COVID-19 has sent shockwaves around the world. A major concern for employees and employers alike is: how can we best protect people while they do their jobs?

Some roles can easily be transferred to working from home, while some other roles are a little more difficult. For example, how do we shift our big customer contact centres to people’s dining tables or home offices? Can we do it without impacting our ability to serve our customers?

Alexandra Lee manages AGL’s Melbourne contact centre. She describes what that rapid transformation to work from home looked like, what the pressures were and are, and what we’ve learned from this time.

In her words: Alexandra Lee, Customer Solutions Centre Manager, Melbourne

When you call AGL next, you’re likely going to be talking to somebody in their own home – sitting at a desk or at a dining table.

A few weeks ago, we had zero people working from home – all our people were working in fully equipped contact centres in AGL’s offices. And in the space of two weeks, we moved nearly four hundred people to working from their homes.

I’m not going to lie – it’s been quite challenging. This is a very different way of working for us, and we had to pull all this together quite quickly.

Step inside the AGL contact centres

The contact centres are extremely dynamic, busy environments. Each one of our customer service representatives – or CSRs – takes between 20-40 calls per day.

We try to manage our customer contacts as effectively as possible – we ‘maximise the customer experience’. We say that, because we know that every customer and every situation is different. We have best practice procedures that our agents at every level can follow, so there is some level of consistency in how we help our customers – but the reality is every customer is different. Our CSRs spend time trying to understand each situation and use as much discretion as possible to help the customer.

We are predominantly an inbound call centre – customers calling us with issues or inquiries. We have resolution teams across both Melbourne and Adelaide, plus additional teams dealing with Ombudsman enquiries and business customers.

Our CSRs are a second-tier centre, which means that they handle customer enquiries of a more complex nature. Our first-tier care agents are based offshore; their focus is to understand why the customer is calling and how we can best help them. They will determine very quickly through effective questions if the call is a care call (which can be dealt with at the first tier) or a resolution call – a more complex enquiry. These are transferred quickly and directly to a resolutions agent who will be the best person to deal with their call.

COVID-19 – and moving our call centre to a virtual workplace

While workplace flexibility is a big part of AGL’s culture, working from home previously wasn’t in place for our contact centre staff. We had begun to explore the possibility prior to COVID-19 – what it could look like for us and what criteria may be necessary, with a view to increasing our flexibility options and our work from home capability.

Because of COVID-19, in a two-week period in March we moved nearly four hundred people from fully equipped contact centres to working from home. This was a huge logistical effort. For example, we had to quickly supply the majority of our CSRs with additional monitors – a necessity for the work we do. In some cases, we also supplied our people with other equipment, like chairs and headsets to ensure their safety from an ergonomic perspective.

Customer service representative Jocelyn Balantyne’s home workstation

There have been challenges with undertaking this in such a rapid fashion. For most of our CSRs, the rollout has been smooth. There have been some teething issues, of course – and those can be difficult to resolve on a larger and more remote scale. That said, I’m extremely proud of the way our people have risen to the challenge.

Deeper focus

During this rapid transition, we’ve been extremely focused on the mental health and safety of our people, and how this change is affecting them.

The circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic are not ideal – and just like in the broader workforce, some people are loving working from home, but for some people it’s been very challenging.

In the office, leaders have that face-to-face touchpoint with everyone. Teams have scheduled scrums and daily one-on-one touchpoints; throughout the month, we have regular huddles and regular team meetings. In the office, there’s a lot more opportunity to engage face-to-face – even if that’s just on breaks or walking around, getting from A to B, you’d say hello and engage with people.

In moving to a virtual scenario, we’ve really tried to replicate that by having as much contact with people as possible. People have been really accommodating and enthusiastic: prior to their shift starts, for example, they’ve been hooking into scrums just to say hello to each other as a team, and just to set themselves up – mentally – for the day. After their shifts they’ve been keen to meet and debrief for the day – which has been great to see, and a real testament to our people’s commitment.

Our people have really demonstrated what over and above means during this time in terms of their willingness to put in more than the norm. Being a CSR can be a difficult and full-on role anyway – but our people are putting time in before their shift and after their shift to debrief and chat to their team members. There’s also been a lot of (virtual) social connections outside of hours. I think the way everyone’s really pulled together as a team has been sensational. There are people who are really appreciating having some time back from not travelling – and a bit more time with their families because of that.

Bryce Deakin, one of AGL’s contact centre team leaders, at his home workstation

Morale is really strong – I’m really proud of the way that everyone is responding to this.

Taking care in every action

However, there are two sides to every story. It’s obviously much more difficult to connect and engage with people on a day-to-day basis. Working virtually, it’s not like you can just walk around and smile and wave and connect in that way. When you’re trying to connect with a larger group of people, it’s not that easy. Making those daily connections is a lot less informal, just because of the way that we’re working at the moment.

Leaders in particular are finding that walking around the centre, you get much more of an opportunity to see people, and you may not necessarily speak to them but there is that connection – a shared moment between people.

Safety – in every sense of that word – is extremely important to us, and we want every single one of our people to feel safe in their workplace – be that in our offices, or in their homes.

Talking with our customers

This is obviously quite a difficult job that our CSRs have – particularly dealing with our customers who are in difficult or vulnerable situation – but I have confidence in our people. They are experienced – and they have a strong level of empathy with our customers. They get a lot of support in terms of training and coaching: our leaders do a minimum of two (but more often four) hour of coaching daily with members of their teams. It’s something we do quite well – and it helps develop their team members and build capability. Coaching for success is a key part of our operating framework.

But the job can really take its toll on you, particularly at this difficult time. Different people react in different ways to difficult situations and conversations – but all our people know that if they need extra breaks after those difficult calls, or if they need to contact their leader or someone else, they absolutely can. That is absolutely an option that is always open to them. That’s a little more difficult to do remotely, but we’re doing our absolute best to be there for our people when they need time or just want to talk to us.

And our customers have been amazing through this time. They have been extremely complimentary and understanding. It’s really heartening – they’ve been surprised and appreciative of the fact that we’ve kept as close to business-as-usual as possible. They’ve been able to get through to us relatively quickly, and they have had their issues resolved effectively and efficiently. From a customer experience perspective, it’s been a great opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.

Being the difference – and seeing the difference

Speaking of difference - we know that every single one of our customers is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue they are calling with. There are often common concerns that come up – for example, high bill enquiries, or not understanding the bill, or hardship calls.

These are particularly pronounced as we head into winter – as the heaters and the tumble dryers go on, people see their bills go up. And while we haven’t yet fully seen how working from home under COVID-19 restrictions is affecting our bills, we’re definitely already getting calls from people who might have lost their job, or want some assistance in terms of payment assistance or bill deferral, given their personal situation.

And that’s really the most important thing that we need to keep in mind: their situation.

While common questions can emerge, every customer is different, and every solution will be too. We know that this is an uncertain time, and for some people it will be difficult and stressful. We’re here to understand and to help – whether it’s from the contact centre, or from our own homes.

Fast five facts from AGL's Contact Centre

  1. Number of calls in the last month: 388,104
  2. 17% decrease in calls compared to same time last year
  3. Average wait time on calls in April: 58s
  4. 380 domestic CSR agents, 613 offshore agents
  5. Channels available for assistance 24/7: AGL app, messenger, website chat, phone. Support on our social pages 8am-4pm weekdays