Coping with a ‘flu pandemic: the technological implications

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As he continues his series on business continuity, Graham Chick reveals why an imminent ‘flu pandemic is not something to be sneezed at.

For those of you who are becoming regular readers of this series of articles focusing on deploying effective business continuity policies in your call centre, I sincerely trust that you now have a better understanding of some of the reasons why you should give careful consideration to the adoption of well thought out contingency arrangements. I also hope that you now have an insight in to some of the issues that need to be considered when preparing your contingency plans.

Five key questions to ask yourself when planning for a pandemic or other serious outage

  1. What will be the effect on our call centre business if between 15% and up to 50% of our call centre agents could not, or chose not to, travel to work in our call centre(s)?
  2. What proportion of our agents are likely to be affected by school closures? For instance, are they from two parent working families where one parent will be required to stay at home to look after the child or children?
  3. Would the outbreak of a ‘flu pandemic result in more or less calls to our call centre operation?
  4. How many of our agents would be prepared, given their respective family commitments, to commute to a recovery site some distance away from their normal place of work?
  5. What would happen to our backroom or support functions, including IT support, accounts, in light of a ‘flu pandemic?

The fact remains that if your call centre business operates from a single building, then – whatever the whys and wherefores – you ultimately have a vulnerable single point of failure. Moreover, if you have two, three, four or more call centres making up your organisation, then you have, potentially, two, three, four or more potential points of failure in your organisation. And while it is indeed possible to spend very considerable amounts of money in a valiant attempt to protect the telecoms infrastructure serving your call centre(s), such investments are rendered useless if the building itself is no longer there.

Implementing various levels of resilience from ‘dual parenting’ – that is, the introduction of separate ISDN30 connections from two different exchanges and connecting to two separate ADD/PBXs located at different ends of the building but linked as though they were one unit – to ‘diverse routing’ (the delivery of inbound/outbound calls via alternative ISDN30 connections fed from the same exchange) are all well and good, but they simply become ineffectual if your property has been severely damaged in a storm or if your call centre agents can’t access the building for one reason or another.

So, how do we address and mitigate the effect of this ‘single point of failure’? The answer was suggested in the closing paragraphs of last month’s article: by enabling your agents, in times of adversity, to be able to work remotely – either at home or indeed closer to home in small clusters of agents based in virtual call centres.

When is the next ‘flu pandemic expected?

Probably the most compelling argument for considering the use of homeworking or, at the very least, remote working, is the need to plan effectively for the extremely likely ‘flu pandemic that is being widely forecast as an ‘imminent inevitability’. Indeed, Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer of health here in the UK clearly stated during 2006 that it is simply a case of when not if a ‘flu pandemic affects Corporate Britain. Why? Because throughout history, the shortest period between ‘flu pandemics has been 11 years and the longest between 38 and 39 years. Worryingly, as we enter 2007, it has been a full 37 years since the last occurrence.

By way of explanation, pandemic ‘flu is a killer disease caused by the emergence of a new strain of influenza virus to which human beings have little or no immunity. ‘Flu pandemics killed more than 40 million people throughout the 20th century, with estimates for the next pandemic suggesting that some 25% of the global population will be affected in some way.

More alarming still, perhaps, is that some of the emergency services here in the UK are planning for the incapacitation of up to 50% of their workforce as a result of either personal ‘flu illness, family ‘flu illness, looking after children at home due to the closure of schools, or inability to travel to work thanks to things like the suspension of the transportation system, petrol garages being closed, or buildings being closed due to failed maintenance systems.

The subject of pandemic planning itself is far too wide and complex an issue for inclusion in this series of articles, but an extremely comprehensive 68-page booklet entitled Flu Pandemic Guidelines for Business, sponsored by an educational grant from Roche, the manufacturers of the drug Tamiflu, is available from the business continuity group Survive by either sending an email to or complete the application form at

Having said that I won’t be going in to a full outline of pandemic planning, what I would ask is where would your agents be prepared to work in such circumstances? The answer, quite unequivocally, is where they would feel safest working. And, for most, that would be at home, where they can stay indoors and also care for their family who may or may not have fallen ill.

Where does homeworking fit in to the equation?

But precisely how can a remote/homeworking call centre environment be created technologically? Thankfully, given technological advances over recent years, the implementation of remote/homeworking solutions, for use either solely following the invocation of a company’s disaster recovery/business continuity plan, or in an ‘all day, every day’ working environment, need not be an overly complex operation.

In fact, there are a growing number of telecoms technology companies that offer remote working automatic call distributor (ACD) functionality. These include vendors of traditional ACDs that are located and installed in the conventional call centre building(s), but which can now treat remotely-based agents in exactly the same way, connectivity-wise, as an agent sitting within the conventional call centre.

The companies also include virtual, pay-as-you-go ACD solutions providers whose technology simply comprises ACD software that vendors incorporate and install within certain selected partner carrier’s networks.

And then there is the intermediate solutions group, where specialist vendors have developed combined hardware and software total solutions which can be sited within the sanctity and security of any carrier’s exchange and, by either replicating an existing, traditional, call centre-based ACD, or replacing a legacy system that has come to the end of its functional life, inbound calls can be intelligently distributed. These tend to use full skills-based routing to the most appropriate agent – wherever they might be located.

Ultimately, all that agents would need is a working telephone and a broadband connection. Why? Because while the most crucial operation of an inbound call centre is the answering of the customer’s call in a timely and courteous manner, the object of the exercise is to process that customer’s specific requirements via a live connection to a central data base.

But more of that next month when we look more closely at the operation of a true virtual call centre and how the use of this more much flexible way of working can provide you with the ultimate in business continuity planning and also dramatically affect your bottom line.

Graham Chick is managing director of Gematech
Tel: +44 0800 328 8354

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 27th Jan 2007 - Last modified: 14th Nov 2018
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