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  • COVID-19: A catalyst for change in the contact centre

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    By Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-Founder, Content Guru

    When COVID-19 caused mass lockdown across the UK, nearly every single organisation was required to send its employees home to work remotely, or face having to close business operations entirely. There is no escaping the monumental impact that COVID-19 is having and will continue to have on both individuals and businesses on a global scale.

    From grandparents using Zoom for the first time, to legacy-reliant organisations modernising in the cloud, there is a huge wave of ‘digital acceleration’ building towards a ‘new-normal’. We are now seeing efficient remote working across industries that previously thought it impossible, as well as the clear environmental benefits resulting from this. Work-life balance may be somewhat strange, but employees are now being trusted more openly by their employers to work from home in an environment that suits their needs.

    In light of this monumental shift to remote working and cloud-based technologies, the long-term effects of COVID-19 as a catalyst for change in all aspects of life will be profound, and one particularly strong instance of this can be found in the contact centre industry.

    COVID-19 in the Contact Centre

    The traditional contact centre environment – often characterised by its low-paid employees packed side-by-side into drab offices or warehouses under strict supervision – could be described as the mill of the modern age. While typically associated with a high employee churn rate, this environment is quite obviously a hotbed for spreading germs. The crowded spaces may make for unappealing working conditions during normal circumstances, but with the battle against COVID-19 firmly on the nation’s mind many contact centre agents now see their traditional working environment as a risky and dangerous place to be.

    Social distancing measures have been in place for almost two months now. It is therefore surprising – if not shocking – to learn that research over this period has revealed many non-essential contact centres are still requiring agents to work in their offices on a daily basis. Undertaken by the University of Strathclyde, the research suggests only a third of contact centres now have social distancing measures in place, and half are still working face-to-face. When you consider that the majority (two thirds) of contact centre employees have asked to work from home and yet just four per cent of those requests have been granted, it seems likely that this is an industry not only taking a lackadaisical towards the pandemic, but one that is similarly uninterested in the wellbeing of its employees.

    The dangers are real. More than 2,000 contact centre workers have answered the survey so far, reporting insufficient social distancing, multi-occupation workstations, poor sanitisation, and re-used headsets. On top of these poor practices, large on premise contact centres are potentially spreading germs through heating and ventilation systems in multiple open-plan offices. For an industry that employs around four per cent of the UK’s working population, these statistics paint a stark picture.

    The time to innovate is now

    It should be blatantly obvious that the contact centre of yesterday is not suitable for operation amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. However, looking beyond the pandemic, it is also suppressing the necessary evolution of the contact centre from a reactive centre of cost reduction, to a more proactive, value-driven engagement hub. Lifting these restrictions will provide the catalyst for the same digital acceleration we are now seeing across industries, while also empowering employees with the latest technologies, remote working capabilities, greater responsibilities, and more rewarding careers.

    The contact centre industry employs more than a million UK workers, and this typically conservative, on-premise industry has faced a mammoth task of pivoting operations to react quickly and flexibly to the largely unforeseen pandemic. With cloud-based contact centre technologies leading the charge, organisations that have acted quickly to deploy remote working capabilities are now demonstrating to the industry as a whole how they can provide an excellent engagement experience for their customers, even under extremely strained circumstances.

    Those organisations that have acted fast to move to a cloud-based technology platform are now breaking away from the pack. These are the architects of a revitalised industry, modernising in a post-pandemic world and rethinking how home agents can work in a liberated yet secure and supervised way – even in sensitive situations such as PCI-DSS-compliant card payments.

    Beyond the pandemic

    The influx of email notifications from service providers in all industries detailing a drop in contact centre service levels shows that many organisations still have some way to go. However, almost all will be taking action now and this will prove vital in the months and years ahead.

    While the ‘new normal’, in which all businesses must operate, is certainly very different to the previous business landscape, the key issues and challenges facing the contact centre are the same. For those comfortably operating in the cloud and supporting secure remote working capabilities, the traditional challenges of reducing agent churn, managing learning and development and ensuring employee wellbeing will be far easier to overcome. COVID-19 has led many contact centre operators into an enforced proof of concept that will deliver them significant operational benefits in the long term. Those that were once scared or unsure about how to make the leap are quickly realising the benefits of a modern, cloud-based contact centre, remote workforce and a more environmentally-friendly industry.

    Broken barriers

    The pandemic has broken down barriers to innovation that blocked progress in the contact centre industry for decades. Agents across the country are comfortably performing their jobs in the same secure, compliant way as they would have in a physical office. Where there may have been a lack of trust around home working, the capabilities of cloud contact centre technology, such as real-time screen reporting and Quality Management for supervisors, have enabled contact centre managers to maintain complete visibility over their remote agents’ wellbeing and workload. Never has the call to innovate in the contact centre been more clearly heard than now.

    This pandemic will change many things. For the contact centre, it will fundamentally alter the landscape forever – and for the better – marking the start of a more caring, efficient, agile and environmentally-responsible industry.

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