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In this episode, John translates his lessons from almost 20 years of remote work experience, 15 of which were spent in remote customer service. John was headhunted by Apple in 2006 to launch their remote support offering for the iPhone launch and now finds himself directing Shopify’s remote customer service division. Shopify being a fully remote company has enabled John to fully exercise his expertise in remote customer service excellence. Following are some common remote work myths dispelled by John and his top tips for support staff getting it right.
“What’s happened in the last 17 months, is not remote work at its best. In fact, it’s probably remote work at its worst. I would encourage people to not judge remote work based on the [pandemic].”
The big difference between how Shopify, a fully remote company, manages remote work compared to in-person companies simply surviving the pandemic is: intelligent, intentional design.
Remote work is different from in-person work but John showed us that the differences aren’t that extreme as long as you tailor your approach to working remotely. Using the same approach as in-person work will not allow you to access the benefits of remote work. As such, John dispelled some common myths about remote work.
Myth 1: Contact centres and offices are dead
“No, the office is not dead but there are massive structural changes that need to happen and are happening now.”
- Common estimates of the cost per head, per year, for an office seat are between $17-19,000. This is money saved by not having an office. Which is especially useful within support: a division with lots of people, where the budget is often shrinking year on year.
- Part of the savings should be spent on remote working tools and home office equipment but that is a fraction of the amount saved on office space. John expects that business will simply adapt. “The office, as it used to be, is dead”, meaning the time that working in an office is the only way to work is over. For example, becoming more cost-efficient in deciding where to have offices and for whom.
Myth 2: Collaboration & training needs to be in person
“Just because collaboration in the past was done in person does not necessarily mean that it must always happen in person”
- There are many hugely successful companies that started during the pandemic. Shopify is a fully remote company that has skyrocketed to global success. We can therefore see that collaboration and training can indeed be effective in a remote customer service environment.
- Much of why this myth exists is due to people not knowing how to collaborate over the internet. Their in-person habits do not necessarily lead them to success. The key is leveraging remote working tools and changing processes to suit remote work.
- Firstly, tools have vastly improved during covid due to higher demand from end-users. Slack, Google Drive, Zoom/Hangouts/Teams, Notion, Miro/MURAL/Figma together create a web of possible communication and record-keeping. Calls and training seminars can be recorded, the notes recorded in text along with a link to the video recording, then all this can be shared and repeated via Slack.
- For an example of tailoring support processes to remote work, take 1:1s between team leads and agents at Shopify.
“Communication is the single most important thing that [a team lead] does”.
- How does Shopify support this communication? Firstly, they keep the ratio of team leads to agents low (1 team lead : 9 agents). This enables the team leads to have more time for 1:1 meetings with agents and impromptu calls to support them.
- Secondly, they train team leads to look for behaviour changes in their employees. As it’s harder to gauge someone’s mood or well being while working remotely, behaviour changes are a key indicator as to how someone is doing. These changes can most easily be noticed in 1:1 communication, hence keeping the team lead to agent ratio low.
Myth 3: It’s not efficient to work remotely
- If someone’s 30 seconds late to a remote meeting, it’s common to send a message. In an office, it’s routine for people to be 5 minutes late. A lot of this is to do with travel time but there are many other time traps in an office. Not only this but remote work often invites better meeting practices. Remote workers often have to commit to recording meetings, keeping notes and sharing the next steps for the others that couldn’t attend.
- A common counter-argument to these benefits is ‘Zoom fatigue’. Part of this is simply the result of all of us being socially starved due to the pandemic. Some comes down to poorly managed meetings: 8-hours of meetings in-person is as tiring as 8-hours of meetings over Zoom.
- John advises condensing meetings as much as possible. Building in time to decompress before and after meetings, as well as, booking time to do focused work. By doing this, you often gain time working remotely. You’re able to have more meetings, do more work and have more time for breaks relative to working in an office.
“Bring the 1-hour meetings to 45 minutes. Bring the 30-minute meetings to 20. Plan time for breaks, preparing for calls and focused work. Be more draconian in your time planning”
- More than anything, be flexible and adapt your day to suit you as you’re working. Also, commit to working with an online calendar. Blocking time in your calendar and editing appointments directly there is a far faster way to communicate about time management to teammates.
John’s guide to remote meetings and communication
“You do not need a video call for everything; nor should you be doing everything in Slack. You have to have an element of variety and you have to be deeply intentional”
- For simple questions, requiring ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and an additional sentence or so, stick to text communication like Slack or email.
- If it requires a paragraph, consider booking an impromptu Zoom call. That’ll enable you to state your message in less than a minute and allow your colleagues to respond in equal time. Overall, saving time relative to typing it all out.
- If it involves deep conversation, escalate to a meeting of appropriate length. For decision making discussions, record the meeting and share the notes of the action points via text (Slack or email) for records and clear communication.