Guest Blogger

by Mark Hillary

For months I have been talking to analysts and contacts in the CX industry about how the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies will return to normal as the pandemic subsides. The contact centre is at the heart of their business model and yet the rug was pulled from under their feet when lockdowns meant that contact centre agents all had to work from home (WFH).

Several important changes happened during the pandemic. It was proven that agents can work safely from home. In fact there are some BPOs, like Sensée and 5CA, that were entirely WFH long before the pandemic arrived. BPOs started getting smarter about scheduling and workforce management (WFM), so agents didn’t replace 8-hours in the office with 8-hours on the sofa at home. They could create a more flexible shift pattern and this worked well for both agents and clients. Many agents also enjoyed not having to commute to a contact centre.

Across all industries, and even government, it is proving difficult to get people to return to the office. The UK Department of Health and Social Care reportedly abandoned plans for its civil servants to be back at their desks between four and eight days a month from September. This is the government offering their employees the chance to be back in the office just one day a week – no thanks came the reply.

The Centre For Cities think tank recently published research showing that the return of workers to offices is going far slower than predicted. Many senior government ministers expected a wave of commuters returning to city centres once Covid restrictions were lifted. What is the reality? Fewer than 20% of office workers across the UK have returned to their office. In some locations it is far lower, like 8% in Glasgow and 15% in London.

There are several factors at play here:

  • Many employers are not rushing back to the office. Their timetable is not dictated by government advice because their current processes are working. Now is a time to survey employees and plan a path to how business looks in future. There is no rush.
  • Many people still don’t feel safe in crowded environments like public transport, especially with the uncertainty of new variants circulating.
  • Many people love the flexibility they found working from home and really don’t want to return to a commute / entire day in the office / commute.

In the BPO environment I’m not sure how fast agents are being recalled, but anecdotally I am hearing that many companies are asking agents to return quickly, which seems to ignore some of the gains that have been made throughout this period of upheaval and experimentation.

Most of the BPOs have a large portfolio of real estate. What can they do with all those offices? Should the leases be allowed to expire as soon as possible? Should they maximise the number of WFH agents? These are all questions being asked by BPO executives as they plan how to get back to whatever normal looks like in 2022.

An idea I was kicking around several months ago was to open small local contact centres much closer to where people live. Instead of focusing on huge contact centres in large cities, open a chain of smaller sites and use flexible WFM so the agents can mix and match WFH with working from a local “CX pod” when that suits them. This solves the problem of the huge contact centres and continues to offer flexibility to the agents – WFH or a very local commute.

It appears this is no longer just an idea. A recent announcement by Ascensos details their new 100-person hub in Stranraer. This is the first hub they plan to open and will form a series of six employing around 500 people. Most BPOs could easily house 500 people in a single location so this approach is very different. Ascensos is calling the strategy “Ascensos Local” and I believe that it is one of the first examples from the BPO community of where contact centres are heading in future.

Smaller contact centres allow more flexibility for the employees because they are closer to home. They create jobs in more remote towns, and they also build in greater resilience by spreading the service function across a number of sites. If you blend this approach with WFH and flexible WFM then it would appear that the days of the ‘aircraft hangar’ contact centre on the edge of town are numbered.

It’s time to start accepting that WFH has been proven by the pandemic and attitudes to work and flexibility have also shifted – a third of young Americans are actively seeking a career change. Companies demanding long fixed shifts will struggle to fill those jobs. Creating smaller contact centres closer to where people live, maybe even using facilities that used to house retail stores, has to be the future for BPO. The hybrid future for BPO will not look like BPO from 2019 plus some WFH. The BPOs that understand how work has changed are going to have an important edge in 2022.

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