Virtually There: The Evolution of Call Centres
Mitel, September 1999
A study into virtual call centres and the opportunities and challenges for teleworkers and employers
Call centres are one of the most rapidly growing forms of employment in Britain today and also one of the most controversial, having attracted negative press coverage for the stressful ‘pressure-cooker’ working conditions which apply in some of the larger and more highly-regimented centres. Reports have also focused on staff recruitment and retention difficulties experienced in local call centre ‘hot spots’. Many of these problems appear to be associated with having large numbers of workers concentrated together in one location.
However, recent technological developments mean that such concentrations are no longer really necessary for many functions. The combination of high-speed digital telephone networks and sophisticated software and switching technology which underlie modern computer telephony integration means that calls can now be re-routed seamlessly to any point. Using this technology, remotely based agents can in effect be managed exactly as if they were physically together in a call centre.
The virtual call centre, as this development is known, opens up many opportunities for flexible management of variable workloads including facilitating the transfer of work to other time-zones, outsourcing or the use of teleworkers.
It is the potential for teleworking in call centre work that forms the main focus of this study, which addresses the following questions:
- Is there a potential demand for telework in the call centre industry?
- Is there a potential teleworking workforce with the appropriate skills and motivation to take up such work if it were offered?
- Might virtual call centre work open up new employment opportunities for people who are disadvantaged on the labour market, for instance because of a disability, caring responsibilities or because they live in remote rural areas?
- What are the benefits of teleworking to employers and workers in this sector? And what are the risks?
- What are good Human Resources practices in virtual call centres?
The study was carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and the Telework, Telecottage and Telecentre Association (TCA), commissioned by business communications company, Mitel and the Gulbenkian Foundation. The research included:
- An Internet survey of 117 call centre managers
- In-depth interviews and case studies of virtual call centres
- Detailed analysis of the UK Labour Force Survey
- An Internet survey of 261 potential teleworkers.
The explosive growth of call centre employment
The study concluded that whilst no reliable statistics exist on call centre employment in the UK it is undoubtedly expanding quickly and probably currently accounts for between a quarter and three-quarters of a million jobs in Britain (depending on the definition used).
Furthermore, the rapid growth and speed of change in the sector has created very volatile conditions in the industry. These include:
- Recruitment difficulties – reported as a major challenge by 18% of call centre managers and as a significant but manageable problem by a further third.
- Retention difficulties – a major challenge for 22% and a significant but manageable problem for a further 27% of managers.
- Absenteeism – a major challenge for 19% and a significant but manageable problem for a further 27% of managers.
- Stress – a serious problem in 18% and a significant but manageable problem in a further 36% of cases.
- Workflow management problems – serious in 19% of cases and a significant problem in a further 40%.
- Uncertainty about the future – with 29% of respondents expecting to have to relocate within the next two years and a further 26% of managers who do not know what their organisation’s location plans might be.
Call centre managers’ attitudes to teleworking
Although only 4% of call centres in the survey are currently employing homeworkers, a further 42% expect to do so in the future, and attitudes to managing homeworkers appear to be cautiously positive in the majority of cases, with 12% unequivocally in favour but a more measured 44% believing that it is a good idea to use homeworkers in some cases.
The report concludes that there is a strong potential for the development of virtual call centres.
The potential teleworking workforce
In the general UK population, 5% of the workforce are now teleworking at least one day per week – using a computer and a telephone link to communicate with their employer. Teleworking covers a broad range of activities, of which virtual call centre work is only one.
The respondents in our Internet survey shared many of the characteristics of existing teleworkers, being more likely than average to be in mid-life, and bringing up a family and with above-average education levels.
- 11% had postgraduate degrees, and only 6.5% had no qualifications.
- 60% of the sample were already in some form of employment, the majority (a third of the total sample) in full-time employment, with 15% working part-time and 12% in irregular employment.
- Although only 7% were formally registered as job seekers, four out of ten of those surveyed stated that they were currently actively looking for work.
Attitudes to teleworking
The respondents in the survey were in general highly positive about home-based call centre work.
- The majority of respondents, 55%, said that they would like to work at home all the time, with 32% expressing a preference for working partly at home and partly outside, and 11% saying they didn’t mind where they worked.
- The top attraction of teleworking, cited by nearly six out of ten of the respondents (59%) was ‘I could be more productive’ this advantage was followed (at 54%) by ‘no need to travel’ and ‘I could choose when to start and stop’. 44% of the sample thought that teleworking would enable them to fit work in with other interests, whilst 40% claimed that it would save time.
- In terms of working hours, the largest group (43%) wanted to work part-time, with a third preferring full-time employment and most of the remainder saying that they didn’t mind.
Relevant work experience
The respondents had a wide range of work experience in sectors in which call centres are to be found and seem likely to have relevant skills and knowledge to offer an employer.
- Four out of ten respondents had work experience in the retail sector, 30% in the IT industry, 24% in financial services, 23% in telecommunications and 18% each in local government and the voluntary sector. A substantial proportion had skills or knowledge of relevance to sectors which use call centres.
- Over three-quarters of respondents rated themselves ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ on a range of skills associated with call centre work and with teleworking. There was, however, a strong interest in further training in skills relating to teleworking.
The report includes seven case-studies of call centres in the UK which have successfully made use of home-based teleworkers. These include call centres in charity fund-raising, financial services, insurance, counselling, emergency breakdown services, travel and IT support.
Benefits of teleworking in these cases include:
- Enhanced ability to provide full staff cover during peak times
- Improved staff retention
- Improved working conditions
- Very positive reactions from teleworking staff
- Improvements in productivity and work quality
- Equal opportunities – flexible work options for carers and people with disabilities
- Enhanced organisational ability to respond flexibly to change.
Virtual call centres: an idea whose time has come?
The report concludes that there is both a strong potential demand for virtual call centre work and a supply of appropriately skilled labour keen to work in this sector as teleworkers. However to enable this potential to be met some barriers will have to be overcome.
Barriers on the demand side:
- The newness of much of the technology coming on-stream to support remote call centre work. At a time when many call centre managers are ‘running to stand still’ there is an understandable reluctance to adopt technologies which may be seen as untested and risky. The general speed of change in the sector also makes it difficult for managers to stand back and take a strategic look beyond the immediate future.
- The call centre industry’s tradition of strong hands-on management and strict monitoring of its workforce. In many call centres a major cultural shift would be required for supervisors to learn to trust workers they cannot see and control directly.
- Worries about data security and fraud.
- Worries about training and team-building for remote workers.
Barriers on the supply side:
- The operation of the benefit system which still, despite some improvements, creates ‘traps’ for people on benefit seeking to enter employment, especially when it is part-time.
- Lack of information about work opportunities.
- Concerns about social isolation.
- The report concludes with practical advice to managers on how to overcome problems in setting up a virtual call centre including:
- Technical solutions
- Staff recruitment and training
- Management and management training
- Contractual issues
- Health and safety
The report may be purchased from Firefly Communications, priced £50.00. Tel. 0207 3861590.
For further information:
Firefly Communications: Nicola West or
Mitel Telecom Ltd: Ian Wood
Virtually There: The Evolution of Call Centres, Huws U. , Mitel, 1999.
ISBN: 978-0-95338-372-6. Bound copy: £50.00