On March 16, 2020, Montgomery County, Md. 311 Call Center Manager Katherine Johnson told her employees to pack up their computers and equipment to start working from home.
MC311 Customer Service Center is Montgomery County’s source for non-emergency government information and services.
As news of the COVID-19 virus began to spread, Johnson pulled her employees aside to talk with them about the possibility of teleworking for what would likely not be a matter of days or weeks, but months.
“I knew it was a matter of ‘when,’ not a matter of ‘if,’” she said.
The team at the 311 customer service operation in Montgomery County has been teleworking under the county executive’s directive since last year.
The move to teleworking included the transition of 38 customer service representatives and 12 management staff with the support of three information technology specialists.
“We made the switch seamlessly in one day,” MC311 Director Brian Roberts said.
Both Roberts and Johnson credit the successful transition to efforts made in 2014, when MC311 launched a smaller scale telework program to respond to situations such as inclement weather. The main shift involved switching software that is run on desktops to laptops.
“I believe we were one of the few departments that was really ready for this,” Johnson said.
Additionally, Johnson ensured teams rotated throughout different weeks working from home to address any technical or management issues with working remotely.
When the pandemic hit, she ensured the team was fully equipped with all technological requirements, hotspots and office supplies needed.
“We are essential personnel,” she said. “We definitely want to make sure that we are always available to our Montgomery County residents, and anyone who’s calling 311 for information.”
To aid customer service representatives, Johnson contacted a wellness program to hold sessions to help the teams cope with stress and anxiety.
“To have the residents in such distress— people lost their jobs, people didn’t have food, for them to have to hear that all day was very emotionally draining on them,” she said.
With many programs providing assistance to residents throughout the pandemic, Johnson said there were many high call volume days. The MC311 handled 19,000 calls in the two weeks leading up to the switch to remote work. The following two weeks after the transition saw 21,000 calls.
Despite the influx of callers, customer service representatives maintained an 84 percent customer satisfaction level throughout the pandemic with callers unaware they were fielding calls from their homes.
Roberts said one benefit to working remotely is the elimination of commuting time, which improved attendance.
“Schedule adherence is very important to our business because you want to make sure that as many people as possible are available to take calls during the day so that we minimize the amount of time a customer has to wait to get to an agent,” he said.
As of now, the MC311 team plans to continue teleworking.
“It’s hard pressed for me to see why we need to put 50 people in an open office area together, our managers and our agents combined, when the risk is that high and we’ve been operating so successfully remotely so I think this is the way we’re going to proceed for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Both Johnson and Roberts said the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on how counties conduct customer service operations.
“I think the remote operation for 311 is going to be around for a while,” Roberts added.