Work-from-home gains ground as call centres run pilots

This will enable them to provide services that are cheaper and one that can be dialled-up or down based on demand. Experts say the model is helping clients get better quality talent on projects and helping curb attrition.

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BENGALURU: Over the last two decades, call centres typically meant large buildings full of young employees on headsets taking hundreds of calls.

That model may be changing though.

People are now taking calls from home, in what promises to be an Uber-like disruption in customer service.


Global business process outsourcing (BPO) companies have begun pilot work-from-home projects with Indian e-commerce and health-tech startups. This will enable them to provide services that are cheaper and one that can be dialled-up or down based on demand.

To be sure, BPO companies have long had work-at-home-agents, a group the industry calls WAHA. Several clients, however, agreed that only key employees could have that option. This was for business contingency planning or to mitigate costs in delivery locations such as the United States.

However, with a near shutdown of large parts of China due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the work-at-home call centre model is likely to spread, industry executives said.
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“Work-at-home has been available, but its uptake by clients was not there. Now, in China, with the coronavirus, we have 2,000 agents working from home,” Bhupender Singh, President of Group Transformation at BPO giant Teleperformance, told ET. “It is an unfortunate thing, but the side-effect is that clients are now open to this.”

The company has about 1,400 agents working from home in the United States, he said. Teleperformance has over 330,000 employees globally.

The work-from-home movement is coming to India as well despite challenges over the need for designated workspaces in an agent’s home, landline networks and connectivity.

“At Startek India, we also provide WAHA for a health-tech company, as it gets more scale (when required), which means that the number of WAHA product specialists can be adjusted to the demand for seasonal labour,” said Rajiv Ahuja, Global Chief Operating Officer at Startek.
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Teleperformance is also piloting the work-from-home model with two Indian companies, one of which is in the ecommerce space, Singh said. “Around sales, there is a need to have more agents, but it does not make sense to invest in capacity that won’t get used after that period ends. Work-from-home agents help in dealing with the capacity needs.”

The model is also cheaper, a significant plus for clients and call centre operators in India. Work-from-home not only removes physical centres from the matrix, but also transportation costs that are typically borne by companies.
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But there processes that companies need to put in place before they can move to work-from-home model.

“It requires a combination of Hub and Spoke business management model, robust centralised workforce management, technological capabilities (virtual desktops) and security and compliance controls,” Startek’s Ahuja said. He added that the company had a virtual desktop integrator platform, which takes control of the machine until the agent logs off the platform, limiting the incidence of information fraud and the potential to compromise data security.

Experts tracking the space say the model is helping clients get better quality talent on projects and helping curb attrition.

“Typically, you get older workers or householders that are interested. We have seen this in the developed markets in the US and Europe, but we are also seeing it in delivery markets such as the Philippines, China and India,” Peter Ryan, Principal at Ryan Strategic Advisory, told ET.

Teleperformance has shut some centres to move to a work-from-home model. Other providers such as Sitel and Sykes are also increasing work-from-home agents.

Singh of Teleperformance said the shift would also help employ more women, particularly in India.

“If this expands, we can see it helping with women’s employment in India. You could have housewives who work from home for a few hours a day. The model is flexible,” he added.

The Indian government is looking at incentives to help BPO companies generate work-from-home jobs, ET has reported previously.
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