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Combating the spread of Covid-19 in UK contact centres

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/lenetstan)

UK Government advice continues to be that all employees should work from home if they can carry out their job remotely, to limit the further spread of Covid-19. But, although stringent social distancing measures are still enforced, a recent survey has revealed that many non-essential contact centres still have employees working in their offices every day. It’s a picture that could be about to get more bleak as the terms of restrictions become less and less clear-cut.

The research has been conducted since the outbreak began across 2,750 UK contact centre workers by the University of Strathclyde, and it reveals stats that make for a startling wake-up call. Despite the fact that 52 per cent of surveyed respondents had been classified as ‘emergency’ workers by their bosses, fewer than one-in-five really felt their role was in fact ‘essential’.

Plus, and perhaps more startlingly, just one third of those surveyed felt their workplace and employer had successfully implemented distancing in the contact centre, and a further three-quarters stated that social distancing when moving around the building was either ‘hazardous’ or ‘very hazardous’. Given the large volume of people that occupy traditional contact centre environments, this depicts a worrying image of germ-riddled and unsafe working environments for a huge chunk of the UK’s workforce.

The contact centre industry is one of the largest in the UK, employing more than 4 per cent of the nation’s working population. As such, it has a mammoth task of needing to implement home working for employees quickly. With the majority of the contact centre workforce still operating inside of premises that are potentially very unsafe, the inevitable spike in employees contracting and spreading Covid-19 will put wellbeing and customer service at risk.

The adverse conditions facing contact centre agents

The very immediate risk of disease transmission facing contact centre workers is significant and non-debatable. Running parallel with insufficient social distancing are issues caused by cost-cutting, including shared headsets passed between multiple agents and multi-occupation workstations designed for hot-desking.

The respondents of the survey run by the University of Strathclyde state having to navigate narrow walkways and corridors to get to ‘clean’ workstations, and they expressed worries that the separation spatially was by no means a promise of safety from contracting coronavirus, especially when hot-desking arrangements remained in place. Many of the survey participants cited that they were fearful about needing to use shared facilities like toilets, and very few reported being given PPE or adequate quantities of hand sanitisers and other cleaning products.

As well as the lack of thorough precautions, large on-premise contact centres also risk spreading infection via the ventilation and heating systems used to circulate air and control the environment of their expansive open-plan office spaces.

The survey also revealed that 78 per cent of contact centre workers dread even coming into work because they are scared of catching Covid-19 in their workplace. Surely, it is high time that this legacy-latent industry fast tracks its home working business models to not only ensure operational continuity for the organisation and its customers, but to protect employees.

Feeling the pressures in the contact centre

The shock of the current crisis taking hold on the world, and how quickly the situation has snowballed in the last few months, has put contact centres under unequivocal and significant strain. Covid-19 has created an impact that has seen call volumes jump significantly; 60 per cent of the workers who participated in the University of Strathclyde survey report having seen increased call volumes from customers with Covid-19 related concerns, anxieties, and queries.

Contact centres have meanwhile had to recalibrate service delivery in the light of the new challenge of a workforce depleted because of increased illness or the need to self-isolate – this means considerable additional performance strain is placed on the remaining frontline employees.

Human resources are stretched to the absolute limit, and because of this contact centres cannot afford to risk further employees contracting Covid-19 inside busy office locations that have the potential to become significant epicentres of disease transmission.

Protecting operational continuity and employees

Government-imposed lockdown and social distancing measures have caught out many contact centres across the world. It is a scenario increasingly made worse by the fact that many organisations are not prepared or set up to properly support remote operations.

However, today’s cloud communication technologies enable a fast and easy transition for contact centres, helping them seamlessly migrate from legacy on-site technologies and quickly, if not instantly, into a distributed remote 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.

The current public health crisis created an unprecedented opportunity for UK contact centres to accelerate in their digital transformation efforts to enable a proper evolution of their existing operations into value-driven customer engagement hubs.

Contact centre management teams must now also implement new internal working procedures that outline the responsibilities and clear guidelines on how remote workers may continue to provide an excellent experience for customers, even amidst a pandemic.

The shape of the new-normal

Ushering in a new age of truly flexible ‘at home’ working policies for contact centre employees will prove pivotal for the industry in the coming months and years. For contact centres in the UK, Covid-19 has provided them with a chance to stress test, at speed, new ways of working that will ultimately help to address the more traditional challenges of minimising agent churn and improving employee motivation – all while ensuring employee wellbeing during this pandemic.

If there is any certainty, it is that the capabilities on offer from today’s cloud-based contact centre platforms are enabling the seamless initiation of a more flexible industry that will be able to achieve complete visibility of their remote agents’ workload and, more importantly, wellbeing.

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO, Content Guru