Impact of COVID on Call Centre Work-life

As we navigate the months to come, we need to forge a strong,  robust path towards working environments, processes and teams that are more productive, effective and resilient than ever before. 

Our success as an individual, a team, an organisation and a community will depend on our ability to embrace change and envision a new way of working, where skills and personality, diversity, equality, emotional intelligence and support is fundamental.

Impact of COVID on overall employment and remote working

The impact of COVID has been widespread, across all sectors and industries without exception. Between March and July, the number of people claiming unemployment benefits surged to 2.7 million. Emergency changes to the Universal Credit benefit scheme were made to assist with living costs and boost incomes for those who were out of work.

Statistics drawn from the governments Job Retention Scheme show just how essential the furlough scheme was.

By the end of July 2020, 9.4 million employments had  been placed on furlough, enabling 1.1 million employers to keep employees on a period of temporary leave.

Research conducted by the Office for National Statistics1 shows how half of those in employment worked from home during the lockdown period. Where remote working could  be facilitated, employers quickly established the systems and equipment necessary to enable home working and continued earning potential for staff members

  • In April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home.

  • 86.0% did so as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • One-third worked fewer hours than usual (34.4%).

  • One-third worked more hours than usual (30.3%).

  • People aged 16 to 24 years were less likely to do some work from home than those in older age groups. 

Impact of COVID on contact centres

Statistics show a 47% increase in demand for remote working amongst call centre staff between January and July of this year, compared with the same period  during 2019 despite a 39% drop in office-based roles over the same period. The majority of the increased demand came, for both permanent and temporary call centre staff, shortly after the country went into lockdown, reflected by the increase in demand across certain sectors including:

  • Government initiatives - To support the frontline and bolster public advisory services.

  • Utilities - Remediation, working with customers in unstable income situations.

  • Private Companies - Outbound calls to drive sales.

Top 10 skills sought after in call centre job adverts

Mari Milsom, a Leading Independent HR Consultant worked on 7 rapid response contact centre projects for Capita during the lockdown period, encompassing around 6,000 additional roles, specifically created to handle calls for these sectors.

Throughout her experience on specialist projects for Capita, Mari has encountered at a much faster pace the significant challenges, disruptions and opportunities emerging in the new world of remote call centre management and is uniquely placed to provide insight into how the world of call centre work has changed. From performance management, new staff onboarding in a remote culture, managing a diverse range of people with different needs to how remote culture affects teams. 

Changes to new staff onboarding requirements can be seen in the statistics gathered by Blue Arrow in their research into the impact of COVID on the Call Centre market.

Empathy has moved up from 10th position to the 6th most sought after skill while customer experience has seen a 70% jump moving up to 9th place in July of this year compared with 22nd in 2019.

 

Enthusiasm may rank one place lower in 2020 in 8th position but it has seen an increase of 18% in mentions on job adverts indicating its importance to employers. 

 

Looking at the skills and qualifications mentioned in job adverts from January to July 2020, we can see a subtle but significant change in the skills and qualifications focus:

 COVID-19 Call Centre

Customer Service Advisors and Call Handlers within our call centres are facing a more challenging time now than ever before. With the increased financial and environmental pressures on those calling in, the call centre staff are taking calls from some very distressed customers and needing to draw upon many of these new and notable skills in the course of their work.

 

Many of the traditional and rudimentary skills of data inputting including taking bookings and updating records appear to be falling down the list of priorities and we are starting to see how psychological forward-thinking, creative and interpersonal qualities and strengths have become more important.

 



What else has changed?

COVID Impacting Call CentresAs we emerge from these unique and challenging times, we need to establish how changes have
affected the following:

  • The barriers and challenges some people face with remote working.

  • The potential health and wellbeing implications on young people in particular.

  • What managers and companies now need to implement going forward.

How our physical workplace has changed - Risks and challenges

Many of the traditional and rudimentary skills of data inputting including taking bookings and updating records appear to be falling down the list of priorities and we are starting to see how psychological forward-thinking, creative and interpersonal qualities and strengths have become more important.

Working from home brings a combination of both challenges and benefits. For workers with family commitments, in shared accommodation or perhaps still living at home with parents or similar, finding a designated distraction-free workspace is not always easy. Escalate this requirement into a remote call centre position where working environment, access to equipment and the consideration of a customer’s data protection is a priority and it becomes all the more important. 

Ensuring that existing staff members and candidates have access to the right tools, equipment and working environment, such as desks, chairs, smart devices, stable internet connections, software and remote IT support is a priority. 

Mari has seen how difficult information security can be to achieve across so many remote working environments. Some employers are using a checklist or a web cam to help ensure the working space is suitable and to check if the space is overlooked or if conversations are likely to be overheard. 

There is a new burden on the employer to carry-out these assessments at scale and provide financial support or other sensible measures to candidates who possess the necessary skills for the job but who would otherwise struggle to obtain the right work equipment. We need to ensure that working from home doesn’t become another source of inequality.

Changes to our physical workspace also has a dramatic effect on our work and home life balance. As shown in the headline figures from the Office of National Statistics, 30% of remote workers reported working more hours than they usually would in their office environments. 

For call centre workers when it comes to the end of a shift, workers are reluctant to walk away from a live call queue, especially when dealing with customers in crisis, and so the end of their shift is not as clearly demarcated. Not sticking  to a clearly defined work and home time allocation can have a negative impact on overall mental and physical wellbeing. 

With no separation between home and work and no commuting time, it is yet to be seen whether people will  still take the time to reflect, unwind and separate their home and working lives. This is where managers and leaders can lead by example and encourage healthy working practices.

Concepting and implementing changes to the way we work, and the physical locations of our workplaces can often  make sense on paper. However, great care must be taken  to ensure considerations and measures are in place to mitigate hidden risks. Domestic abuse organisations observed increased household tension and domestic violence due to forced coexistence, economic stress, and fears about the virus. Refuge5 reports a 25 percent increase in calls and online requests for assistance since lockdown began in March 2020. 

Staff safety and wellbeing is a priority regardless of the physical workspace but enforced remote working requirements could intensify an already challenging  situation for at risk individuals. 

COVID work from home


How our cultural environment has changed - Risks and challenges

Remote and hybrid working on one hand provides more time at home, improving opportunities for people to enjoy the freedom to spend longer with their family and make connections with their immediate and wider community. However, for those who do not have a family unit around them or the chance to build community connections, remote working can be extremely isolating. 

It is more important than ever that we understand the environmental and psychological challenges that staff are facing and implement measures to prevent feelings of isolation, loneliness and helplessness.

A shared working environment provides opportunities for individuals to build relationships with colleagues, strengthening teams and helping to build a cohesive culture. Young adults in particular rely on and enjoy connectivity with peers and the opportunity to socialise with colleagues, it is an integral part of building their identity. When setting up call centre teams across remote locations for Capita, Mari has seen first-hand the importance of ensuring additional steps are implemented to orientate a cohesive and productive team. 

Bruce Tuckman’s forming-storming-norming-performing model of team development (1965)2 details the importance of socialising and focusing on group identity and purpose within the first stage of team development. This enables a solid foundation upon which a team who can face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results, can build. 

As cited in a recent leadership article by Blue Arrowemerging insightsinto the impact of COVID-19 on productivity and wellbeing show that 55% of workers believe that their colleagues are just as, if not more, productive now than before lockdown. However, in the same survey 38% of workers say that lockdown has had a negative impact on their wellbeing. This balance between productivity and wellbeing needs to be carefully monitored and supported, especially when coupled with the emotionally challenging work that call centre staff are handling.

 

These findings are consistent with Mari’s experiences. Due to the difficult nature of many customer situations, financial and environmental pressures, call centre staff are now taking challenging calls in their own homes instead of in the contained workplace where they would usually be surrounded by their peers. In a shared environment, having worked through a particularly difficult call, colleagues could physically turn to each other for support or to simply blow off steam. In a virtual working scenario, it can be hours between colleague interactions.

Onboarding virtual call centre staff can take an increased amount of communication and support to help establish environments, ensure processes and build peer relationships.

Achieving the right balance between enough communication and what could feel like intrusive overseeing is needed. Encouraging team members to request any additional assistance will help to ensure everyone receives the right level of support for their individual needs. 

Covid working from home


How forming our professional identity has changed - Risks and challenges

With remote and hybrid working we have become and will continue to be a 2D representation of ourselves within our virtual workspaces, communication and collaboration tools. Shared office spaces provide the opportunity for us to recognise the unique and individual personalities of our colleagues and develop our own professional identities.

The work-life version of ourselves is shaped significantly early on in our careers. How we act and how we are perceived in our professional environment impacts our sense of self-worth, purpose, societal value and status – our work families become the greatest influences over our psychological development once we leave education.

Young adults newly embarking on a career, perhaps emerging from further education, are yet to form their own professional identities. According to statistical data, 39% of all call centre staff are aged between 16 and 246, and under our newest working practices it is likely that they will find they are almost entirely remote working, at least for the foreseeable future.  Being isolated in this way could mean that they develop a professional identity that is in fact the same as their home identity. It is important that while they are remote working, young people especially, are still provided with the opportunity to develop a distinct professional identity that is separate from their personal identity through building relationships with their peers and making professional connections that will 

COVID Working from home

bolster their confidence.

 

What does the future look like for contact centre managers and their staff?

Long before the risk of contracting COVID-19 was announced and certainly before it was declared a pandemic, changes to the way we work were due to happen. Digital evolution was driving us towards embracing and implementing virtual working opportunities, but most organisations seemed reluctant to take the first tentative steps. Covid-19 has simply ultra-accelerated this change.

Now, it is unlikely that we will see a pull back from this new way of working, with the exception of some companies who may still demand a physical working space, it is likely that we will see hybrid working or home-based working remaining in place for contact centre managers, their staff and most likely the wider office based industry as a whole.

What can we do now?

It is quickly becoming clear that we do not all handle things in the same way, we all have varying tolerances for change and uncertainty so there is no one size fits all solution. It is important therefore that we objectively seek to find not only the best solution, but a solution that has enough countermeasures and initiatives in place to assist people from all walks of life, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.

How can we support staff?

COVID-19 call centre 

Manager's toolkit for change

Managers who are setting up, onboarding staff for and supporting remote call centre contact teams will require a robust skill set that encompasses not only traditional practical management skills but also interpersonal qualities. This will enable them to lead and motivate a virtual group of people while being aware of the needs of a physically and culturally disparate workforce.

The required emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient - EQ) of line managers will be higher now than ever before. This will ensure they have the ability to understand, use, and manage their own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.

From her work setting up and supporting multiple contact centre teams, Mari is already seeing evidence of separation between management styles. There are those who find it easier to focus on the target driven aspects of business and those who are drawn towards engaging, supporting and developing team-based cohesion.

This separation could begin to challenge the traditional hierarchy of who has what it takes to become a manager, in our new world managerial positions may no longer be reserved for the high performing individuals on an operational level or long service employees.


What should we consider for the future?

Government Initiatives for change
Within the Governments new Plan for Jobs scheme, a provision for creating new job opportunities for young people was announced. The Kickstart Scheme provides funding for employers enabling them to create new 6-month job placements for young people who are currently on Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment. The initiative is designed to help create opportunities where participants can develop their skills and experience, leading them to finding work after completing the scheme.

Utilising the schemes and initiatives that are becoming available to their full potential will ensure that we are building diverse teams with a wide-spread skill set and real-world experience level while simultaneously ensuring proportionate opportunities for all regardless of their geographical and socio-economic opportunities.

Utilising unused space
If predictions are shown to be correct and the changes to hybrid and remote working are here to stay, some consideration could be given to the spaces we leave behind.

Using unused or under-utilised physical space in different ways could lead to a widespread affordable and practical provision of safe working zones, enriched and inclusive workspaces, bookable hot-desking environments, brainstorming hubs, team retreat spaces and arenas for organised social interactions.

Written by Mari Milsom

Mari Milsom is a Leading Independent HR Consultant working to support a range of sectors and industries. Mari is dedicated to providing innovative, effective resourcing solutions with a view to consolidate, improve quality and consistency and build out a single approach to resourcing across all operations, in all geographies. You can connect with Mari on LinkedIn here

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