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Striking the balance between health and safety and productivity and efficiency in SA’s BPO sector in a COVID environment

The rapid response of South Africa’s business process outsourcing (BPO) sector to the COVID-19 pandemic has strongly reinforced the country’s position as a top destination in the global business services sector.  BPO businesses were able to quickly migrate to remote and hybrid working models to ensure that operations and service delivery continued with minimal disruption.  The business continuity planning of the sector was a significant feat and while no one could have foreseen the impact that a globally synchronous pandemic and lockdown would have, South African BPO providers have proven resilient amidst much upheaval.

“There have been major learnings over the last months, not least of which is the fact that BPO providers will need to evolve and manage their location, operations and HR strategies to reduce the risks that a pandemic event can have on business continuity plans and recovery.  While remote working was a necessary, albeit temporary measure to ensure that service delivery continued during the lockdown and the peak of COVID-19 infections, it is not the ideal solution for the vast majority of call centre agents due to connectivity and home living conditions,” explains Clinton Cohen, Managing Director of iContact, a BPO provider specialising in inbound and outbound sales and support services, customer retention and loyalty management, lead generation and back-office fulfilment.

“Besides our geographically dispersed offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we are also reconfiguring our call centre environment, seating plans, people traffic flows through the building, screening processes, timing of breaks and sanitisation processes to ensure as safe an environment as humanly possible.  As our call centres operate on a 24/7/365 basis to cater for international clients in various time zones, it is quite a feat to manage the flows and interaction between a few hundred agents at any one time.  However, our ability to deploy and ramp-up fully functional teams under any crisis scenario is a critical competitive advantage, especially since COVID-19 is likely to persist for months to come, and unlikely to be the last of its kind,” adds Cohen.

South Africa’s business process outsourcing (BPO) market is touted to potentially create 775 000 jobs by 2030 according to consultancy firm McKinsey, while the country is also ranked as the second most preferred Global BPO offshore destination in 2020 for the third consecutive year, based on the annual Front Office BPO Omnibus Survey. SA’s BPO sector currently employs over 270 000 people in six cities, 65 000 of whom serve international clients across various time zones.

Given its significance in the global environment, its contribution to the local economy and massive employment numbers, finding a way to manage the impact of a pandemic event both on agent health and productivity will become crucial going forward. The reality is that many businesses are realising that they can’t afford to have the majority of their staff operating off site in the long run – both in terms of the additional cost of doing business, as well as the productivity and efficiency losses.

“A key driver of success in SA’s BPO sector is our ability to achieve lower operational costs and increase the quality and efficiency of business process delivery.  This is challenging in a remote environment where agents require costly mobile connectivity or data, and additional layers of IT security while operating outside of the usual secure network.  Another significant challenge is load shedding or power outages.  The lack of access to reliable internet connectivity and power outages disproportionately affect call centre agents who are typically youth living in informal areas where living conditions are simply not conducive to a remote working arrangement.  The result is lower productivity which hinders the agent’s ability to maintain and earn an income, and which is typically performance-based.  It also negatively affects the achievement of budget targets on strategic client accounts.  When you amplify this scenario across a few thousand agents, the competitive advantage of SA’s BPO sector is considerably diminished if left unchecked,” explains Cohen.

“Another critical consideration is the social nature of people, especially those working in a sales and performance-driven environment.  Motivation and healthy competition between agents are integral to the job. Sales is a tough task master and there is tremendous pressure to perform – it is here where the competitive interaction with peers plays an important incentivising and motivational role. This is not easily achieved, or even possible, in a remote working environment where agents are isolated from the group energy – and online meetings simply don’t cut it when it comes to meaningful engagement,” adds Cohen.

For larger BPO operators, the additional security, cost and complexity of the work conducted for clients make remote working challenging if the productivity and efficiency gains are to be realised that have positioned SA as a top global business services destination.  For the vast majority of South African youth operating in SA’s BPO sector, there is nothing quite like being there, present and engaged.  Going forward, BPO providers will need to strike the balance between delivering a safe working environment as a priority in the face of ongoing pandemic risks, while maintaining the productivity and efficiency levels that come from face-to-face interaction, training and human engagement.

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