Time to put employees first and limit the dangers of spreading COVID-19 in contact centres

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-Founder of Content Guru, argues that now is the time to act to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in UK contact centres

The government’s latest announcement that employees who cannot work from home should now return to work is a concerning prospect for the contact centre industry. Even during the period with the most strict social distancing measures, a recent survey found that many non-essential contact centre employees were still going to work in an office on a daily basis, and facing risks to their health and wellbeing as a result.

The findings of the research, conducted among 2,750 UK contact centre workers by the University of Strathclyde since the outbreak began, are shocking. While 52 per cent of survey respondents had been classified as ‘emergency’ workers by their bosses, fewer than one-in-five felt their role was actually essential.

Further still, only a third of colleagues felt their employer had successfully implemented workplace distancing, with another three quarters saying that social distancing when moving around the building was either ‘hazardous’ or ‘very hazardous’.

As one of the largest employers in the UK, the contact centre industry needs to implement home working for staff, fast. With the bulk of the workforce still operating in potentially unsafe premises, the inevitable rise in contact centre employees contracting and spreading COVID-19 will put employee wellbeing at risk.

The risk facing contact centre employees

Contact centre workers face significantly challenging conditions and a high risk of transmission. Alongside insufficient social distancing, the workplace conditions they encounter include multi-occupation workstations and headsets that are re-used multiple times.

Participants in the University of Strathclyde survey revealed they have had to navigate narrow corridors and walkways in order to access ‘clean’ workstations. They also expressed concerns that there was no guarantee of safety from contracting coronavirus using spatial separation when hot-desking arrangements were still in force. Many were fearful at having to utilise shared public facilities such as toilets, and very few reported being given PPE or adequate quantities of hand sanitisers and other cleaning products.

On top of these practices, heating and ventilation systems used to circulate air and control the environment in large on-premise contact centres risk potentially spreading infection in large open plan office spaces.

The result is 78 per cent of contact centre workers now say they dread turning up for work because they fear catching COVID-19 at their workplace. This should be a stark wake-up call to the industry that it is time to fast track home working models that protect employees as a priority.

Contact centres under pressure

There is no doubt that contact centres are under significant strain, given the immediacy and speed of the current crisis. The impact of COVID-19 has seen call volumes jump significantly; 60 per cent of the workers who participated in the University of Strathclyde survey report having experienced increased call volumes from customers with COVID-19 related concerns, anxieties, and queries.

Meanwhile, contact centres have had to recalibrate service delivery in the face of a workforce depleted through illness and the need to self-isolate – placing considerable additional performance strain on remaining frontline workers.

With human resources stretched to the limit, contact centres cannot risk further employees contracting coronavirus at locations that have the potential to become major centres of

transmission.

Safeguarding people

Although contact centres around the globe have been caught out by government-imposed lockdown and social distancing measures, today’s cloud technologies can help turn firms quickly get set up for remote operations.

Cloud-based contact-centre-as-a-service (CCaaS) makes it fast and easy for contact centres to transition seamlessly from legacy on-site technologies and rapidly move the organisation to a distributed home working model. Providing the flexibility contact centres need to cater for agents working securely and compliantly from home, these cloud powered contact centre solutions can literally be deployed in a matter of days.

All that remains for contact centre management teams is to initiate new internal working procedures, outlining the responsibilities and chain of command that clarify how remote workers can continue to provide an excellent experience for customers.

Ruminating on the future

In the months and years ahead, establishing a flexible home working policy may prove pivotal for the success of the contact centre industry. COVID-19 has given contact centres the opportunity to stress test, at speed, new ways of working that will ultimately help to address the more traditional challenges of reducing agent churn and enhancing employee motivation. The capabilities offered by CCaaS models of the here-and-now will enable contact centre operators to sustain complete visibility of their remote agents’ wellbeing and workload, for the duration of the current crisis and beyond.