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Trying to Tame COVID-19, Central America Call Centers Forced to Take Drastic Steps

The COVID-19 pandemic and public outcry, mainly on social media, have pushed governments in Central America to put new restraints on the call center business, including ceasing operations within delivery centers. In many instances, call center workers have been sent home. Some centers are operating at minimal capacity, and some are not operating at all due to mandatory shutdowns.

On Monday, Honduras’ government ordered the shutdown of businesses and implemented a curfew in some regions of the country. Two days later, on Wednesday, March 18th, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, ordered the closure of call centers and maquilas for at least 15 days. “They are places of maximum concentration; we know the role they play in the economy, but there are public health issues at stake,” said Bukele after taking the decision.

The day before, Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, announced a similar measure. Still, he exempted contact centers and the textile industry if they followed specific sanitary rules, such as guaranteeing social distancing and disinfecting areas.

However, yesterday (Thursday, March 19th), Guatemalan health authorities performed a series of sanitary audits, which resulted in the shutdown of the contact center Alorica, precisely its location in Zona 13 in Guatemala City.

“We have been working very hard and very late hours with the partners in the industry and the government as well,” said Manuel Gordo, Acting President of the Guatemalan Contact Center Association, and CEO at Allied Global, in an interview with Nearshore Americas.

Gordo says that the actions from the industry in Guatemala have focused on offering a contingency plan for contact centers to the government, while companies prepare to move most of their operations to a work-at-home environment. Gordo sees a contrast with the situation in Honduras, where Allied Global employees about 2,500 workers. In that country, there were no conversations with the government before the lockdown order was made.

Optimizing Work-At-Home in Central America

As the pandemic evolves, optimizing work-at-home capabilities has become the go-to option for BPOs everywhere. In the Norther Triangle of Central America, however, the very sustainability of the industry – at least for now – rests on the ability of companies to transition effectively to the work-at-home platform.

Jeffrey Puritt, CEO at TELUS International.

Another contact center that operates in this region (in Guatemala and El Salvador), TELUS, is working aggressively in that direction. Jeffrey Puritt, CEO at TELUS International, talked with Nearshore Americas about the handling of the shutdown of its El Salvador site and recent measures in Guatemala. TELUS has over 7,000 employees in Central America.

“In both of our centers, we’re making sure to listen to WHO guidelines, and to local regulations and guidelines in every jurisdiction in which we operate. As much as possible, we’re making sure to adhere to all of these requirements and trying not only to meet them but, in many cases, exceed them,” said Puritt.

Early on Thursday, TELUS received an indication that Guatemala’s president was revisiting some of the exemptions that have previously been granted to the contact center industry. Rather than waiting for the publication of those changes, they decided to close and send home all of their team members in Guatemala. “To lead by example,” said Puritt.

“Now, essentially, we have no active business in either El Salvador or Guatemala from our facilities. We have, thankfully, with the support of our team members and of our customers, enabled some significant work from home capabilities, and that’s a bit of an evolving situation,” he added.

Both Puritt’s and Gordo’s businesses face challenges in optimizing their work-at-home environments, in terms of the available infrastructure and the growing restrictions and lockdowns imposed by authorities to contain the coronavirus.

“Now, essentially, we have no active business in either El Salvador or Guatemala from our facilities. We have, thankfully, with the support of our team members and of our customers, enabled some significant work from home capabilities, and that’s a bit of an evolving situation,” said Puritt.

“In many cases, originally, customers had indicated an unwillingness to allow us to enable them with an at-home solution. More recently, those customers are now having a change of heart if you will. In that regard, you have to be mindful of a number of exogenous factors, including, in some cases, there are transportation embargos in place within these municipalities that would prohibit us from being able to get work-at-home infrastructure: laptop computers, for example, to the home of our team members,” Puritt said.

“Even if that was not the case, or there were exceptions available to us, other exogenous impediments might include whether or not the broadband infrastructure, the power connectivity available in our team members homes would be sufficiently robust and reliable for us to enable a work from home solution for them on behalf of our customers,” he added.

On the other hand, Allied Global presented on Wednesday night a plan to Guatemalan authorities to move 70% of its agents to a work-at-home environment in the following 48 hours.

“Of course, there are several limitations to that, based on whether the agent has a laptop or a desktop at home that could work for connection, whether their Internet is good enough, strong enough. Luckily, almost 80% of our staff, of our agents, do have a laptop or a desktop, that was very enlightening, and most of them have a very good or at least regular-to-good connection to the Internet,” Gordo said.

Manuel Gordo, Acting President of the Guatemalan Contact Center Association, and CEO at Allied Global.

“Some of the BPOs in Guatemala that don’t have a voice environment they were already in a work-at-home basis, that’s very good for them. We agreed with the government that in 48 hours, we wouldn’t have more than 30% of the people working in our facilities,” he added.

Gordo says that in their case, they were ready to implement work-at-home, but some of their clients were not, particularly those with regulations and compliance issues, like PCI.

TELUS, despite the shutdown of in-office services, has opted to continue to pay employees’ salaries – regardless of whether or not laws require it.

Geography Impact

The global disruption caused by COVID-19 had made it hard for the companies operating in this part of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) to reroute some of their volumes to other geographies. In TELUS’ case, they relying in part on operations in North America and Europe to pick up the slack.

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“We anticipate that this is going to continue to be more widespread, more pervasive in the days and weeks ahead, particularly in North America, so it wouldn’t be wise for us to get all the eggs in one basket, sending it all to one geography. We’re leveraging a combination of more delivery centers around the world where we still have an opportunity and capacity to support our customers from around the world as well as at-home solutions,” Puritt said.

The lockdown of contact centers in Manila, Philippines, had a major impact on the operations of TELUS worldwide, as it did with many other global contact center organizations.

“Our largest footprint is in Phillippines, where we experienced a pretty significant constraint on our ability to operate our traditional delivery centers. We have at-home agent solutions in place there as well. I think it’s fair to say that the at-home environment is somewhat more circumscribed in terms of connectivity and power within our agent environments than in many of our other locations like in Europe or North America,” Puritt said.

Gordo has also seen ripple effects of the Philippines situation and surmises that, once the industry gets past the crisis, there will be more deliberate steps made by clients to evenly distribute teams in various geographies.

In Central America, the Northern Triangle’s actions stand apart from its Southern Central American neighbors. Nicaragua has been accused of outright ignoring the potential severity of the virus, as most activities continue as usual, and the government maintains a strong stance in support of tourism.

In Costa Rica, the government had called for people to stay at home and has closed the border to foreigners. Authorities have shut down bars, clubs, and casinos, but contact centers are not yet facing lockdown orders. According to CINDE, Costa Rica’s Investment Promotion Agency, most of the services sector in the country has been successful in adopting work-at-home environments.

Diego Pérez-Damasco

Diego Pérez-Damasco is a writer and managing editor at Nearshore Americas. He has more than six years of experience covering politics and business in Latin America. He has been published in media outlets throughout the Americas and holds an MA in International Journalism from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Diego is based in Costa Rica.

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