Managing Through COVID-19: A Roundup of Tips, Tools and Tech for Contact Centers


We are finally at the end of a turbulent 2020. It has been quite a journey—with many more months of market uncertainty and workplace challenges ahead.

Over the past eight months, like many of our readers, we have been forced to pivot our editorial coverage to focus on the impacts of COVID-19 on the contact center industry, how to manage through the crisis and the many unforeseen issues that have surfaced. Our authors and contributors have kept abreast of the trends and obstacles, and were quick to share valuable advice for moving past and ahead.

Call this our “in case you missed it” roundup—just a few of the recommendations and practical advice shared by our contact center experts. Be sure to visit the Contact Center Pipeline website and our special COVID-19 Resources section for more useful information to help your contact center emerge successfully from this difficult time.

Technology to Support and Adapt

  • A searchable, dynamic knowledge management platform with the support resources to maintain it serves as a key strategy for improving organizational resiliency. It can enable staff (even those who aren’t normally in the contact center but are “pitching in” during the workload crunch) to become proficient faster across diverse, complex contact types and reduce their reliance on other people. A “single source of truth” promotes consistency and compliance. It also provides an effective means to disseminate updates rapidly.—Lori Bocklund
  • Distributed workforces require centralized depositories for information to be shared and visibility into the team’s progress toward goals. Be sure to assemble the tools and train your teams to ensure all are comfortable using basics like shared calendars, documents and projected trackers to keep everyone up to date and able to quickly collaborate on work projects as needed. Create and use shared virtual communities to communicate informally, too. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, IM or WhatsApp groups can all help. And the same tools can provide access to IT help, allowing workers to quickly get help with connectivity or other technical issues so they can maximize their productivity and focus on customers.—Sonya Buckley
  • Automate immediately—specifically, AI-enabled intelligent agents for both customers and agents—especially WFH agents. On the agent side, intelligent agents, or bots, can supplement in-house training and also act as real-time assistants to agents in terms of gathering and presenting information to agent desktops during a customer interaction. On the customer side, automated intelligent agents were, or could have been, instrumental in handling the tens of thousands of routine calls that were blocked or abandoned because contact centers were overwhelmed with calls following the general shutdown of the country.—Paul Stockford

Virtual Hiring and Onboarding

  • Wrap your new-hire in a blanket of support. Starting a new job is intimidating. Starting a new job in this pandemic while isolated can be even more so. Here are some things you can do that are “extra” but will help your employee feel more connected.
    • Send out a welcome email introducing your new-hire, a fun fact and where they are based.
    • Pass around a card to be signed (for our upcoming hire, we started a card in one city and shipped it around until it was all signed). These things require prep work, but they are worth the time and effort.
    • Prep teams about your new-hire and what they will be doing (share their 30-, 60-, 90-day plan!).
    • Ask individuals to touch base with them the first week.
    • Help with introductions throughout the week via Slack channels, DMs and video calls (like you would if they were at a desk and someone was walking by!).
    • Double-down on your 30-, 60-, 90-day plans and be sure to include a small project on week one to give that employee a win. Make sure that this is a visible win to others outside of your team.—Jessica West
  • Don’t misrepresent the work when hiring WFH agents. In the bricks-and-mortar contact center environment, applicants usually come on-site to observe the pace, the systems, the navigational skills and customer skills that are required in many roles. In the absence of this exposure, misrepresentation of the contact center role is growing and can contribute to higher attrition in early days of employment. Utilizing job simulation tools to expose remote/virtual applicants to the job accurately removes a good deal of the risk for misunderstanding in the early days and the costly impact of new-hire attrition.—Michele Rowan

Staying Connected

  • Call your direct reports simply to ask how they are doing. Listen for the real feelings. If a coach monitors a tough call, encourage them to give the agent a call immediately without any evaluation. It may be just to say, “Wow, that was a tough one. Sorry you had to experience that.” Calls matter, private conversations matter, and learning about how the frontline feels about working from home matters. Create an “outreach” program at all levels.—Kathleen M. Peterson
  • Connecting to the company and other employees should be as easy for remote employees as it is for in-house employees—meaning, doing both should be no more than two clicks away. Platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx Teams make it super simple for teammates to maintain visibility and connectivity during the day and have easy exchanges (work and social) across a variety of channels.—Michele Rowan
  • Proactively and continually take the pulse of your employees’ mental health and emo­tion­al well-being. An employee wellness survey is one of the best ways to capture your employees’ unexpressed concerns and anxieties—and it is an absolute must in the management toolkit as companies reopen their facilities and agents return to the workplace.—Chason Hecht
  • Upskilling boosts agent performance, morale and motivation. Organizations have little control over rapidly changing business needs and requirements; making knowledge easily available to support these transitions can aid agents in becoming successfully upskilled as opposed to severely stressed.—Kelly Koelliker
  • Create a rolling 30-day communication strategy. Block time in your calendar so you can ensure that every employee is given a fair share of your time.—Afshan Kinder & Mike Aoki
  • Reach out for more than just status updates. Employees need to feel heard and valued, especially in a time of uncertainty. Although it’s important to value them as employees and the contribution they bring to your company, it’s equally important that they feel valued as a person. While you might be scheduling your outreach for status updates, make it a priority (even a scheduled one) to reach out for personal updates as well.—Alan Fine
  • Body language still matters. On video calls, maintain eye contact just as you would in a face-to-face meeting; i.e., don’t look down at your phone, and watch your facial expressions while on webinars as everyone can see you and, in turn, feel your emotions (whether good or bad).—Sangeeta Bhatnagar

Workforce Management

  • New shifting patterns made us more aggressive with our forecasting approach. For example:
    • We’re forecasting more frequently, with less turnaround time and closer to the schedule dates—and that’s not really the way I like to do things. I prefer giving the agents as much advance notice as possible to get used to the schedule adjustments we’re throwing on them.
    • We’re using a more severe damping factor when we’re smoothing raw data in order to correct for the instability we see in time-of-day arrival patterns. This makes me nervous because the deeper we have to cut into that, the more we start hiding with averages and the further it takes us from the actual history.
    • We’re leaning more heavily on real-time seasonality and weighted averages instead of circannual growth rates, which is great for short-term forecasts, but are not reliable ways to forecast long-term.—Tiffany LaReau
  • The explosion of WFH agents has opened a new window of opportunity for flexible agent scheduling that best suits your company and agents. Socialize new flex-scheduling options with agents. Even though peak periods must be covered, agents may be open to different shift patterns if it means they can have more personal time off while working from home. Scheduling options to consider that may benefit both agent and center: 4×10 shifts, split shifts and shift bidding. Communicate your plans with agents before implementing, and ask them for their schedule preferences. Not only do you want to get their buy-in, the new schedule plans must meet your business needs and be cost-efficient.—Daryl Gonos

Preparing for a Return to the Office

  • Some employees are fully ready to get back to normalcy (shaking hands and being with people), while others are genuinely concerned for their safety and prefer to social distance and avoid contact with anyone. To enable cooperation and comfort for all, it’s important to implement a communication system. We use color-coded wristbands or lanyards in red, yellow and green:
    • An employee wearing green signals, “I am comfortable with close contact.”
    • Yellow might indicate, “Please observe six feet of separation.”
    • Red would send the message, “I prefer no face-to-face contact at all.”

    This system allows everyone to understand their coworkers’ preferences and treat them the way they want to be treated. Remember, over time people may shift from one color to another, so allow flexibility here, as well.—Eric Berg, Matt Conant & Jeremy Hyde