This year the whole world saw a massive shift in not only the way people work, but also where they work in response to COVID-19.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that during the week prior to COVID-19’s arrival, just 8% of American employees worked at least one day from home, with an even lower 2.5% doing so full-time. By the first week of April, however, BLS estimates that 31% of employed Americans had switched to working from home. Zoom’s daily meeting participants jumped from 10 million people in late 2019 to 200 million people by March, 2020.
By mid-summer, nearly twice as many people were working from home than commuting to work. With such a quick transition to work-at-home (WAH) operations, even the most well-prepared and flexible organizations struggled to maintain business continuity while also supporting their employees’ professional and wellness needs. This included contact centers that already had WAH policies, and contingents of remote workforces, already in place.
It’s been widely noted that workforce expectations and habits will be permanently changed in many ways as a result of the pandemic. In fact, 74% of organizations plan to continue shifting toward more remote work even after COVID-19 no longer makes it necessary to social distance. So, how can contact centers apply key lessons from the pandemic and continue to thrive?
Here are 3 best practices for contact centers operating in today’s world:
1. Expand your business continuity plans (BCP), and take a systemic approach.
Contact centers should expand their existing BCPs to account for many of the new challenges and situations encountered during the pandemic — and when shifts need to occur, don’t make changes via scattershot. Look at your operations as a whole, and take a systemic approach to implementation.
While contact centers had BCPs in place before the pandemic struck, some found that their contingency plans didn’t cover all of the unique challenges caused by a global health crisis. They had planned for emergency situations such as a natural disasters or damaged buildings, which might cause local or regional power outages — but not thwart entire operations for days. With those types of events in mind, many contingency plans relied on the ability to move entire contact centers to a different geographic location. But when the world was dealing with the same threat, no such moves could take place.
Successful contact centers responded to these unique challenges through a systemic, cross-functional approach. To foster optimal collaboration, they established crisis management teams comprised of people from various functions such as HR, legal, IT, finance, security, and representatives from global delivery centers around the world. This team then interacted regularly, even day-to-day, to make decisions and solve problems as they arose. In this way, they could systematically coordinate plans to keep their operations running while also maintaining employee safety and health during pandemic conditions.
2. (Over) Educate, communicate and care for your front line associates.
Employee education, communication and wellness have always been important, but the pandemic brought all of these things under a magnifying glass like never before. The bottom line is that over-educating, over-communicating, and over-empathizing (if that’s possible) with those on the front line is the quickest pathway to both satisfied customers and a healthy and productive workforce.
While many contact center operators already had experience managing remote workforces, they still faced uncharted territory. COVID-19 safety measures introduced new employee wellness challenges, and even those employees who had already been working from home grappled with new physical, financial and family concerns — often all at once. In addition to these personal challenges, many struggled to maintain a semblance of normalcy while suddenly sharing their workspace with family members and roommates jettisoned from work or school.
Successful contact centers adjusted by keeping the lines of communication open and providing timely, associate training. They made sure that associates had each clients’ most updated policies, information and protocols — and that any client changes were communicated to associates in a clear and timely manner. Contact center associates also required new protocols that empowered them to provide a consistent customer experience in seemingly everchanging working conditions. Sometimes this required significant changes to business practices, for example switching channels from voice to digital to accommodate increases in volumes and agents working from home.
Conduent saw its role from the ‘get-go’ as being a consultant to its clients over and above its role as a service provider. Clients teamed up with Conduent appreciating that this was a global issue to be dealt with in partnership. In some cases, Contact center leaders also put important wellness measures in place such as office sanitation protocols, social distancing policies and temperature checks at brick-and-mortar locations. They also provided refreshed training on HR policies and business workflows, while ensuring employees were aware of helpful resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).
3. Collaborate with clients on every decision — and be flexible.
A contact center operator always works in lockstep with its clients, but this time of crisis illuminated the importance of collaboration and flexibility to new approaches. It’s a best practice that enables both quick decisions and the development of strategic long-term plans, all of which support enhanced customer experiences overall.
In many industries, contact center clients have SLAs that restrict associates from working anywhere but their designated location, often due to compliance or IT requirements. So, these locations couldn’t simply send their employees home with a laptop, related software and a VPN. They either needed client flexibility “beyond the SLA,” or a plan that allowed for a socially-distant, on-premises working environment.
Successful contact center operators and their clients tackled these challenges head on with a tremendous amount of collaboration and flexibility. Whether that meant rotating staff in smaller shifts at brick-and-mortar facilities to comply with social distancing requirements or putting custom security protocols in place that allowed for greater work at home options — success in all cases was precipitated by frequent conversations, collaborative meetings, and flexibility from all involved: contact center operators, associates and clients.
Looking toward the future
Through their tenacity, collaboration, and flexibility, contact centers and their clients have not only survived the challenges of a global pandemic, but also discovered important areas of focus for building their future success. No matter what comes next, one thing is clear: contact center models have been forever transformed as a result of the crisis. And the ability to continue evolving business practices and operations will be essential to growth in the months and years ahead.