Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Transparent BPO’s Story
06 April, 2020
by Scott Newman, CEO
Over the past two weeks, Transparent BPO has undertaken a serious initiative — to deploy 850 brick and mortar contact center agents to a work-from-home (WFH) environment.
This was no small task, and I am beyond proud of how our company responded to the business impact caused by the pandemic and the amount of work and urgency that went into the rollout. We acted quickly to protect our employees’ well-being and find a solution to an almost unsolvable problem.
With captive contact centers and other outsourcers in our industry still looking at viable alternatives to adapt to the new and evolving landscape with COVID-19, I felt publishing our story might, in some small way, help others navigate this change.
Before I begin, let me say that no quickly deployed work-from-home solution is perfect. True WFH solutions take time and effort to plan data and physical security, training, performance monitoring, and other essential functions. Even as I write this article, we are working on enhancements and additional monitoring to help ensure excellent service delivery.
This was no small task, and I am beyond proud of how our company responded to the business impact caused by the pandemic.
The first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was confirmed on January 20, 2020. That announcement set in motion a new era in our personal and business lives that most never expected or considered.
While many of us are finding ways to navigate this pandemic personally, businesses large and small are trying to figure out a path forward (or if one even exists). Sadly, despite the recently announced stimulus package, many won’t make it, and our economy will suffer severely as a result.
My belief is BPO industry companies that can continue operating and that lean into this situation, embrace the reality, and push the boundaries on possible solutions will be the ones who come out on the other side of the pandemic stronger and with new and innovative ways to service their clients.
Transparent BPO Background
For some context, allow me to briefly describe Transparent BPO’s operation.
Our company was founded in 2009 and, currently, runs a brick and mortar operation out of three physical sites in Belize City, Belize, Central America, and a work-from-home operation based in the Philippines.
Currently, we have 850 employees in our Belize City sites and 225 work-from-home agents in the Philippines. Even with BPOs shutting down in the Philippines, our operations there have not been impacted, so this article focuses on the Belize City adaptations solely.
Steps Taken to Prevent Virus Spread
Our efforts to prevent or at least mitigate the spread of COVID-19 transpired over time based on what we perceived to be an increasing threat. It occurred in three stages:
Stage 1: Physical Prevention
On February 28, even though no cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Belize, we felt it necessary to be proactive and take measures to put our employees’ minds at ease and de-risk the contact center.
Some of the measures we enacted were:
- Reinforce that any flu-like symptoms would require the employee to see a doctor immediately and not report to work;
- Quarantine for anyone who traveled to and from China;
- Purchased additional inventory of Lysol, Clorox, or other alcohol-based wipes to give us a two month plus supply for each call floor;
- Required each employee to wipe down their workstations before and after each shift;
- Instituted a headset sharing restriction policy;
- Encourage healthy habits, such as washing your hands, not touching your face, etc.
We also began communicating regularly with clients and employees and published educational posters throughout the contact centers with best practices and information on COVID-19 to ensure accurate information was accessible.
Stage 2: More Stringent Measures
On March 13, with additional cases being announced in the United States (but still none in Belize), we decided to take other measures, which included:
We restricted all international travel. Any employee who traveled outside of Belize would be required to self-quarantine before returning to work.
Contact Center Closures
We closed all contact centers to outside visitors, including clients, vendors, and family members.
Sanitization & Prevention Protocols
We installed hand sanitizing stations at the entrance of all buildings and required employees to wash their hands as much as possible (at least twice per day). We also prohibited all physical contact, including shaking hands and hugging, and started temperature checks upon entrance to the building (Anyone with a temperature over 100.4 Fahrenheit would be sent to the doctor and not allowed to return until cleared by a healthcare professional.)
In addition, we required security personnel, janitorial staff, and food handlers to wear gloves; we enhanced janitorial efforts to wipe down high traffic areas (e.g., door handles, countertops and tables, elevator buttons, water cooler handles, etc.) every two hours, and ordered an extra three months’ worth of janitorial supplies to guarantee we had plenty in reserve.
As a further preventative measure, we sanitized all buses and company vehicles before and after each trip and installed hand sanitizing stations on each.
Stage 3: Business Continuity Planning
At this same time, the Transparent BPO leadership team felt we needed to design and quickly implement a business continuity plan — even though there were still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Belize — that centered around using a WFH model.
Unlike other contact centers, we did not merely put computers in a home — that would have resulted in a much less desirable rollout. Instead, we took a well thought out, balanced approach between holding ourselves to a high standard to keep a quality product and ensuring proper compliance measures, such as PCI, SOC-2, and HIPAA, were adhered to.
Unlike other contact centers, we did not merely put computers in a home — that would have resulted in a much less desirable rollout.
In developing the continuity plan, we evaluated problems we might encounter during implementation and developed solutions to circumvent them. These included the following:
Evaluated Thin Client Deployment Model
The first consideration was whether to use a thin client deployment model, which would require investing in a server farm at our colocation facility in Miami. This option proved to be problematic, however.
The main components we needed came from China and were on a significantly delayed lead time. We felt the expected six-to-eight-week implementation period would be counterproductive if we hoped to reach our goals. As a result, we pivoted and began to look for other ideas.
Addressed Firewall Limitations
The firewalls we had in place were only meant for brick-and-mortar operations and were very limited in terms of remote VPN connections.
To resolve the problem, we purchased a Cisco ASA firewall, which we deployed in our colocation in Miami. It used Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN software that allowed us to support up to 700 users initially and now supports over 5,000 concurrent connections.
Agents working from home have no access to client systems unless connected to our VPN, which connects to our network. This precaution allows us to enforce virus protection and the policies and rules we have at our facilities in Belize to be 100 percent compliant.
Enabled Multi-factor Authentication Availability
Remote workers are required to have multi-factor authentication (MFA) capabilities to remain PCI compliant.
This requirement is challenging in a developing country like Belize because you can’t rely on employees to have mobile phones with an MFA token. Also, the fact employees are not allowed to have cell phones at their workstations (phones are not an approved device) only exacerbated the problem. After exploring a range of options, we found an MFA solution that works on desktops and could, therefore, be implemented in the WFH environment.
Added Policy Statement
We added confirmation of policies and procedures statement both on the active directory and VPN logins. It is an additional layer that reminds our agents of the importance of PCI compliance each time they log in for their shift.
Staging Environment & Internet Provider Testing
Once we settled on a solution, we went through a staging environment and internet testing procedure.
We set up one PC in a remote location for each client and brought in an agent from each program to work for a full day, under supervision, to make sure there were no VPN connectivity hurdles that might impede them from working productively.
We took this step before setting up anything in the field to establish proof of concept and troubleshoot any problems that might arise in a remote location.
Simultaneously, we surveyed our employees to determine who had home internet and what connections they used. We then sent members of our IT team into agents’ homes and tested different residential internet providers — seven in all — for latency, jitter, and stability.
Agent Due Diligence
With our attorney, we drafted a work-from-home agreement that all agents were required to sign. Our training director developed an LMS course for work-at-home certification that consisted of a 10-minute self-paced video and quiz that agents had to pass to be eligible. Lastly, agents had to sign an equipment asset sign-out form that contained asset tags, serial numbers, and replacement costs.
We surveyed clients to determine their appetite for work-from-home ability, giving them a few options:
- We would not be interested in work-from-home;
- Yes, but only in the event of a serious incident;
- Yes, and we would like to start moving them now to get ahead and secure 100 percent uptime;
- Only partial WFH and the rest in the office.
We also had to resolve a PCI compliance liability issue. Even though we could protect data security thanks to the VPN and MFA, we could not exert total control over physical security (e.g., If an agent wanted to write down credit card numbers with pen and paper, we could not prevent that in a WFH setting.)
In some cases, we agreed to change the job scope to limit agents’ ability to take sensitive information. We also asked clients to look at alternative secure technology solutions if they wanted to continue to accept credit card information, such as using a secure IVR solution or link that allows customers to input card information themselves.
We encountered a few unexpected problems that we had to adapt to, including:
Ethernet cables. In Belize, many home installations are mounted high on a wall and intended for Wi-Fi use only. Because our policies require workstations to be plugged in via ethernet meant we had to build cables to accommodate the need. (The average cable length needed for each home was over 30 feet, and some were over 50 feet!)
We purchased several boxes of cable, ends, and punch-downs, set up a “manufacturing line” at our Coney Drive location, and began creating cables to send home with the PCs.
Getting computers to homes. Another problem was how to get computers and other equipment to the agents’ homes. It’s not a good idea to send someone home with a PC, dual monitors, keyboard, mouse, and headset on public transportation.
To solve the problem, we conducted a staged rollout by loading up our buses, vans, and personal vehicles and carried people and equipment to each home. We took anywhere from five to 15 people per run throughout the day, along with a member of the IT staff, and found we could set up the equipment in about five minutes per house.
Results to Date
On April 1, the Government of Belize declared a national state of emergency, which required all non-essential businesses to close. Unfortunately, contact centers are not considered essential and, thus, we closed our facilities until the emergency state is lifted.
The good news is that after selectively setting up the first 15 employees on Monday, March 23, within just over a week, we have moved 100 percent of the required employees to a WFH environment. It is a massive effort that we could not have accomplished without capable leadership and dedicated employees, many who worked tirelessly, for long hours.
Both performance and attendance have been excellent, and our agents are appreciative of the opportunity. We know it will pay off in increased loyalty to the TBPO brand for the long haul.
To this point, we have only addressed the issue of physically moving agents from the physical plants to WFH in an organized manner that enables them to work efficiently. Now our efforts turn to building additional monitoring and QA tools to help live in the new WFH environment and deliver results successfully.
Although we are still early in the process, we have learned two valuable lessons.
Initially, we asked clients to pay a small portion of the added expense. But after receiving feedback, reconsidered the request, making it optional.
Another lesson we learned is that early action and planning is critical to success, regardless of the circumstance. Although we can’t predict the future with 100 percent certainty, brainstorming possible scenarios and developing contingency plans to address them helps prepare for risks and secure the necessary provisions to meet an unexpected turn of events.
BPO Industry Future
The COVID-19 pandemic is going to change the BPO industry landscape forever. It requires that industry leaders think seriously about how significantly the virus has impacted companies and how client expectations will change as a result.
We must ask ourselves some vital questions: Does the business model need to change? Do we consider that a subset of agents works from home permanently? How do we expand our business in a work-from-home scenario?
This “new normal” isn’t just a matter of surviving a natural disaster, either. It involves prolonged absence from the office and is a threat that could impact us like nothing we have ever seen. That’s why there will no longer be a single contract we sign that does not include a pandemic clause.
There are also many unknowns to consider. For example, no one knows how long this is going to last or whether it could act seasonally, like the flu. If it does and goes dormant in the summer, it will return in the fall with a vengeance.
Since the likelihood of a vaccine being ready that soon is practically nil, we need to prepare for the eventuality that this could happen again.
The future of our industry could depend on it.
Ensure you maintain contact center business continuity during the crisis.