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09 Jul 2020

Health on Hold: UK Contact Centre Workers Voice Social Distancing Concerns

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-founder of Content Guru

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO and Co-founder of Content Guru, argues that we must act fast to combat the spread of COVID-19 in UK Contact Centres

To limit the spread of COVID-19, the latest UK government advice is that all employees should work from home, providing they can perform their job remotely. However, despite the stringent social distancing measures that remain in force, a recent survey reveals many non-essential contact centres still have employees working in their offices on a daily basis, and it could be about to get bleaker as the level of restrictions become less and less clear.

The findings of the research, conducted among 2,750 UK contact centre workers by the University of Strathclyde since the outbreak began, make for grim reading. 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 in fact essential.

More worrying still, only a third of colleagues felt their employer had successfully implemented workplace distancing, with a further 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 both wellbeing and performance at risk.

Contact centre employees face challenging conditions

The transmission risks facing contact centre workers are significant. 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 cite having to navigate narrow corridors and walkways to reach ‘clean’ workstations and expressed concerns that spatial separation was no guarantee of safety from contracting coronavirus 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, large on-premise contact centres risk potentially spreading infection through the heating and ventilation systems used to circulate air and control the environment of their large open plan office spaces.

With 78 percent of contact centre workers saying they dread turning up for work because they fear catching COVID-19 at their workplace, it’s time for the industry to fast track home working models that both protect employees and assure operational continuity.

Contact centres feel the strain

The immediacy and speed of the current crisis has undoubtedly put contact centres under significant strain. 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 or the need to self-isolate – placing considerable additional performance strain on remaining frontline workers.

With manpower 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 and operational continuity

Contact centres around the globe have been caught out by government-imposed lockdown and social distancing measures. A scenario that has been exacerbated by the fact that many firms are not set up for remote operations.

Yet today’s cloud technologies make 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 working internal procedures, outlining the responsibilities and chain of command that clarify how remote workers can continue to provide an excellent experience for customers.

Ultimately, the current public health crisis offers UK contact centres an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the digital transformation that will enable them to evolve their existing operations into value-driven customer engagement hubs.

Looking to the future

Initiating a new era of flexible ‘at home’ working policies could well prove pivotal for the industry in the months and years ahead. Here in the UK, COVID-19 has provided contact centres with a unique chance 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 – while ensuring employee wellbeing for the duration of the current crisis.

One thing is for sure, the capabilities offered by today’s cloud-based contact centre platforms will make it easy to initiate a truly flexible industry that’s able to maintain complete visibility of their remote agents’ wellbeing and workload.


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