introducing all of these new engagement touch points during those three weeks before starting. Those new employees are now weeks into their training and not one person that was offered a job has left us. The feedback from them all has been that they have been made to feel a part of the team, a part of Sigma Connected and feel a real connection to the organisation. That’s a great place for us to be.
Q: What initiatives have we launched to ensure we maintain employee engagement, they feel valued and retention remains high?
Richard responds: Since Covid-19 and the increase in people working from home, we have moved to a number of digital channels of communication such as Teams and Slack, which have replaced face to face meetings and more traditional methods of contact such as email and phone calls.
One of the biggest challenges we found at the start was people struggling with IT issues, whether it be their wifi access or they were having problems accessing Sigma Connected systems. In the office they would have been able to go to the IT department and get it fixed straight away, but when they faced an issue at home they felt isolated and stressed because there was nobody there readily available to get the problem solved.
To solve this challenge, we launched an ‘Always On’ digital channel which is constantly monitored by IT experts during all of our UK operating hours from 8am to 8pm. This means workers can flag up any problems they are having and they will be picked up immediately. The feedback from employees has been excellent. They feel more connected and less isolated.
We also invested in new technology to allow managers to instantly see an advisor’s screen or listen in to their call if they flag up that they need assistance.
It can be really daunting for advisors taking live calls, especially when they have only just finished their training. Back in the office environment, people would be able to put their hands up and a team leader would be straight over to support them. This is all about recreating that level of support remotely, because that daunting feeling of taking your first live calls is still there, even if you are at home.
We have also introduced a ‘reduced span of control’ to ensure our newly trained employees are given the most support possible when they start their employment with us. To achieve this we’ve reduced the number of advisors to each manager by 50%. We see this first 90 days as crucial, as new employees move from training to live calls. We want to give them all the closest possible support we can and have invested in increasing our management team to do this.
The introduction of flexible working hours and patterns has been a big change to the way we and our teams operate, although this is still a work in progress. There are a number of employees who have really embraced the positives that working from home can bring and the way they can balance their work and home life. It allows them to pick children up from school, go to the cinema or gym and then pick up their shifts again in the afternoon. This flexibility is a huge game changer and really important to people and ensures we remain attractive as an employer.
Another initiative we are very proud of, which was brought in by our Health & Safety department, is the introduction of Mental Health First Aiders, who are all Sigma employee volunteers Back when people worked in the office full-time, employees who raised any issues could walk into their line managers office and have a chat. Today even with the hybrid way of working it’s still equally important people feel they can talk to someone in the same way even if they are working from home. We have a minimum of one Mental Health First Aider across all shifts on each operation so employees can raise any worries or concerns with them in private.
Q. What feedback have you received to these initiatives and have they had any impact on employee retention?
Richard responds: When we first moved to work from home we saw a lot of leavers in the early days, many of whom cited IT problems such as their own broadband or uncertainty on using the systems as being the biggest issue.
IT has really been a huge issue for us to overcome, as it has for so many others. It is obvious to see now how stressful it must be for someone sat at home on their own struggling to access the system and not being able to get through to anyone to help them.
Ensuring that employees can access near-instant support whenever they raise an issue has been crucial, while investing in the technology for managers to be able to share screens and calls for advisors when they need advice has really made them feel as though they are not alone. It is about recreating that office network of support, even if they working from home.
Our retention rates have improved as a result, and the teething issues we faced initially with people blaming IT problems for their decision to leave are no longer there.
We always encourage employee engagement throughout our operations, along with an annual satisfaction survey, and the initiatives we have introduced have been received incredibly positively by our workforce – again resulting in less people leaving.
The ongoing development of our Sigma Discovery Platform continues to be incredibly well received by all of the workforce, especially those who live on their own.
We also have our ‘Opportunity Knocks’ portal, which is easily accessed by all staff to showcase the jobs that are available and what criteria is needed. We are proud to have such an incredibly high promotion rate because of this initiative – with around 75% of our Operational roles being filled by internal promotions over the last 12 months.
Q: What are your plans for the continued employee engagement going forward?
Richard responds: We are working hard to fully optimise the flexible working patterns we offer employees to provide them with the best work / life balance. It has been a popular offering since working from home was introduced and we want to go further with this in the coming months.
Additionally evolving our online hub which will be a one-stop shop for access to all work-related information is crucial for 2022. Whether it be checking shifts times, reading up on the latest company news, checking back on this month’s targets, seeing what a colleague has been up to at the weekend or wanting to ‘shout out’ and recognise a colleague for their effort, our hub will be easy to use and accessible by all. It will create a community environment bringing everyone together to further boost engagement and promote the togetherness we aim to achieve.
We are also continually looking into the investments we make to our technology. We already have management platforms but we are looking at things such as the introduction of an app so workers could instantly check out their working shifts for the coming weeks. This helps our employees plan ahead.
It is all about finding ways to make the lives of our teams easier while they are working from home and ensuring they feel just as connected with the organisation as they would have been in the office
For further information or a wider discussion on how we engage with our staff, contact us below