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Going Home: For Good?

Going Home: For Good?

/ Strategy, Remote Work, Operations
Going Home: For Good?

How COVID-19 has upended BC/DR and staffing strategies

In today’s business environment people matter. Customers rightly want the option of speaking to live agents. Automated self-service alone, even with sophisticated tools like artificial intelligence (AI)-driven chatbots, is not enough to enable superior loyalty-building and revenue-driving customer experiences.

That means having agents and their supervisors safely available, with access to applications and customer data, when disasters strike.

Consequently, contact centers have been devising, testing, and implementing business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans and procedures.

But few of them were ready for the havoc brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To illustrate, CustomerServ reported that less than one percent of the master service agreements and statements of work (MSA/SOWs) between organizations and business process outsourcers (BPOs) had any language around business interruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and kindred disasters.

However, the contracts covered other events, such as fires, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

“It wasn’t so much a lack of diligence as it was a lack of imagination,” said Nick Jiwa, founder and president.

Since the onslaught of the pandemic does he see this changing?

“We’re now starting to see BC/DR contract provisions as it relates to biological events, and vendors’ remediation plans and related contingencies arising from these events baked into the MSAs/SOWs,” said Jiwa.

How Healthcare Access Centers Helped During the Pandemic

Healthcare access centers are centralized contact centers that handle the appointment scheduling and other tasks that support access to providers and other services.

And, like a majority of contact centers, work from home (WFH) was the exception rather than the rule.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the healthcare access centers to shut down, all the barriers to WFH were swiftly eliminated, according to Kathleen Peterson, founder and chief vision officer, PowerHouse Consulting. The staff then went to work cancelling, rescheduling, and handling COVID-19 calls of all types.

Peterson pointed to a major academic medical center responsible for 11 hospitals where COVID-19 had shut down all elective services, including radiology. But when they resumed the appointment backlog was severe. Hospital radiology staff attempted to handle scheduling this backlog and booked a total of 1,100 appointments the first week.

Then the following week the medical center’s access center took over. The WFH agents scheduled 4,400 appointments. And they continued to handle all manner of programs as the healthcare system returned to pre-COVID demand.

“Healthcare access centers and their staff are the unsung healthcare COVID heroes,” said Peterson. “The word ‘pivot’ has been the most frequently used to describe what these operations were tasked with and for the most part elegantly handled.”

Change with COVID?

COVID-19 has no boundaries. The virus’s ability to mutate into variants, coupled with the resistance by many individuals to public health measures, including vaccinations, have forced what has unfortunately become a multi-year effort to reduce the spread and the effects of the deadly illness.

And experts warn that COVID-19 will not be the last such dangerous contagious virus to appear.

The lockdowns that were imposed to control the outbreak and prevent people from becoming ill and spreading the disease forced organizations to have their contact center staff to work from home (WFH).

Fortunately for customers, and organizations that heavily rely on customer service, WFH is not a new practice.

This method of working had been used as a staffing strategy on a limited but increasing scale since the late 1990s, such as for airline reservations, order taking, and tech support. And, more recently, for practically every purpose ranging from financial services and healthcare support to restaurant orders.

Serendipitously, WFH-enabling technologies and connectivity, notably secure cloud/hosted browser-based applications like for ACD routing, voice over IP, chat/video/web collaboration, and residential broadband have been developed, refined, and expanded over the years.

Cloud/hosted solutions provide the benefits of flexibility to rapidly scale, and they can be remotely administered. They are typically housed on servers inside secure, purpose-built and hardened data centers equipped with battery-powered uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and generators. These centers can also be connected with others located in separate climatic or geologic zones to permit redundancy and protection should a major disaster strike one of them.

Cloud/hosted ACDs also have the benefit of permitting supervisors to view and track what agents were doing regardless of where the agents are located.

Cloud/hosted ACDs also have the benefit of permitting supervisors to view and track what agents were doing regardless of where the agents are located.

The experience with WFH also gave rise to virtual interviewing, training, and coaching. It also enabled much greater flexibility in scheduling through using split shifts and micro shifts that were not as possible for bricks-and-mortar-located agents. A WFH agent needs a very short period of time to prepare to engage with customers, whereas one who has to work in a traditional contact center also has to factor in their travel time.

Together these tools and the knowledge gained from the experiences formed a virtuous loop of WFH improvement and success. As a result, according to Michele Rowan, president, Work From Home Alliance, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most American contact centers had about 20% of their agents working from home.

“The advantage we have in the contact center environment is that the model is mature, and we have terrific technology,” said Rowan. “When COVID hit, contact centers had to find computers for their staff and scale it and port people, but most of them knew what they had to do.”

Protecting the Contact Center

Not a few organizations will continue to have their contact center staff work in bricks-and-mortar facilities.

And in deciding where to locate these facilities they examine, weigh, and factor in the disaster risks, according to Susan Arledge, Executive Managing Director - Site Selection, ESRP.

Typically, each recommended area receives a ranking based on the historical likelihood of risks, such as hurricanes, flooding, tornados, earthquakes, likely fire areas, and potential freight train derailments.

“Very few locations for corporate HQs and contact centers will consider areas where the probability of disaster is high,” said Arledge. “They usually don’t make it past the first cut if history shows a likelihood of risk.”

So when building out a contact center, here are the factors and features that the Site Selection Group evaluates for and recommends, depending on the individual centers’ needs:

  • Dual fiber feeds from separate points of presence or POPs. Also feed the fiber into opposite sides of the building
  • Dual power from separate substations. This is ideal but is very difficult to find. But most data centers will have this level of redundancy
  • Backup generators if dual power connections are not available. But they are one of the most expensive items when building out a contact center. The size of the generator will vary based on the number of seats. For example, a 400kW-450 kW generator would be needed for a 400 seat-500 seat center. This will provide full redundancy for operating workstations, not just lights, for emergency use like a traditional office building

The Contact Center Experience

Contact center management relied on what PowerHouse Consulting founder and chief vision officer Kathleen Peterson called “controlled chaos” to plan, fund, and execute WFH programs.

“Multiple departments competed for many of the same resources and IT was buried with demand, including rerouting contacts, acquiring hardware, and software,” said Peterson. “Meanwhile, finance offices had to react quickly to cover costs of COVID disruption and training was charged with developing remote learning programs. The list really goes on and on.”

Some organizations were in such a panic to equip their staff to WFH that they made errors, like providing agents with laptops when the nature of their work required them to have dual 24-inch monitors.

At the same time, many larger organizations, such as financial services and healthcare, still had bricks-and-mortar on-premises-installed routing applications. But that did not stop them from quickly configuring the tools to enable WFH.

“I have more than one Cisco premise-based clients that had WFH set-ups in hours, not weeks,” said Peterson.

It is to the credit of contact center management and staff that customers were able to be served and agents and supervisors performed as well as they did during the pandemic.

“In many cases, this situation brought out the best in people and in organizations,” said Peterson. “Folks rolled up their sleeves and got the job done.”

Industry Impact

What is becoming clear since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit is that WFH has leapt in importance and criticality from being a peripheral practice to an invaluable mainstream BC/DR tool. One that organizations can now quickly turn to when the next disaster strikes, including for the more common calamities such as fires and severe weather.

That WFH is and can also be used for normal operations keeps it top of mind, and the tools, training, and experiences with it fresh.

“There seems to be less emphasis on business continuity factors in a post-COVID call center industry as companies are able to shift to WFH in most situations,” said King White, CEO, Site Selection Group. “A lot of companies now have a segment of their workforce working virtual as it offers much greater geographic diversification and less risks.”

There has also become a stronger synergy between cloud/hosted applications and WFH. For example, most BPOs have been having their agents WFH, according to CustomerServ’s Jiwa. They also now have their routing and other applications, along with data handling in the cloud.

“WFH is a de facto staffing requirement since the advent of COVID-19,” said Jiwa. “Anytime that staff is unable to work from physical call center locations for whatever reason, WFH should be made available as an option, although quite a few organizations don’t allow it primarily due to information security reasons. And the proliferation of smart cloud technologies has helped BPOs further de-risk from having on-premises applications and data.”

The pandemic-forced experience with WFH may also lead many contact centers to permanently adopt it. A survey conducted by NICE CXone on the impact of COVID-19 on contact centers found that 70% of worldwide contact centers expect to have agents WFH even after the outbreak.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly every company that operates a contact center has had to transition some, if not all, of their agents to a WFH environment,” said Laura Bassett, senior director, NICE CXone. “And the impact stretches beyond the initial need for business continuity.”

Preparing For Disasters

Business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans are only successful if the organizations have thoroughly thought them through and are ready and prepared to pivot as necessary. And different disasters may need a different response or plan.

(See this month's Inside View article for a deep and personal dive into protecting home-based staff)

Laura Bassett, senior director, NICE CXone, provides several common best practices from companies that have successful strategies in place:

  • Partner with a cloud contact center provider to design and review your plan. They likely have redundancy and continuity built into their platform to keep your business going
  • Assign a dedicated disaster recovery resource: preferably a team instead of just one person. This team should meet often and maintain or update the plan in response to changing business conditions
  • Train agents and supervisors on the BC/DR processes and systems as part of the onboarding process and provide frequent (quarterly) refreshers. The more knowledge workers that understand how the system responds in the wake of a disaster the better
  • Provide written instructions of procedures. Documentation is often overlooked, but there should be a central resource that anyone can refer to. A best practice is to maintain both physical and digital copies of these procedures; depending on the type of disaster one could be easily lost or destroyed
  • Get monthly system health checks customized to your solution to ensure everything works as specified
  • Fully test your internal plan once or twice a year e.g., evacuation, meeting places, communication. Undertake a quarterly readiness test for all employees if possible
  • Work with carriers to establish lead times of forwarding or re-pointing phone numbers

Lessons Learned

The experience with the COVID-19-driven WFH implementations have led to critical lessons with this method of work.

Contact centers need to be supported by robust technology infrastructure, with stacks to support WFH agents, said Peterson. While cloud-based routing engines ease the complexity of moving agents to their homes, and while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.

These agents require an integrated desktop user interface and technology-driven guided conversation tools. They have to have easy access to training materials, which means the training departments must be equipped with the technology to develop and deliver remote learning.

There also needs to be an intuitive (and remotely accessible) interface to workforce management, along with investment in time-off and shift swap technology.

“Many organizations find themselves with a WFH program that was designed to be temporary, so decisions must be made regarding its requirements, effectiveness, and long-term nature,” said Peterson. “Contact centers will do well to identify lessons learned during COVID and apply them to a more permanent and robust WFH model.”

“These matters must be considered in preparedness for every day,” she added. “That is what makes disasters less disastrous.”

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

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