A flexible, distributed workforce. The ‘new normal’ for contact centres

Emma Frame 7th May 2020

A switch to a more distributed and flexible way of working has been long underway. The coronavirus pandemic will accelerate these changes and change the traditional contact centre model for ever.

We’ve been in the midst of a generational shift in workplace culture since Gen Z and millennials began to integrate into the workforce. Today’s younger generation want more flexibility, they don’t want to work 9-5 and are instead increasingly opting to work flexible hours or choose freelance or gig work to fit around their lifestyles.

Changing attitudes, climate change and ever-improving network capabilities has resulted in the number of people working from home increase rapidly, with numbers doubling between 2008 and 2018 according to the ONS. The benefits are palpable for employers and employees alike; reduced office costs, increased staff retention, environmental benefits, higher morale and access to a wider talent pool.

And these changes are trending in contact centres as well. Many companies have moved away from the traditional contact centre model where agents, hooked up to a legacy phone system, are collocated in large facilities, in favour of a more distributed, flexible workforce. Some are offering remote working to reduce property costs and to appeal to a wider talent pool. Others are exploring how they can take advantage of the gig economy to strip out fixed labour costs and respond seamlessly to fluctuating demands.

The coronavirus pandemic will fast-track these changes and disrupt the traditional contact centre model for ever.

The introduction of social distancing measures has forced contact centres to rapidly adapt to how they provide customer service, while adopting new ways of working to keep their staff safe. Some businesses have rolled out remote working policies, while others have adopted social distancing measures in the office. All have had to provide their staff with greater flexibility to manage their working hours while juggling personal circumstances.

These changes have come at a time when contact centre operations are experiencing unprecedented and unpredictable swings in demand. The transport, entertainment and hospitality sectors have seen demand quickly dry up, whilst others have never been busier.

The financial services, utilities and insurance sectors have seen huge increases in demand as anxious customers call about payment holidays, government support schemes or simply to find out how they can access services during these extraordinary times. The health and social care, charities, local and national government and food distribution sectors have found themselves critical to the government’s response and have been overwhelmed with demand. Retail has largely moved online, resulting in the next 10 years of projected e-commerce growth happening in less than one month! This has placed enormous pressure on contact centre operations as consumers connect with businesses online – in some cases for the first time ever.

The majority of contact centre operations were operating lean before the pandemic, but with the introduction of social distancing, resourcing levels have taken a huge hit – either through employees self-isolating or taking leave to look after family requiring care. This has resulted in most operating with less than 50% of their staff at a time when many have never been busier.

If anything, the crisis has revealed how ill prepared these operations were to respond to a global pandemic. Whilst for many industries, a remote working policy is easily deployed – workers can simply take their laptops to any location, connect to a WiFi network, and get going. For contact centres the concept of remote working presents a multitude of challenges.

One of the key concerns is trust; can agents work as effectively, and at the same level of quality, without direct supervision?

Then of course there are limitations with technology. The legacy, on-premise IVR systems most contact centres use are difficult and costly to reconfigure to support remote working, often requiring additional licensing and infrastructure and incurring additional telephony charges.

Whilst some businesses have managed to make the switch to remote working, sadly others are still operating out of their existing facilities putting staff health and wellbeing on the line.

Unfortunately, it looks like social distancing in some shape or form is going to be with us for a while longer. During this time, contact centres will need to quickly adapt to this new normal; rapidly learning what it takes to provide customer service when demand is unpredictable and the workforce – in its traditional form – is unavailable.

So, what does the future look like?

With demand outstripping supply in many sectors some organisations have redeployed back office staff to the frontline or moved branch or shop staff onto the phones. We’re also seeing online retailers hiring thousands of temporary customer service staff to support increasing demands.

As unemployment rises and more people look for temporary work, traditional BPO and contact centre outsourcing will lose market share to the gig economy, especially in the retail sector where customer brand ambassadors will replace contact centre agents.

These trends will continue, as will a preference towards flexible, contract work over permanent employment given the heightened levels of uncertainty businesses find themselves in.

As the workforce changes irreversibly, the technology contact centres use will need to change too.

Software with fixed costs will be replaced by cloud-based SaaS solutions that can easily scale both up and down to changing demand. Legacy on-premise IVR systems that are costly to reconfigure will be replaced by more agile cloud-based solutions that can be changed more easily. Physical desk phones and hardware will be replaced with no hassle internet-based telephony, easily accessed from anywhere. Consumption based licensing models will be preferred over user-based licensing as demand continues to fluctuate and flexible, contract-based working becomes more common.

Contact centres will rewrite their entire operating models, changing resourcing strategies and closing physical sites in preference to remote working.

In summary, the coronavirus pandemic will force contact centres to completely reimagine how they provide customer service, and as the benefits to companies, employees, customers, and the planet start to emerge, the changes that businesses make today will become the new normal tomorrow.

ECS is currently helping a number of businesses adapt to the new normal using Amazon Connect and AWS cognitive CX technology. Contact us to find out how we can help you.


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