Technology enables call centre staff to operate from home, Tech News & Top Stories

 Technology enables call centre staff to operate from home, Tech News & Top Stories

ST 20200524 LWCALL 5688710

For the past four weeks, Citibank customers on the line with Mr Caleb Yong have unknowingly been speaking to a call centre officer who is not in a call centre at all, but at home instead.

Thanks to softphone technology which allows for phone calls over the Internet via the computer, he does not even need to use a physical telephone.

“I would not have imagined previously that answering customer calls from home would even be possible,” said Mr Yong, 46, who has been a call centre officer with Citibank for nine years.

The thought of call centre staff working from home would have been near inconceivable just a year ago, but safety concerns amid the Covid-19 outbreak have provided the impetus for trailblazing employers to implement sweeping changes.

About 90 per cent of DBS Bank’s 650 call centre staff are now working from home, while half of Citibank’s 300 call agents are doing so.

The Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board has also equipped nearly all of its 300 call centre agents to work from home, and is one of the first government agencies to do so.

DBS has spent close to $10 million over five years to develop its remote working infrastructure, but it took the Covid-19 outbreak for the investment to really bear fruit.

The bank’s contact centre and servicing platforms regional head Kailash Ramalingam said the initial plan in February was to run a pilot with 40 to 50 staff working from home, but the worsening outbreak called for a more decisive change.

“In traditional business continuity plans with split-site operations, employees are asked to come to the other site (to continue working),” said Mr Ramalingam.

“But that was not advisable for employee safety and well-being during the Covid-19 situation, so we said, in March, let’s take the plunge to work from home.”

Having invested substantially in technologies to enable such remote operations, the two banks and the CPF Board are keen to let flexible work arrangements stay even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends.

  • 90%

    Proportion of DBS Bank’s 650 call centre staff working from home.

    50%

    Proportion of Citibank’s 300 call agents working from home.

    100%

    Approximate proportion of CPF Board’s 300 call centre agents equipped to work from home.

CPF Board’s group director of customer relations, Ms Janice Lai, said flexible work-from-home arrangements could help to broaden the appeal of call centre work, especially to people with childcare needs.

“For example, one possibility is to have part-time workers working from home to cater to the increased demand during peak hours,” said Ms Lai. “So we are seeing how to make this the new normal and have a higher percentage of home-based call agents.”

Mr Ramalingam said DBS could adopt a hybrid model, where employees could spend three working days a week in the office and two at home, or alternate between weeks at home and in the office.

“The short-term impact of working from home is positive, but it’s important to evaluate it fully for the long term before we make the call,” he said.

Customer satisfaction has not suffered under the new arrangement.

DBS said its staff received 12,900 compliments last month, compared with 11,200 for the same period last year, while customer satisfaction scores for the CPF Board increased from 88 per cent in March to 95 per cent last month.

For now, the only condition employees have to meet to work from home is to have a home environment that does not affect the quality of their work.

As with most other sectors, however, new ground rules and conditions will be needed for the post-Covid-19 new normal.

“In the longer term, we will have to consider various aspects – such as work performance, family needs and even where they live – for employees who prefer to work from home,” said Mr Abhijit Kumta, head of operations and technology for Singapore and Asean at Citi.

Allowances will also have to be made for new employees who have to get up to speed.

DBS said it will evaluate new employees wanting to work from home on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of their work and how much handholding is needed once training is completed.

Staff, meanwhile, have largely taken well to the new arrangements after an initial adjustment period, the two banks and CPF Board said.

Calls can be monitored through the softphone technology platform for quality, and to see how employees are coping. Call centre agents and their team managers have also been using video-teleconferencing and messaging platforms to stay in contact with one another.

Working from home was daunting at first for Citibank call centre officer Cecilia Quek, as she ran into technical issues, including a faulty headset.

“But the issues were quickly resolved, thanks to our technical support team, and working from home, in fact, has offered me a great opportunity to upgrade my computer skills,” said the 58-year-old.

“Working from home has many benefits, such as the joy of having meals with family, but the downside is not being able to interact face to face with my colleagues. That’s something I miss very much.”

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