How to provide a 3-hour SLA with no employees on payroll

Ongoing service level agreements can put a small business in a tough spot when your clients are large corporations. What will you do when you sign multiple contracts that promise a 5-working day delivery time for each request, and all clients activate on the same day? What do you do with your employees when all is quiet on the Western Front?

An Estonian consultancy Võõras Sõber is tackling these issues with a flexible on-demand workforce. Client requests are quickly dispatched to a community of contractors and hourly employees that have the necessary training and qualifications to offer life coaching. And in their over three years of operation, they have never kept a client waiting past the 5-day deadline.

Võõras Sõber translates into “stranger friend” but they like to call it the friend you don’t know yet. Their service provides work stress prevention for corporate employees. They provide practical counselling sessions that are focused on problem-solving and can be booked anonymously.

Portrait of Ave-Gail Kaskla-Kuprys
Ave-Gail accepting awards from Estonian Employers’ Confederation and Estonian Social Enterprise Network.

Professional counselling without a waitlist

While healthcare in Estonia is mostly covered by employee insurance, the waiting lists for mental health can be as long as several months. Võõras Sõber guarantees for their cooperation partners employees a booking within 5 business days.

“We work on preventing the worst instead of waiting two months after the problem appears,” says Ave-Gail Kaskla-Kuprys, CEO of Võõras Sõber. “Once the employee is already reluctant to return to the workplace, it may be too late for prevention activities. But when that happens, we need to support the employees that return to the workplace after recovering from burnout.”

Ave-Gail has a MA degree in work and organizational psychology. She started the counselling format Võõras Sõber while writing her thesis, as one of her discoveries was a market need for soft counselling outside the medical system. “I developed a format that is focused on problem-solving, not hand-holding,” she says. “Based on our overly positive client feedback, it’s pretty awesome how little you actually need to help someone forward with their life.”

Problem-solving in a personal environment

Võõras Sõber consultants map out the employee’s current issues at home and/or workplace and apply a counselling format towards finding appropriate solutions. Like Ave-Gail describes: “It’s like chatting with a smart and empathetic friend, minus the personal bias and judging opinions.”

The goal for each session is to find a suitable plan for the individual. All consultants are able to recognize possible signs of most common mental issues and know when to suggest customers seek help from the health system. Everyone has either a university degree in psychology or extensive training as a mental health adviser. In addition, they get thorough training for the Võõras Sõber counseling format and test counsellings before starting as Võõras Sõber counsellors.

“Some of the consulting burdens can be taken off our overwhelmed medical system and mental health clinics. We are not providing therapy or treatment. But we can hear people out – and that’s a huge first step towards a better life,” says Ave-Gail.

For best accessibility, booking a session is very confidential. “Employees are given a passcode for booking, so they don’t have to approach their internal HR to request the service. The whole process is anonymous from signup to feedback. The employer will not have a way to find out which people in their staff have used the service,” says Ave-Gail.

On-demand community

Võõras Sõber has trained a lot of consultants over the years. At any given time, about 10 are actively accepting gigs, half of them are active daily. With the flexible approach, the company has easily grown from 4 sessions per month to nearly 80 sessions per month since 2018.

Some counsellors invoice their hours as contractors, some are hourly employees. The on-demand community model makes it possible to collaborate with people at different levels of availability.

“Some psychologists in our community pick up just a session or two each month. And some might occasionally do 30+ sessions per month,” Ave-Gail explains. “Whenever a request comes in, we dispatch it to our community, and the first consultant to pick up the request gets the job. They’re all verified and trained – and our priority is to book the session as fast as possible.”

The counselling sessions take place throughout the week to provide as many options as possible. One can request a session between 8 AM and 8 PM during the week, and 9 AM-4 PM during the weekends. “It’s important for us to book the sessions at a convenient time for the employees. When it’s slotted tight between the daily agenda, it’s hard to concentrate and focus,” explains Ave-Gail.

Võõras Sõber is using Zelos Team Management as job dispatch software to instantly notify the counsellors of new client bookings that need to be worked. The dispatch app is a critical part of keeping their 5-day deadlines, as client requests usually need to get confirmed within the same day.

“I have no idea how we could get the bookings confirmed at such a fast rate without the instant notifications,” says Ave-Gail. “We don’t have full-time staff for administration only, so sending e-mails and doing phone calls for each gig is definitely not an option for us.”

Scalability is key

Most of the sessions take place in the Võõras Sõber offices, but online options are also available. With the rise of COVID-19 Ave-Gail decided to start offering a split session online: “Instead of three hours on location, the chat takes place in two 1,5 hour Skype sessions to reduce screen fatigue.”

Võõras Sõber only charges the companies for actual hours booked. As Ave-Gail explains: “This kind of flexibility allows us to service companies big and small. It doesn’t matter what the company actually does, people are still people everywhere. Our client list has both private and public companies, as well as government organizations.”

At the moment Võõras Sõber services about 40 business customers that have up to 800 employees each. In most cases, only a fraction of the employees book the service, but Ave-Gail is convinced of their ability to scale if needed: “Currently we still have hundreds of hours office time available, should the demand peak. The COVID-19 crisis has brought along a lot of new problems in homes and offices, which will definitely affect our volume.”

Collage of images from the counseling office
Ave-Gail and her counseling office

A human-centric service for everyone

At the moment 85% of the Võõras Sõber sessions are conducted in Estonian, 10% in English and 5% in Russian. “It’s important for us to provide services in multiple languages, as the expatriate community is large in Estonian startups. They also often lack the social infrastructure of friends and family that locals have at hand,” says Ave-Gail. “Their problems may also be hard to relate for their colleagues – for ex,ample the long polar nights at our latitude are a bigger mental challenge for foreigners than locals.”

For those whose employers do not have a Võõras Sõber contract, individual sessions can be purchased also directly through the Stebby marketplace or directly via their booking system .