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Reopening Plans Must Look Forward, Not to the Past

work from homeThroughout the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has played a considerable role in minimizing disruption and maintaining continuity of customer service. Amid widespread self-isolation and quarantine, contact center leaders ensured that agents and other staff still had access to vital customer information and were able to transition to full-time remote work. Customer service teams relying on modern cloud platforms had the agility to move around teams and work within hours, while those using legacy tech often required more creativity, compromise, and patience to get the job done. Working conditions look vastly different than they did just a few months ago, and many contact centers have settled into this new normal without sacrificing the needs of the customers they support.

As some the United States carefully begin to open up, contact center leaders are taking their cues for a phased approach to managing their organizations and moving forward. Following Forrester’s defined phases, Phase One (Early Infection) is behind us and Phase Two (Social Distancing) is well underway. Now, businesses, organizations and governments are thinking critically about what returning to physical locations can look like when Phase Three (Management), including Pandemic Management Protocols (PMPs), takes off in earnest. For example, how will contact centers need to rethink floor plans to accommodate social distancing measures and eliminate communal workspaces?

If your contact center is working on plans to bring teams back to the office, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Hybrid Staff Models

Before COVID-19, very few contact centers had any robust experience with remote work, let alone at this scale. In fact, 60 percent of contact centers have major barriers to full and productive work-from-home, including lack of comprehensive infrastructure, agent devices and configurations that aren’t work-from-home friendly. In addition, many agents didn’t have remote working experience. 

While some contact centers may evaluate the benefits of permanently keeping staff at home, the likelihood is that the majority will opt for a hybrid model. Depending on the size and unique needs of your contact center, this could take shape in a number of ways - including rotating agents in and out to reduce office congestion or designating some agents as remote versus in-person.

The most important thing is to reduce inconsistencies, such as access to career coaching, training, development, and team collaboration. Cloud platforms provide your agents with the tools they need to serve customers from anywhere—office, home, and any combination of sites. However, that flexibility for every agent to be virtual does not mean that every agent should be their own island. Make sure your supervisors have the right tools (and training to use them) for virtual agent coaching, performance management, and motivation across a combination of in-office and distributed agents.

Office Designs

The open-floor layout of offices and contact centers has been in vogue for several decades. Now the collaboration rooms and communal workspaces that were once synonymous with comradery and teamwork are being viewed through an entirely different lens. Supervisors and executives are now rethinking the value of bringing entire agent communities together, as desks themselves are now a barrier to getting agents back in the office.

An important first step is reviewing contact center policies on staggered workplace schedules to reduce congregation. Discourage handshakes, for example, and keep internal meetings and training sessions virtual when possible. Further steps include building up the health infrastructure of the desk, including new sneeze guards and hand sanitizers. Finally, require masks and other face coverings in shared spaces.

These policies can provide an important baseline, but the spread of the virus is dynamic, and regional differences must be considered. Be sure to consult with local governments and partner organizations to ensure you’re complying with the most relevant guidelines.

Opportunities for Innovation

Despite the disruption of our daily lives, or perhaps because of it, customer service has never been more important. Customers continue to expect personalized experiences that respect their time, and choice of communication channels are just as important today as they were in February – if not more so. As agents begin to return to the office and reclaim a sense of normalcy, it’s an opportunity for them to take the lessons they learned through the early phases of the pandemic to translate into striving to provide a more human touch to CX.

For example, as agents and customers have navigated the pandemic, they’ve seen firsthand just how far empathy and other soft skills can go. Problem solving and communication are now skills every agent must excel in to succeed to meet customer needs. Further, building that personalized and emotionally driven connection is a vital component in fostering customer loyalty. “Getting back to normal” should not mean turning back the clock, but rather finding new ways to engage with customers and make them feel heard.

Preparing for the Future

Time and patience are the keys to successful reopening for contact centers. As leadership plans for the future, it’s important to remember that the timetable remains fluid. That said, deliberate consideration will ensure that both agents and customers can thrive in their new environment.