Social Distancing, Shutdowns and the Impact of COVID-19 on Our Industry.
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The COVID-19 crisis is impacting the contact centre and BPO industry all around the world.
In the Philippines, the government’s shutdown of the island of Luzon (which includes Metro Manila) has resulted in many contact centres closing their doors to staff. In countries such as the UK, the US, India and South Korea, call centres have already reported cases of COVID-19 among staff and have been shut down. The mayor of Seoul in South Korea even stated that the call centre was the largest case of mass infections in the city.
Beyond the obvious health issues and the impact on our global healthcare systems, this crisis has brought about an unprecedented challenge for the contact centre and BPO industry, with potentially millions of office-based employees needing to transition to a Work-At-Home environment.
According to Serenova, an Austin Texas based provider of cloud-based contact centre software, approximately 90 percent of global organisations are currently using an on-premise solution for their contact centre. This means that most organisations have been left ill-equipped to manage the requirement for the rapid deployment of Work-At-Home solutions necessitated by the spread of COVID-19.
Some of the businesses which have been able to successfully deploy Work-At-Home programs have been the large Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) providers, such as Teleperformance, Concentrix and Tech Mahindra (TechM). This is primarily because they use cloud-based telephony and support systems, and also because many of them already have experience with running Work-At-Home environments as part of their “business as usual” operations. TechM, for example, has already transitioned over 10,000 on-site agents to home offices in response to COVID-19.
Cyndy Edwards, one of COPC Inc.’s Senior Consultants, has supported many Work-At-Home environments over the last ten years. She has identified some common themes which are shared by the best run Work-At-Home operations, specifically around communication and technology support.
“You have to ensure the management team has an exceptional communication strategy,” Edwards explains, “Agents, Team Leaders and Management all need to understand what is going on, and not just from a strategic level, but from an everyday operational level. Companies we saw with poor results from their Work-At-Home operations usually had less effective communication tools and didn’t prioritise communicating with staff”.
Scott Rohrer, Global Leader of Work-At-Home Business for TechM, agrees that communication is important. “All standard contact centre processes have been virtualised such as eLearning, virtual-side-by-side nesting, remote access, face-to-face coaching via video conferencing, virtual breakrooms, persistent SmartChat and town hall meetings. In our environments, Virtual Team Leaders also exist at a 25-1 ratio and they are responsible for building personal relationships with each of their remote teams.”
Edwards further explains that although it is obviously important to ensure the technology works seamlessly, it is equally important to ensure the IT team is resourced appropriately and has the tools and skills to be able to provide very quick turnaround for issues, to keep everyone up and running.
What sort of an environment do Work-At-Home agents need?
It is very important to ensure that the home environment for the agents is conducive to working long shifts. A proper desk, chair and the right technology are all mandatory, and we have found that noise can also be a big issue. The sound of doors slamming or a dog barking, or kids screaming can all impact the ability to work from home, so most companies’ requirements for a home office for call centre work include having a quiet, private workspace. Many companies even require that the agent’s workspace is in a separate room with a door and sometimes even that the door needs to have a lock on it.
Scott Rohrer expanded upon TechM’s approach stating, “Our Work-At-Home contact centre model is focused on simplicity and user-friendliness for both users and clients. We’ve optimised our solution to result in little to no disruption in the home agent work environment. Therefore, we allow home workers to use their own PC and existing high-speed internet connection. Automated testing on internet speeds and PC specs supports this requirement. Also, TechM has strict policies on workplace conditions such as working in a closed-door, home-office location and provides recommendations on ergonomic setup, etc.”
How quickly can a Work-At-Home solution be set up?
The technology components can be set up really quickly these days. The technology providers we have assessed can scale up a Work-At-Home solution for almost any environment within 48 hours. Ensuring the back-stage functions and supporting processes are working correctly can take a little longer, but COPC Inc.’s experience indicates that most organisations can have a viable, functioning Work-At-Home operation up and running within a few days.
Todd Gorsuch, CEO of Customer Science, a CX Consulting firm in Australia, also feels that Work-At-Home operations can be set up quickly, but he cautions that the speed of deployment is dependent upon leadership commitment and the level of operational preparation the business has already undertaken.
“If you want to set up the operations yourself, it can take a few days, but with external help I feel that the set-up time can be measured in hours”, explained Gorsuch. “The challenge is typically in having templated processes and policies available, having the technology ready, and having the talent available.”
“What we have found at Customer Science is that when your leadership is committed, you can rapidly deploy Work-At-Home approaches. We would advise companies to very quickly go through a checklist of items like headcount requirements, technology accessibility, workforce management capabilities, existing policy/processes, data security/privacy and change management so they cover all the enablers to working from home.”
Some of these implementations can be quite “manual” in the set-up phase. For example, one of our clients in the Philippines hired vans and trucks to be able to pick up and deliver hardware from their call centres to their staff to help them set-up their workspaces at home.
Another client in the USA (Sykes) spent the weekend distributing hardware to their staff and making sure that their software was working correctly. It was a long hard slog, but come the beginning of the work week, Sykes had managed to bring an extra 1,000 agents online as Work-At-Home agents, freeing up space from sites in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida, building up their business continuity capability and supporting social distancing in their workforce.
The obvious benefits of Work-At-Home agents are based around flexibility and business continuity. Scott Rohrer from TechM believes that the model supports rapid responses to both peaks and troughs in workload.
“Greater contact centre flexibility is a major benefit of the Work-At-Home model,” he says. “For example, by bringing home-based workers online quickly, we are able to better respond to changing demand on a daily basis, while it’s nearly impossible to expect site-based employees to commute back and forth to the site to improve efficiency. Additionally, employing remote agents allows TechM to be nimble and responsive in keeping the business going in the face of a crisis such as coronavirus.”
Access to information is very important.
Those working at home typically need more time and effort to get information from their co-workers or from their team leaders compared to when they are working in an office. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel difficult to a worker based at home.
One of the potential solutions to this problem is using a knowledge management system. Brad Shaw, the Managing Director and CEO of Livepro (an Australian based provider of knowledge management tools) states, “Work-At-Home agents must have access to a knowledge management system which makes it easy to provide feedback on the knowledge they need and the format they need it presented in. Managers of Work-At-Home agents need the analytics and customer insights that a great knowledge management system provides.”
At COPC Inc. we have found that in some environments the accuracy of information being provided by Work-At-Home agents is worse than their peers working in the physical call centre. Our research found that the Work-At-Home agents had less “informal” communication with support staff or each other, so they had to “guess” at answers to customer questions that they would have been able to get answers for if they weren’t isolated at home.
Brad Shaw also feels that gamification can help keep Work-At-Home agents involved in using the knowledge management tools correctly, making sure they give the right answers to customer questions.
Will the internet cope with surges in traffic if more people work from home?
Although internet connectivity can vary from country to country and from city to city, most ISPs are stating that their networks will cope with the increased traffic as millions of individuals self-isolate and begin to work from home.
In the UK, BT says it is confident its broadband network will cope even under the increased strain of extra people using broadband as they work from home, and in the USA, experts say that the core of the U.S. network is already over-provisioned and that it is more than capable of handling the surge in demand.
Italy’s internet saw a 30% spike in peak-hour traffic after the government introduced its isolation measures, but there was no early evidence of internet speeds slowing down.
Some countries, though, are feeling the pinch, with reported slowdowns already occurring in the Philippines. According to the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), the Luzon-wide lockdown has resulted in slowed internet speeds due to a surge in users.
India too, is suffering from slower internet speeds, with Karnataka’s IT/BT ministry already looking into complaints of an internet slowdown in India’s tech hub of Bengaluru.
Is Work-At-Home relevant in countries such as India and the Philippines?
With the lockdown in Manila, the Work-At-Home model in the Philippines has become a necessity and is no longer just being seen as an optional approach for managing operations.
COVID-19’s impact on businesses all over the world will definitely result in a squeeze on margins and that is where the Work-At-Home approach can also help businesses in these locations. The model is typically cheaper, a significant plus for call centre operators in India and the Philippines. Work-At-Home not only removes the cost of the physical contact centre, but Work-At-Home also reduces transportation costs that are typically borne by companies.
Problems with internet connectivity, though, might impact speech and video quality if each Work-At-Home agent does not have sufficient bandwidth, but government and telecommunications companies are working hard to ensure these issues are limited in scale and are short-term.
What about Latin America?
Some countries in Latin America have a number of legislative issues which have previously made Work-At-Home difficult for contact centres. According to Elizabeth Bernardini, the COO of Argentina based consulting firm Kenwin, there are restrictions in a number of industries.
“In the finance industry in Brazil, for example, it is not allowed by law to deliver customer service in a Work-At-Home environment. Something similar seems to be happening in Costa Rica too,” explains Bernadini. “There are also restrictions in some countries for sales operations. Sales reps are not allowed to have access to their client´s data during their call when working from home, making it difficult to complete the sale, so companies have to rely upon their on-site sales teams to close the sale.”
From a technology point of view, clients’ major concerns in Latin America typically relate to the stability of the systems, the integrity of the data, and the stability of the internet connections.
Bernadini goes on to explain, “Even though companies knew that this (Work-At-Home) was the path they should follow, many companies delayed systematically its implementation. They had concerns about control processes, Data Security, Technology requirements, etc., but now that the crisis is happening, these same companies are looking for support to set-up Work-At-Home operations very quickly”.
Work-At-Home call centres have long been touted as the future of the customer contact industry and many companies report increased productivity from their at home agents, but our findings are that these results are often skewed.
Scott Flewelling, Vice President of COPC Inc., has seen this many times. “If the Work-At-Home model is based on a selection of the bricks and mortar agents being transitioned over, then yes those people do perform better, but in my opinion it is because the option of working from home has traditionally been offered to the best agents.”
With the COVID-19 crisis driving the need for more Work-At-Home agents, companies can no longer afford to pick and choose who gets to work from home though. Almost every business needs to make sure they can continue to service their customers, and in many countries the only viable short-term measure is to bite the bullet and set up Work-At-Home operations.
“Many companies are confused and concerned about setting up their Work-At-Home call centres,” says Ian Aitchison, CEO Asia Pacific Region for COPC Inc. “They’ve never done it before and they’re not sure what the first steps to take are. Almost every region will suffer from a sharp U-shaped crisis, where social distancing measures mean that staff cannot attend their workplace. The bottom of the U-shape can be supported by Work-At-Home agents, and the good news is that consulting firms like ours, as well as outsourcing firms, technology firms and staffing firms, are all scrambling to be able to offer support and assistance to clients.”
We have never faced a challenge like this before, but with cloud-based systems being much more prevalent and improved internet connectivity in many parts of the world, we believe that our industry is well-placed to temporarily weather this storm.
Work-At-Home Quick-Start Support
If you need support in transitioning to a Work-At-Home environment, or if you are looking for advice and support in managing your Work-At-Home operations, then contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article’s authors would like to thank the following contributors:
Scott Rohrer, Global Leader, Work-At-Home Business, Tech Mahindra, email@example.com
Todd Gorsuch, CEO, Customer Science, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brad Shaw, CEO and MD, Livepro, email@example.com
Elizabeth Bernadini, COO, Kenwin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cyndy Edwards, Director, COPC Inc., email@example.com
Scott Flewelling, Vice President, COPC Inc., firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Aitchison, CEO Asia Pacific Region, COPC Inc., email@example.com