Pandemic Preparation Can Be Contagious
By Colin Taylor
We certainly are living in interesting times. This is unquestionably the best time to ever have lived as a human being; not so good for other species perhaps. Yet we are regularly faced with new issues and challenges that can impact both our personal and business lives. The current challenge is how we prepare for, yet hope to avoid, COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that is rapidly approaching pandemic status. The questions addressed in this post are how we keep ourselves safe and healthy, and how can we prepare and continue to operate our contact centers in the face of a rising pandemic; for if it isn’t COVID-19 it will be something else.
Now, of course, we have been here before: “Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin caused by the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths reported in 17 countries.”[source] Canada was the hardest-hit country outside of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with 251 cases and 43 deaths. This is what it looked like on the streets of Toronto in the spring of 2003. Here is what it looked like on the streets of Toronto in the spring of 2003:
After SARS we had MERS: “Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), also known as camel flu, is a viral respiratory infection caused by the MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV).”[source] 2012 to 2019 MERS infected over 2,500 people and killed 862.
So we really shouldn’t be surprised that another coronavirus, another from a zoonotic (animal) source, has arrived on the scene. As of March 5th, there are over 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide and even this number is widely suspected to be under-reported. The actual total may be as much as 10 times higher.[source] Cases are reported in 147 countries and worldwide the deaths to date are more than 3,200. This is bigger than SARS and bigger then MERS combined.
So what can we do about COVID-19 as individuals and as contact center operators?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the following are the symptoms of COVID-19:
Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases.
The following symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure:
- Shortness of breath
If you have the symptoms and feel you might have COVID-19 you are advised to reach for the phone and not drive to the hospital or doctor office Either of the latter approaches may actually spread the infection to others.
When you call your doctor, National Health or Telehealth be prepared to answer the following questions about your symptoms: your travel history, and your risk of exposure to the virus. This triage process can then determine the next steps: self-isolation, or a trip to the hospital or doctor.
Of course, the best treatment is always prevention. The World Health Organization has provided the following guidance to reduce your risk of contracting the virus:
As contact center operators we will almost certainly be impacted by the virus, not just in terms of staff that gets infected, but also by the fear of infection and misinformation about COVID-19.
The first thing to recognize is that any virus spread by person to person contact, like COVID-19, means that you want to avoid crowds or groups of people. Unfortunately, that is exactly what a “bricks and mortar” contact center is. Every day tens, hundreds or even thousands of people may walk into your center. Before long someone in the mass of humanity may be infected with COVID-19. So now what do you do?
I have heard from a number of center operators who wished they had updated their business continuity programs to include a pandemic after SARS or MERS. If you did make such an update, congratulations: you have a plan. If you didn’t make an update, well there is no time like the present. The following will provide you with some tips you can incorporate into your pandemic planning.
- If you have remote agents or agents who occasionally work for home, send them there. The fewer people in the office the less likely to be infected.
- You will also need to reach out to IT to see how your VPN is configured. At many organizations the VPN and associated bandwidth is only designed to support a small percentage of staff actually working from home. If you are configured to support 10 or 15% of staff working remotely and suddenly 50 or 60% are, there will be issues.
- Those who work at home all of the time will already be set up to work from home so no additional technical measures need to be taken. For those who occasionally or never work from home, you will need to prepare a ‘Go Kit’ for each of them. The “Go Kit” will need to include a laptop (preconfigured to meet your work at home standards), headset, all required chargers, and power blocks, documentation outlining their team lead or supervisor, escalation practices and how to submit timecards, etc. You will need to assign agents to teams and have a team leader who will hold their hand and help them get comfortable working from home. Remember it isn’t just agents that may become ill. Supervisors, managers, and directors are likewise susceptible, so for every plan create a contingency plan.
- If your center is but one of a number or network of centers then you may feel the pressure from COVID-19 before it ever gets near your center. As it impacts other centers in other geographies, their ability to serve all of their incoming traffic can be challenged and their calls may be overflowing to your facility. Wherever possible ensure that staff in different centers are cross-trained and send calls and contact to other networked centers as a strategy to serve customers.
- If you employ and outsource or third party to field some of your calls, reach out to them to see if they can handle more on a temporary basis. Keep in mind however that they may face the same challenges as you do with COVID-19, or they may be more impacted.
- Place signs on every door in the facility advising that “If you have cough, fever or shortness of breathe, do not enter the building. Go home and call the company.” This will impact visitors and employees alike and will play havoc with your shrinkage and absenteeism. Get over it.
- Place antibiotic soap (think Purel) dispensers on both sides of every door with a sign asking people to wash their hands after touching the door.
- Print posters with the “ways to reduce your risk” from the WHO (and shown above) and post these all over the office. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
- If it isn’t desirable or feasible to send all of your staff to work from home, you need to appreciate that as most contact center agents are hourly paid they will not get paid unless they work. This motivation will cause staff to come into work even if they are feeling sick. This is not a good situation. If they come to work they can then infect more staff and your situation gets even worse. You should consider, at least temporarily, paying staff who are sick so that they do not come into the center.
- If one staff member becomes infected you will then need to play detective and send home all of those who have come in contact with the staff member in the past 14 days. To do this you will need to check schedules to see when they worked, who shared their lunch and breaks, and who worked with them, seating charts to see who was next to them each day, classmates if there were any trainings or meetings, quality, and supervisory staff if any coaching occurred.
Prevention is certainly preferable to treating an infection. It is less disruptive and less expensive, but people are people and we are social animals, so people will congregate together. You may dodge COVID-19, just as you did SARS and MERS, but I would humbly suggest that you add pandemic planning to your business continuity plan so that you can be better prepared for the next pandemic.
For more information on pandemic planning, or if you do not have “Go Kits” or work at home standards, reach out to us and we can share resources and help you get your planning started.
To find out more about how Taylor Reach can help your company with pandemic planning, CLICK HERE to schedule a free consultation.