Case Study: A BPO Adapts to the COVID-19 Pandemic



By Scott Newman

Transparent BPO recently undertook a serious initiative: to deploy 850 brick-and-mortar contact center agents to a work-from-home (WFH) environment.

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 now we continue to work on enhancements and additional monitoring to help ensure excellent service delivery.

Introduction

The first known case of COVID-19 in the United States 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 determine if one even exists). The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry companies that can continue operating and 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

Founded in 2009, Transparent BPO runs a brick-and-mortar operation out of three physical sites in Belize City, Belize, Central America, with 850 employees (as well as a work-from-home operation based in the Philippines). 

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. We decided to enact the following measures:

  • 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 and not touching your face.

We also began communicating regularly with clients and employees, and we 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 announced in the United (but still none in Belize), we took other measures, which included:

Travel Restrictions: We restricted all international travel. Any employee who traveled outside of Belize must self-quarantine before returning to work. 

Contact Center Closures: We closed all contact centers to outside visitors, including clients, vendors, and family members.

Sanitization and 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 (such as door handles, countertops and tables, elevator buttons, and water cooler handles) every two hours. And we ordered an extra three months’ worth of janitorial supplies to guarantee that we had plenty in reserve.

As a further preventative measure, we sanitized all buses and company vehicles before and after each trip, and we installed hand-sanitizing stations on each.

Stage 3: Business Continuity Planning

At this same time, our 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 adhering to PCI, SOC-2, and HIPAA. 

In developing the continuity plan, we evaluated problems we might encounter during implementation and developed solutions to circumvent them, as follows.

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, however, proved problematic. 

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 faced limitations for remote VPN connections. To resolve the problem, we purchased a Cisco ASA firewall, which we deployed in our colocation in Miami. It uses Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN software, which 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 Multifactor Authentication Availability

Remote workers are required to have multifactor-authentication (MFA) capabilities to remain PCI-compliant. This requirement is challenging in a developing country like Belize because companies can’t rely on employees to have mobile phones with an MFA token. Also, the fact employees can’t have cell phones at their workstations exacerbates the problem. After exploring a range of options, we found an MFA solution that works on desktops and in a WFH environment. 

Added Policy Statement

We added a confirmation of policies and procedures statement both on the active directory and VPN logins. It is an additional layer that reminds agents of the importance of PCI-compliance each time they log in for their shift.

Staging Environment and 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 evaluated seven different residential internet providers for latency, jitter, and stability. 

Agent Due Diligence

With our attorney, we drafted a work-from-home agreement, which we required all agents to sign. Our training director developed a course for work-at-home certification that consisted of a ten-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. 

Client Communications

We surveyed clients to determine their appetite for our staff to work-from-home ability, giving them a few options:

  • Not interested in work-from-home
  • Only in the event of a serious incident
  • Yes: moving 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 (such as an agent writing down credit card numbers.)

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.

Unexpected Problems

We encountered a few unexpected problems. They included: 

Ethernet cables. In Belize, many home internet installations are mounted high on a wall and intended for Wi-Fi use only. Because our policies require workstations 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, and made 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 wasn’t wise 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 fifteen people per run throughout the day, along with a member of the IT staff. 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 nonessential businesses to close. Unfortunately, contact centers are not considered essential. Thus, we have closed our facilities until the emergency state is lifted. 

The good news is that after selectively setting up the first fifteen employees on Monday, March 23, within just over a week, we have moved 100 percent of the required employees to a WFH environment. It has been a massive effort with many working long hours to make it happen.

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 our brand.

So far we have only addressed the issue of physically moving agents from our office to WFH in an organized manner that enables them to work efficiently. Now our efforts will turn to building additional monitoring and QA tools to help live in the new WFH environment and deliver results successfully.

We surveyed clients to determine their appetite for our staff to work-from-home. Click To Tweet

Lessons Learned

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, we reconsidered the request.

Another lesson is that quick action and planning is critical to success. Brainstorming possible scenarios and developing contingency plans to address them help us to 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 WFH scenario?

This 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 all future contracts will include a pandemic clause.

There are also many unknowns to consider. No one knows how long this will last or whether it could occur seasonally, like the flu. Since the likelihood of a vaccine being ready 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. 

Scott Newman is the CEO of Transparent BPO.