Antibody tests to wearable tech: how some Welsh contact centres are planning to keep staff safe and the nation connected

A year on from Mark Drakeford’s directive to “work from home where you can”, we spoke to industry leaders to discover how Welsh contact centres have coped with Covid-19 and are innovating past social distancing signs. 

Sandra Busby, managing director of the Welsh Contact Centre Forum (WCCF): 

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve all depended on the fact that there would still be a voice on the end of the line or the live chat to help us with our banking issues, to fix our internet connections so that we could work remotely, to keep our Sky TV on or help us book Covid tests.    

“If your mental image of a contact centre consists of people wearing headsets looking at a screen, then you’re picturing about ten percent of what makes these essential workplaces operate. Add state-of-the-art infrastructure, secure servers, networks of interconnected banking systems and databases storing sensitive personal data, and you are starting to get a fuller picture.

“Despite this overnight operational change, working from dining tables and spare bedrooms, teams of skilled workers have made sure our calls, live chats and emails have still beenanswered around the clock.  The mental health weight of that across the population can’t be underestimated” 

According to the WCCF, less than 30% of the sector’s 30,000-plus employees are working from Welsh contact centres and most sites are closed entirely. One of the businesses that has transitioned its entire contact centre operations to remote working is Principality Building Society. Its Chief Operating Officer, Iain Mansfield, explains: 

All of Principality’s contact centre team are now working from home.  Branch staff are also supporting some of our contact centre phone calls from their existing branch locations. This arrangement was in place before Covid and has continued in helping provide additional support, especially during peak periods. On average, circa 25% of contact centre calls are answered by branch colleagues daily.” 

“As all our call centre colleagues are working from home, support has been given to ensure safe and secure remote working, from IT equipment to ergonomic desks and chairs. We’ve also implemented tech tools to keep in touch with teams and ensure our colleagues can access support and advice whenever they need.

“Regular team meetings and remote one-to-one sessions remain key as we operate remotely, this includes ensuring that a range of wellbeing support options are always available to all Principality colleagues.”

Though most Welsh contact centre staff are now working remotely from home, its essential for some operations for some staff to remain onsite. This includes the need to protect the wellbeing of members of their teams, and specific situations where remote access is not appropriate. 

Sandra Busby continues: “Companies aren’t just letting their people come back to the office because they want to, nor are they forcing anyone to return. 

“For example, after the year we’ve endured, I think that we can all appreciate the very real mental health impacts and risks of isolation people may face. Some don’t have safe or adequate spaces to work from at home. Employers have a responsibility to mitigate these risks the best they can. That work to protect our people includes the Forum and its members partnering with the mental health experts at Mind to ensure teams can access support should they need it. 

“There’s also a reality that, in some situations, the responsibilities contact centres undertake just can’t be performed by staff working remotely. We accept this for other professions, a plumber cannot fix your boiler from their home. Similarly, the person at the end of the line you are depending on to restore your internet connection likely needs access to specialist resources that can’t be accessed from a living room.

“Many contact centres need to secure customers’ information and personal data. Consider this, would you feel comfortable if your bank allowed a new employee to access your personal data at home?”

The Welsh contact centre industry employs over 32,000 people in Wales, an industry that is specifically designed to work from established hubs with tailored infrastructure. So, when the restrictions came into force, how did the industry keep lines open?  

Lee Jones, deputy chair of the WCCF said: “The actions taken by the contact centre industry to migrate their teams to work from home securely, and protect them when they need an office base, have been nothing short of remarkable. 

“We are really proud of the standards deployed by our members in making their offices Covid secure. Of course, for the majority of contact centre workers they are able to work from home having been provided laptops at the outbreak of the pandemic. For those that cannot, or choose not to work from home, they can expect offices to strictly adhere to social distancing rules, have ample signage and one-way systems to navigate the building safely, deep cleans happen on a daily basis and all are subject to robust Risk Assessments. 

“As a result office cases have been relatively low and where identified, precautionary methods have been deployed quickly. 

“Since the pandemic arrived on our shores, the Welsh Contact Centre Forum has worked to support our 200 plus partner companies and their teams. Though we faced unprecedented challenges, our goals were simple –advise and protect our employers and their teams, help them continue to deliver our essential services but in new ways.

“The employers we work with are adapting workspaces and reinventing office working best practices with enthusiasm and innovation.

“We continue to work closely with Welsh Government, local Environmental Health agencies and each other to ensure our colleagues wellbeing is our number one priority.”

The Forum’s priority became bringing contact centres together with experts in a range of fields. Overnight its website became a platform to share Covid-19 best practice and guide employers to the innovations that could allow them to continue to provide the service the nation needs. That work continues with regular webinars and workshops guiding some of Wales’ biggest employer’s on how new innovations can allow for people to safely return to their offices as needed. 

Today, some of the options being considered by contact centres range from implementing work-based Covid-19 specific anti-body testing, to cloud-based technologies that can help ensure safe social distancing for staff working in offices.  

Penarth-based EKF Diagnostics, a healthcare company which also has sites in the US and Germany, is actively working with the Forum to identify how mass workplace antibody testing could be used as a tool to allow contact centre teams to safely return to offices. 

EKF Diagnostics’ Sales Director, Martyn Lewis, explains: “Antibody testing provides businesses with a cost-effective option to encourage staff back into offices with the peace of mind that they are extremely unlikely to be infected with the virus.

“The test is a two-step process. Firstly we use a lateral flow test (LFT) that uses a finger prick blood sample. This test provides an initial screening to quickly identify who has and who has not got COVID-19 antibodies. We then take a second sample to screen those with a positive or indeterminate result with a test called SeroKlir. This test is performed in laboratory and was developed in New York by the Mount Sinai Hospital System. It has been tested on 80,000 people and is very reliable. 

“The result of the SeroKlir test is a quantifiable figure which shows the level of antibodies a person has. Quite simply, the higher the antibody level the better, as antibodies provide a reaction that is the same as that which someone would get from a vaccine. The tests will help identify asymptomatic carriers and will also show just how effective a vaccinated person has been in producing antibodies – not everyone reacts the same way. Because antibodies decline over time, businesses should test employees every few months to ensure that levels remain high. 

“A regular testing programme will allow companies to identify who has antibodies, set up new ways of working and, if necessary, refine their social distancing procedures.”  

Lewis added: “The testing process we are discussing with the Forum’s members is significantly quicker and less expensive than PCR-based COVID testing that is carried out in a lab, and is much more accurate than the imported lateral flow tests for COVID antigens that are being considered by the UK and Welsh Governments.”

Testing is just one component being considered by the contact centre industry as it plans for the potential return to office-based working. In addition to reduced office headcounts and maintaining appropriate social distancing and screening, a major aspect of those plans will likely involve the adoption of new technology. An option under consideration by the Forum and its partner members is a form of wearable tech developed by the experts at Consulting Professionals.      

The company has developed ‘SafeLite’, a wearable, internet-enabled device that can be worn on a lanyard, which beeps if the wearer are accidentally closer than two metres to a colleague. Through the power of the cloud, these GDPR-compliant devices also provides a powerful tool for employers to identify bottleneck areas within the workplace that need to be addressed to ensure safe social distancing. Should a member of a team test positive for the virus, accessing stored tracing data will allow managers to quickly identify any colleagues who may have be in their proximity and take appropriate actions.    

As vaccination programmes gathers pace, many industries are planning for a future where their teams can return to the workplace. But, in the case of the contact centre industry, that future may well be busier than ever. A reality of the past year is that in many cases consumers and businesses will prefer for some elements of ‘the new normal’ to continue. This is particularly true for those of us who may prefer to engage with service providers remotely. This is a trend that Principality Building Society is anticipating. 

Iain Mansfield explains: “Customer behaviour has continued to shift during the pandemic with significant increases apparent in digital contact channels. We have seen our customers’ use of secure messages and emails increase by 250% and there has been a rapid adoption of our new WebChat service. 

“Telephony has continued throughout as a very popular channel with customers valuing the excellent personal service especially for more complex questions and support requests. As a result, we would envisage that this demand will see us continuing with a blended support model for contact for the foreseeable future, as we seek to ensure that our members continue to receive standout customer experience in their channel of choice.”