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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an alarming and unsettling situation for us all. It is fast-moving and affecting countries, families and individuals worldwide.

This unprecedented situation requires us to take an exemplary approach to protect the most vulnerable people and do everything we can to limit the spread of this pandemic, whilst working where possible to mitigate the economic impact. Whilst many businesses are now taking decisive action for the first phase of the situation, there is a real need to address the potential operational impact in both the short and medium term.

This article is designed to provide some guidance on how organisations with a customer management environment can continue to serve their customers in this unprecedented situation, drawing on information we have provided to support many of our clients. While some examples are specific to these environments, many key principles are also applicable across broader operational environments, such as processing centres.

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Why is the business impact more severe than other challenges?

How to ensure continuity of service

  1. Creating a business continuity framework
  2. The right technology, implemented correctly
  3. Rapid operating model changes
  4. Enabling your people, and managing teams remotely

Why is the business impact more severe than other challenges?

Containment, delay, and mitigation measures look different in every country, and we often don’t know the next steps countries will take at a national level. We need to recognise that this situation is different to anything that most businesses will have considered in their normal continuity planning, and therefore measures taken are likely to be different. For example: 

  • Unlike other potential scenarios affecting specific organisations or even entire industries, this situation affects all of us. There will be a significant challenge in recruiting to cover peak demand volumes or any people shortages 

  • In the UK, for example, the statistic from the Department of Health and Social Care is that, in a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.1Clearly this will vary between organisations and their internal functions. Workers in close proximity (such as contact centres) present a risk of transmission resulting in larger proportions of the workforce being unable to work at the same time

  • If schools are closed, then this has an additional impact on working parents. Assuming demand for alternative childcare exceeds supply, there will be an impact on the number of people able to work at all. This is without even considering a blanket home-working policy at a business or national level. Any flexibility that can be provided by employers will help alleviate these pressures

How to ensure continuity of service

Many businesses have already taken significant steps, such as putting in place a blanket ban on travel or advising colleagues to work from home.

How could this work for an operations environment? The criticality of customer service teams in times of uncertainty cannot be underestimated; as the global situation changes daily, so does company policy and the consequent advice to customers. These are the teams for whom homeworking should be prioritised in order to ensure continuity of service for customers, and yet it is not that simple to achieve.

So how can organisations build on their current efforts to respond to this rapidly? Our work with clients so far has shown us that there are four key steps to consider:

  1. Creating a business continuity framework

  2. The right technology, implemented correctly

  3. Rapid operating model changes

  4. Enabling your people, and managing teams remotely

1. Creating a business continuity framework

Quickly establish a business continuity planning group to manage your response to the evolving situation. This typically involves IT, Operations, HR, Logistics, and Communications.

The group should be small and focused, with the ability to make rapid decisions and communicate this effectively to the business. With the situation changing day-by-day, the group should be focused on setting principles that empower people to do the right thing, over rigid processes that may well be unfit for purpose by the time they are put to paper.

In order to deal with the pace of developments, we recommend that businesses review their situation on a daily basis and make sure that decisions are made with resilience in mind.

In practice, IT should make preparations for systems to be accessed remotely, setting up VPN profiles, increasing bandwidth and ensuring stability of remote telephony. Operations and HR should ensure those most at risk are prioritised for homeworking and that suitable contracts are in place to enable homeworking and system access. Logistics need to be focused on finding the most suitable routes for people to return home, possibly with the relevant equipment, as well as putting measures in place should additional physical resources be required. Finally, Communications should advise on the tone, channels and frequency of communications to colleagues.

2. The right technology, implemented correctly

Do employees have laptops and VPN access, and if not, how achievable is this? Is it possible to use their own hardware and enable remote desktop access? Some organisations are allowing employees to take their desktop computers home so it’s much more likely to adhere to compliance requirements, but may have unintended consequences for data security.

Cloud-based solutions can also be deployed in order to allow teams to interact with each other and customers from a remote location. These can be rapidly configured, linked to existing systems and easily scaled, with the functionality you would have in a physical environment (for example call listening and auditing). There is also the potential to quickly deploy basic Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems and automation tools to triage certain queries.

Outside of customer contact, we’ve also seen clients use collaboration software, such as Microsoft Teams and virtual workspace platform, Mural, to run highly engaging workshops where travel bans are enforced. By setting simple parameters for use, such as always being on camera where possible and setting clear, focused agendas, friction in these scenarios can be reduced.

3. Rapid operating model changes

It’s not as simple as just sending people home with a laptop, organisations have to think holistically – even if this represents a high-level design or ‘interim’ operating model.

Think about the design of the overall operation and how this might be impacted by remote working. Can your processes work remotely? What about the hand-offs between teams, or the skills needed within them? What about any regulatory or compliance impact (for example, PCI if you are taking payments). Many existing operating models will directly conflict with this new home-working model, but a combined technology and operations design response can help resolve this.

The first step is to understand your minimum viable delivery model. By setting the expectation that normal service levels are unlikely to be maintained – at least in the short term - you can clearly set out those elements that must be uninterrupted against those which can be reduced or delayed. For example, you may decide that existing customer support must be delivered, whilst taking payments may require a different approach (e.g. through an online portal).

The very nature of this crisis is the unpredictability, which will vary between industry and organisation. For example, travel businesses will likely see a drop in sales, but an increase in service queries. Insurers, on the other hand, may see an increase in both queries and claims. For those organisations who serve people through bricks-and-mortar stores, there may be unprecedented strain placed on their other channels (online or phone). An ability to repurpose or re-deploy people between channels can play a critical role in managing demand.

The key is communicating clearly with customers and setting expectations. Most will understand the situation but are likely to be less forgiving if taken by surprise.

4. Enabling your people, and managing teams remotely

This situation is going to have a significant impact on people’s lives from both a personal and business perspective, and as managers we must recognise that. Identifying high risk colleagues (e.g. those with underlying health conditions) and taking steps to protect them from potentially harmful situations should be the first step. Equally ‘presenteeism’ should be actively discouraged by senior leaders, setting clear expectations that any employee exhibiting one or more symptoms should stay at home. This will be particularly challenging in cultures where dedication is displayed by coming to the office even when sick. Reviewing or putting in place interim policies around sick leave and time off to care for others can be a big step in encouraging the right behaviours.

Enabling your people to support you is more than just the tools and techniques you provide them with. As with any change, no matter how rapidly this evolves, you need to engage your teams and help them to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it – and most importantly, how it will impact them.

From an operational perspective, teams work through daily rhythm and routines. Even with the right checks and balances in place, if you’re used to working in a team environment, the behavioural shift to remote working can be huge. It is important to equip your operations managers and team leaders with the right skills to manage and support their teams remotely.

Effective organisations manage dispersed teams to meet effective operations principles. Successful cross-location working is enhanced by meeting the 4S principles: Set, Structure, Share, Socialise. In crisis situations, these principles become even more important, especially where face-to-face interaction is abruptly replaced with virtual solutions.

Ensure that colleagues know what their objectives are and the boundaries they can work within to achieve their goals. Map tasks that can be completed remotely, those that cannot and ones you’re not sure about to help the team focus on what they can deliver, while thinking about ways to support the other tasks.

Set up the rhythms and routines of the organisation. Wherever possible align the activity across teams, even though this is virtual.

Enable information to freely flow between the sites and make it easy to understand. Set up the organisation to have direct lines of communication between each of the sections, with access to data and systems as required.

Proactively set up socialisation between the teams and help colleagues bring their work situations to life for each other, for example be more descriptive and anecdotal in reports and communications and use social sharing technologies if your business has them. In situations like this, feelings of isolation can easily set in and will require active intervention to keep individuals motivated.

In conclusion

This situation will clearly place immediate pressure on us all, and has a clear impact on business operations. Whilst this article provides some guidance for organisations on business and service continuity to help address the short-term impacts, the overall agility and flexibility of operating models will undoubtedly be called into question by this pandemic. A permanent shift in how we think about work, working patterns, and business continuity is entirely possible, and adjusting to this new approach may well become a longer-term priority for many businesses.



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