The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has forever changed how call centers think about maintaining business continuity -- from managing agent resources and having the right technology in place, to shoring up security protocols and management processes. While the virtual call center is a critical component of any business continuity strategy, there are several key questions and guidelines to consider before adding this model to your company portfolio to help mitigate the risk of unforeseen events and forced closures.
When widespread shelter-in-place orders were established, and non-essential businesses closed, brick-and-mortar call centers immediately became forced to figure out methods to keep employees safe and business operating – while customer service demands in many industries skyrocketed. During the onset of COVID-19, many US-based and international call centers temporarily closed down entirely, disrupting customer service continuity for many businesses. Others found ways to continue operating while creating more “social distance” among on-site employees by reducing capacity and managing alternating shifts. Still, others opted to send their agents to work-from-home (WFH) and adjust operations accordingly but quickly learned the demands of transitioning to and managing a WFH workforce were significant.
The current health crisis required call centers to change the way they operate and has brought to light the need to strengthen business continuity plans in the event of future forced closures due to health crises, weather, or other events impacting brick and mortar facilities.
The virtual call center model, particularly in which WFH employees are distributed across multiple geographies, is a critical component of any current and long-term risk mitigation strategy. However, setting up and managing a virtual call center is complex. It requires transforming operations, especially IT and systems operations – including establishing system requirements, security protocols, developing the appropriate business processes, policies, and even company culture.
Organizations evaluating the role of the virtual call center should consider several key areas, including:
- Telecommuting Policies
- Employee Equipment & ISP Requirements
- Systems, Security & IT Applications
A robust telecommuting policy is critical to setting up and maintaining a productive WFH environment. The policy must specifically state compliance expectations, including equipment standards and the internal IT processes to validate, as well as timekeeping and response expectations (e.g. chats and phone calls). It must specify confidentiality requirements, such as the expectations of privacy and a closed-door environment, and should include the ability for managers to remotely review an employee’s office set up regularly and without notice. Since certain states, cities, and counties may not allow WFH without a business license for that area or have different payroll rates or tax implications, the policy must clearly articulate relocation policies.
Employee Equipment & ISP Requirements
The right connection and equipment in a WFH environment are paramount for security and productivity. Success depends upon establishing clear standards, including those involving the hardwired ISP with speed tests, a computer spec test, and phone and camera requirements, among others. The recruiting and onboarding process should be modified to institute compliance “checkpoints,” starting with the initial interview and ultimately including a visual inspection of equipment in the home office.
Systems, Security, and IT Applications
Managing and monitoring a remote workforce is a challenge that typically requires the addition of a new technology platform and digital systems to ensure security and performance, and replace in-person management practices such as “walking the floor.” Key questions to assess out of the gate include:
- Do you have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) in place to ensure secure communications between workers and your applications/data?
- Do you have a network access controller to check that workers connecting to your systems are only able to do so if their remote device meets minimum requirements such as operating system level, ant-virus protection, etc.?
- Do you have full redundancy with multiple data centers?
- What can you do to minimize the potential performance degradation if the equipment is outdated?
- What security measures are in place that enables you to remotely lock down the device while the employee is working, if necessary?
Managing the information flow to your virtual employees often requires a unique messaging center and specific routing capabilities, including a tracking and acknowledgment process to ensure compliance and understanding. For ensuring seamless access, your IT application should support a single login for the disparate tools used by agents, including ID verification, client and administrative tools such as scheduling. It’s important to use a virtual meeting platform to support large group meetings, agent-supervisor interaction, and team collaboration through multiple chat rooms.