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The strain on these workers operating from homes and without adequate support system can only be imagined. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

COVID-19 has demonstrated that social distancing, restrictions on movement, and the temporary closure of many branches and service centres forced us consumers to resort to digital channels. If we want to pay bills, modify subscriptions, order products, or make enquiries, we are more likely to do this via a phone call, web app, chat or email.

This means that many organisations are now facing an increase of 80 per cent or more in the volume of their contact centre engagements.

While the efforts of health care workers, supermarket staff, and delivery personnel have been rightly lauded, the exceptional work done by contact centre agents — frontline workers in their own right — needs special mention. As a result of work-from-home initiatives, many of these individuals have had to manage hundreds of calls from panicked, stressed and often frustrated customers, while being physically isolated from their colleagues.

In the GCC, we are slowly moving away from the pandemic-related restrictions. In fact, Dubai recently closed the 3,000-bed field hospital, and the airport is slowly getting back to its usual bustling self.

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A down side

Positive news, yes, and we should look at the recent experience as learning. Organisations need to safeguard their agents’ well-being always, particularly their mental health. This is because extended periods of remote working, particularly when mandated and enforced, carries with it a number of mental health risks.

There is a global consensus that the aftermath of COVID-19 will highlight several health concerns such as stress, depression, anxiety and much more — all of which take a significant toll on frontline workers at contact centres. Facing highly-stressful situations while working from home, usually isolated and with no one to talk to, can certainly be detrimental to health and well-being of the frontline worker.

However, there are systems and solutions that can be incorporated to help these individuals overcome all the challenges they face when they are on the job.

Dispel sense of isolation

During normal operations, contact centres are lively, social, community-driven office spaces. Agents interact with each other throughout the day — between calls, on breaks, during water-cooler chats — fostering true team spirit.

Businesses must look to create official channels for their agents to engage — both with each other and with their supervisors. Video collaboration platforms are a viable choice, as they enable organisations to set up meeting rooms where agents can “gather” for virtual face-to-face or chat sessions. Since these virtual spaces are not time-bound, employees can pop in and out of these groups through the workday, recreating those revitalising water-cooler chats, albeit digitally.

Organisations can even go a step further and formalise these engagements, by turning these virtual meeting rooms into a platform for team members to meet daily, catch up on progress, voice concerns, and discuss the challenges they face.

These virtual meetups have proven effective in our own organisation — across every job function. When we moved to remote working, we set up a weekly all-hands meeting for the entire MEA region to join. Through it, we’ve reconnected with beloved colleagues, exchanged good news, and kept a rapport going between staff.

Keep them updated

When faced with the pressing need to migrate customer service agents to a work-from-home arrangement, organisations found that technology enabled them to rapidly do so without the need for added investment. Or compromise on the features and functionalities that are critical to agents’ ability to do their jobs well. Technology is only one part of the equation.

Equally important is ensuring agents are adequately trained to be productive when working from home.

Training programmes delivered over video conferencing can help agents adjust to their new work environment and understand any changes in expectations and responsibilities. Sessions should extend beyond the sharing of updates and company policies and procedures to also include expert advice on managing stress, effectively setting up routines, and staying physically healthy.

The information shared in these sessions can then be reinforced by setting up a central repository where relevant documents such as business continuity plans, and remote working dos and don’ts are made conveniently available.

It is important for each one of us, as customers, to recognise the vital role that contact centre agents have played during COVID-19, and will continue to play to help keep businesses and communities on track. Without them, the delivery of any number of essential services would simply not be tenable.

And under these tough conditions, like anyone, many are doing the best they can. We must therefore be cognizant of the pressures that these frontline workers face, and be more compassionate in our engagement with them.

Indeed, just as we’re saluting health care and emergency workers every day online, let’s do the same for the contact centre agents keeping business and services connected to their customers during this time. Show your support online with a simple thank-you post on social media, using the hashtag #HatsOffCCWorkers.

— Fadi Hani is Vice-President for Middle East, Africa and Turkey, Avaya.