Pillar to Post

Mar 01, 2001 10:30 PM  By

Turnover, technology, and CRM are the three most significant influences in the current call center market

The break room is a stark, noisy space in which the most prominent design features are vending machines and trash cans

Festooned with festive cable
Contact centers sing,
Their wires like branches stable
Orders to reps do bring.

With ergonomic tables,
With workstations placed in rings,
With space and light enable
CSRs to accomplish things.

Complete, detailed design
Around the agents spreads
From pillars of concrete fine
To the ceiling above their heads.

Good call center architecture takes every activity in the facility into account, top to bottom. The design goal represents a challenge: to create a workspace in which reps can perform efficiently at the most stressful and arguably most important point in the direct-to-customer fulfillment process — a customer order call.

The root of poor call center design is a failure to recognize the vast differences between call centers and conventional office space. Call centers have almost double the occupation density of regular offices, and they tend to operate longer hours. Many contact centers are 24/7 (although few are fully staffed at all hours of the day), and inbound call center staffing levels are a function of call volumes that can vary depending on the time of day, the day of the week, or the season. Management practices can influence call center design as significantly as the more mundane factor of operating finances.

Call of the wild

Because call centers support such a wide range of industries and functions, CSR pay scales can vary substantially, although they tend to stay at the lower end. Call center reps also tend to be younger and, some would argue, odder than other office workers. It seems the anonymity associated with the work attracts people whose idiosyncracies have remained intact.

Most call centers are technologically advanced these days, and the cost of that technology can be substantial. Increased automation of call center functions also requires increased CSR skill sets. The industry may be evolving to the point where agents will primarily handle the complicated problems of frustrated customers, thereby increasing stress levels in what is already an extremely stressful job.

Stick and carrot

It is convenient and even appropriate to discuss call center management practices in terms of a spectrum with two extremes. Most call centers fall somewhere in between the “crack-the-whip” and “laissez faire” approaches. Call center employees tend to be closer to blue-collar than white-collar workers, and some of the terms commonly used in call centers (production floor, supervisor, production manager) indicate their factory-floor origins. The crack-the-whip management technique applies aggressive, factory-style supervision along with some basic motivational incentives (donuts or pizza, balloons, preferred parking) to achieve performance. It is interesting that in an age of high turnover such as the present, the lack of an adequate workforce could actually encourage the crack-the-whip approach. Managers can become so desperate for staff that they must hire workers who need aggressive supervision to succeed.

The laissez faire approach relies primarily on self-motivation, often supported by compensation, to achieve results. In this method, management’s primary responsibility is to coach and enable agents to do a better job. This model tends to be more prevalent in high-end call centers populated by professionals (such as stockbrokers), but it also occurs in product sales call centers, particularly those with compensation based primarily on commissions.

All good design solutions for business should respond to current market influences. Turnover, technology, and the trend toward customer relationship management (CRM) are the three most significant influences in the current call center market. CRM essentially expands customer service into a cradle-to-grave concept for acquiring and keeping customers. This approach provides a chance for agents to widen the scope of their work beyond “taking calls” into a wider variety of tasks that might help reduce, or at least balance, stress levels.

Staff turnover has reached crisis level in some segments of the industry. Although many companies feel that turnover is related to management practices and compensation exclusively, research has shown that high-quality work environments can reduce turnover by increasing job satisfaction through reduced stress and health risks and surroundings that better support the job function.

Techno-frazzle

Customer contact in call centers used to be primarily via the telephone, but contact points have expanded to include fax machines, e-mail, and online shopping. Each new evolution in technology must be integrated into the overall CRM solution, a process that challenges established technologies and human resources.

As a call center relies more on technology, the business cost of having it go offline grows exponentially. Therefore, infrastructure sustainability (generator systems, uninterrupted power supplies, disaster recovery plans) becomes critical to the financial success of the enterprise.

Flexibility and adaptability are the most important aspects of any call center design. The solutions that will be necessary five years from now are at best only somewhat predictable, and the best way to “future-proof” a facility is to provide excess capacities and physical pathways in anticipation of unknown changes.

Save dollars

Most decision makers feel that cutting capital cost is the best, if not the only, way to add value to a call center project. This is simply not the case. In the past ten years, substantial research has demonstrated the phenomenal performance potential of ergonomic furniture and well-designed lighting, acoustics, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

When compared to the alternative, which is usually some form of increased employee compensation, the cost of achieving increased performance through thoughtful design is a real bargain. Complete renovation of an existing shell (such as a former Wal-Mart or Kmart) can cost $50-$75 per square foot. Using typical call center measures, a 3% increase in productivity equals, on a net present value basis, about $50 per square foot. Therefore, if spending less than an additional $50 per square foot on the facility results in at least a 3% increase in productivity, the investment would yield a positive ROI. Reducing turnover by 10% achieves similar results. It is possible, through design based on valid research, to increase the financial performance of call centers substantially by reducing operating and health care costs as well as by increasing productivity and employee retention. The question is which solutions produce the most bang for the buck.

Wow the staff

One design concept that will logically result in higher-performance facilities is employee-centered design. Your goal should be to impress the front-line staff, yet very few call centers are built around this principle. Most have more private offices than necessary, and those offices are usually located along the outside wall of the building, where they steal the natural light from the front-line workers. Large call centers often have opulent executive offices, while the break room, where employees spend their limited free time, is a stark, noisy space in which the most prominent design features are vending machines and trash cans.

Because call centers are “paperless,” the functional requirement for agent workstations is limited to the space necessary to operate a keyboard, resulting in population densities that are more than double that of most office space. Although these high densities satisfy functional requirements, they do not satisfy peoples’ psychological need for personal workspace large enough to call their own.

Effective design solutions naturally evolve from an employee-centered approach. For example, a break room can be conceived as a “community center” that is centrally located and contains not only the break room seating but also other support functions such as conference rooms, human resources offices, and lavatories. The community center can be the social center of the facility. In multi-story call centers the space can be connected vertically through floor openings and function in a way similar to an enclosed shopping mall.

Some other solutions that support employee-centered design include:

Color. Implement color schemes that reduce stress and maintain suitable brightness levels; use accent colors and lighting to provide interest and variety. The advantage of color is that it is free. A good solution costs no more than a bad one.

Furniture. Use CSR workstations that are larger and provide a higher level of privacy and sense of personal space (minimum workstation size of 5′ × 6′). Storage for personal items should be included in each workstation, not in a central coat room.

Exposed ceilings. Add interest and allow for higher ceilings with greater spatial variety through exposed structural systems. Exposed ceilings can actually cost less than high-performance, lay-in acoustical ceilings.

Site amenities. Provide well-lit, adequate parking that is easily accessible to building entrances, covered space for employees to be dropped off and picked up, and covered outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers.

Higher performance

Perhaps the most noteworthy development in building systems is the resurgence in integrated access floor systems. Raised-access (computer) floor is installed throughout the space, and running modular power, data, and communications cables are located in the cavity created by the access floor. A fully integrated solution includes environmental air supplied from the floor cavity. This system has several advantages. Cabling changes can be made at much lower cost. Because the environmental air circulates vertically through the space (from the floor to the ceiling), air quality is higher. The biggest advantage, however, is that floor registers can be adjusted or moved to change temperatures to satisfy individual comfort levels without requiring major modifications to the HVAC system.

Another high-performance system is indirect lighting, which shines up to the ceiling and reflects down onto the work surface. Indirect lighting is ideally suited to computer-intensive environments because it provides the appropriate contrast with the computer screen. As these lighting systems become more common their cost approaches that of conventional, direct lighting.

Noise is one of the largest causes of stress in open office environments. The higher worker density and lower furniture panel heights common in call centers compound this problem and further increase stress. Sound-masking systems reduce noise effectively by emitting a frequency from speakers that masks the sounds of the human voice. The speakers must be mounted in the ceiling cavity and installed in a “passive” acoustic environment, which essentially means loading the space with acoustically absorptive surfaces. These may be high-performance, acoustically absorptive ceilings or exposed ceilings sprayed with absorptive material. A well-designed sound-masking system costs $1.50 to $2.25 per square foot, but it can be one of the most effective means to improve CSR performance.

Call center design may mean modification of an existing center or building, or starting from scratch with a new facility. Most renovation projects involve replacing components such as furniture, lighting, and mechanical/electrical systems.

The major problem with modifying facilities is maintaining ongoing operations during those modifications. You can improve ergonomics with minimal disruption, for instance, by replacing existing chairs with better seating and installing adjustable keyboard trays. Other desirable modifications are installing height adjustments for computer monitors. Research has shown that the ability to adjust a workstation from a seated to a standing position is also desirable — although it generally costs in excess of $500.

You can often replace conventional ceiling-mounted direct lighting with pendant-hung, indirect fixtures or with furniture-mounted fixtures if ceiling heights are below 9′. Acoustics can be improved simply by replacing 2′ × 4′ lay-in ceiling tiles with high-performance versions and installing sound masking. Improvements to the layout of the space and the HVAC system usually require temporary vacation of the space being modified.

Big boxes

Many call centers occupy renovated buildings. It’s better to avoid multi-story, multi-tenant office buildings where it can be difficult to modify existing systems economically. “Big-box” renovations of former retail stores and warehouses, on the other hand, are well suited for call center adaptations. These spaces tend to have larger bay sizes and higher ceiling heights, and the building systems are often old enough that you can replace them with systems more appropriate for call center use.

Still, the greatest potential to achieve high performance lies in designing a new building. Designers can develop support systems for call center use at the outset. They can design the building shell for ideal ceiling heights, bay sizes, and natural light, features usually compromised in big-box renovation. A new site can also provide adequate parking in the right location and suitable outdoor amenities.

Working smarter

Research connecting facility design to performance continues to emerge and responsive systems are becoming accepted. Five years ago it was unusual to see a call center with integrated access floor systems; now we rarely design a center without them. Furthermore, the real estate development community seems to be adapting to the shift of general office space toward the information technology model. For call center managers this means that space better suited to their needs will become readily available.

A modest investment in call center design can reap significant monetary benefits. You can create exhaustive ROI analyses of various design options and select one based on corporate objectives. But your two top priorities in call center design should be improving employee welfare and building in enough flexibility to handle changes in technology.

Roger Kingsland is managing partner at KSBA, a Pittsburgh-based architectural firm specializing in call center facility design. Kingsland can be contacted by phone at (412) 252-1500 or by e-mail at kingsland@ksba.com .