• May 29, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

What Post-Pandemic Contact Centers Will Look Like

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‘As the days go on I wonder/ Will this ever end?’ —Green Day (‘Paper Lanterns’)

By now, most of us are doubtless bone tired of thinking and talking about this pandemic—as tired as a one-armed swimmer in a backstroke competition. I know I am. And yet…and yet, our working lives and our missions to create compelling customer experiences march on, and they do so with the full knowledge that the impact of the novel coronavirus will last far beyond the end of shelter-in-place orders.

In my last column, feeling overwhelmed by all the fear, uncertainty, and doubt of our current lives, I turned to thoughts of human empathy and compassion. While that need for genuine benevolence will never age, we must now start to plan for the longer term. I was tempted to call that the post-COVID-19 phase, but I think it would be more accurate to think of it as “a new normalizing” phase.

In the contact center world, we saw companies send millions of agents home to work. Many of those agents lacked ideal workspaces in which to create a professional environment. Dogs barked in the background. Families small and large lived their locked-down lives in cramped quarters. Or, for those living alone, isolation and loneliness haunted agents’ days and nights. When we can send agents back to a brick-and-mortar contact center, some of them will be unreservedly ecstatic to escape the confines of their homes and pick up the trappings of their old lives. Many companies will also want to snap back to the tighter, highly scrutinized command-and-control work processes that defined contact center environments for decades.

Some companies, however, have recognized that some agents function just fine at home. Connectivity has not been a huge hurdle in North America or Western Europe, so interactions have proceeded smoothly. Additionally, some agents actually find the lack of a commute a major boon to their lives. Whatever the reason, some agents will not jump for joy at the thought of returning to a physical center. Some workplaces have also started to rethink the need for having so many agents commuting into a central location every day. Those companies could shrink real estate costs and, at least in theory, see reduced attrition (and its associated costs) due to happier agents sticking around longer.

For the organizations considering some new commitment to a work-at-home model, just recognize that some adjustments from the COVID-19 approach will be required. During the early crush of the pandemic, companies were forced to hastily create jury-rigged remote work organizations, processes, and technological approaches. Almost no one considered the results ideal—after all, the goal was speed, not elegance.

So rather than try to replicate what they had in their brick-and-mortar centers, or even what worked during the height of the pandemic, companies should now consider starting with a blank slate. Analyze what has worked over the past months—were certain types of agents more successful than others? Were certain types of communication channels more conducive to home work environments, such as webchat, in which customers cannot hear family clatter in the background? Were certain types of recognition programs more effective at motivating newly home-based agents? Once that analysis is done, it is then time to design the ideal remote contact center operation and start planning for it. Companies may come to see that the agents they have may not be the ones best suited to this new ideal organization.

To be clear, this isn’t just about contact center agents. Most of these ideas apply to knowledge workers too. While the office as we know it has not completely died, major cracks in the façade have become all too apparent. As Bette Davis famously said in the classic film All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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