As the weeks of lockdown continue, it seems to me we are learning a whole new system of value - hitherto invisible and seemingly low value roles are emerging as ‘essential’ and vital roles which allow us all to continue to function. 

I saw an open letter widely circulated by a girl called Amber this week. She stacks shelves for a major food brand and the letter highlighted her plight; customers ignoring safe distancing rules and putting her life in danger. She thanked those who were considerate, courteous and patient and begged those who weren’t to change their behaviour. In essence she is a voice for the many unsung heroes whose roles we simply take for granted; care workers, shop workers, porters, auxiliaries, bus drivers, delivery people, call centre workers, and many more. Like many of us I was saddened to hear of the many care workers who have been unable to access basic PPE to keep them and vulnerable people safe. 

Celebrities and a whole raft of influencers in business and politics, now not deemed essential workers, have had to accept that their own ongoing profile depends on their profiling those who are key workers.

Around a million people in the UK work in customer service operations (historically known as call centres) staffing 111 and emergency services, pandemic helplines, HMRC, DWP, insurance, NHS24, banking, retail, mortgage services - basically acting as the conduit for just about everything we need to function in our daily lives. Their roles vary between speaking to people, managing social feeds, web chats, often assisted by virtual assistant, and a whole raft of very clever digital services. 

These roles and those who schedule, manage and lead the operations are hugely complex. They have become much more so over the last 10 years since the recession as vulnerability, pace of change and complexity in society has continued to rise.

The current crisis has acted as a very large magnifying glass for many organisations. Some have contingency planning in their DNA and are able to switch to alternative models of homeworking and partnering with professional outsourced services. Others have been struggling with operational issues including offshore lockdown, and have no alternative but to put out messages to customers saying they are no longer accepting phone calls due to Coronavirus. 

Some parts of operations are deemed too sensitive or restricted by legislation to be done in homes, and so many companies have had to transform organisations completely to meet the safe distancing rules in order to ensure safety for their employees who are themselves at risk by coming into work each day.

Over the last few weeks the CCA network has been engaged in a rapid response sharing and learning exercise. The no nonsense and authentic approach by everyone on these calls has been a breath of fresh air. What is clear is that many models will change permanently as a result of the current situation. And yet there is an acceptance that decisions made in haste during a highly emotional period may not prevail in the longer term. It’s all of a sudden become ‘good to talk’ again. I’ve even dusted down my old landline, unused for years but now a wonderful respite to poor mobile reception due to overload.

All of this is causing us to rethink what matters. For me there’s never been a better time for every organisation to use this time to ask of itself some fundamental questions. What is our purpose? Are we accessible to our customers? Are we honest with them about what we actually offer by way of service? Do we understand the stress caused by being unresponsive particularly during difficult times? What can we learn from this crisis that will improve us in the longer term? Do our workers feel valued and do we understand and recognise the complexity of their roles? Is everyone in our organisation actually behind customer and ready to help the front line? Are our processes and data management designed to suit the organisation or the customer? 

Many of us are working in a completely different way from normal. For me I almost can’t imagine returning to my normal weekly travel schedule. Some doctors are now like call centre workers talking to patients all day over the phone rather than seeing them in GP surgeries. Many of us are rooted to the desk, rather than zooming around to meetings and events - we are now Zooming in a different way.

Hopefully this is allowing us to experience just how difficult it is to be handling endless conversations and interactions, much of it unplanned and unexpected as the crisis throws up new challenges. We can learn a huge amount from customer call centre operations where dealing with the unforeseen is perfectly normal, resilience taken for granted, efficient communication is a prerequisite as is adapting rapidly to technological and societal change.

Perhaps the biggest learning is that we are actually all in this together, provided we open our eyes to appreciate and value the roles that are sometimes invisible.

So let’s hear it for the invisible and unsung heroes! 👏 

Have a good weekend everyone!
Anne Marie