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May 1999

Beyond Phones And Desks


Unlike the call center of the past, in which only a phone and a desk for each employee sufficed, today's call centers have become far more technologically advanced. Equally important is the fact that the call center industry has become fiercely competitive in terms of attracting and retaining quality employees. Without a proper design, call centers will not only fail to operate efficiently, they will risk losing valued employees to their competition. There are a number of factors that should be considered when planning for the design of a call center.

Blank walls, concrete floors and shared desk areas were about as good as it got for call centers in the not-too-distant past. Today, it is vitally important that the interior design of a call center provide an energetic and stimulating environment. Contrasting colors and three-dimensional forms support a positive attitude (one company we are working with is planning to project images of new employees and employees of the month on glass panels, and will change the images on a weekly basis to keep the environment fresh and exciting). These are only a few examples of what can be done in order to keep employees focused and happy about their jobs.

Given the need to retain quality employees, many call centers are incorporating amenities into their interior designs. These amenities may include exercise rooms with lockers and private showers, subsidized cafeterias (which not only encourage employee retention, but help to cut down on absenteeism and employees returning late from lunch), dark relaxation rooms (for a quick nap), computer game rooms and Internet access (to ease the monotony of the work day) and computer-based education systems to help employees further their learning.

One company with call centers throughout the U.S. has done a great deal to focus on employee retention through the design of its call center facilities. Examples include giving the best office locations (i.e., space along the window walls) to the call center's front-line employees rather than the management team. In addition, the company has created coffee bars that serve as informal meeting spaces where people can talk and share ideas.

The same company also asked that a design be created that reflects its corporate culture and philosophy. What has emerged are call centers that are laid out like small towns or villages. This "urban" plan has given employees a way to identify with their coworkers in their own "neighborhood" (for example, various areas within the call center are identified as "parks" where people can congregate). This feeling of intimacy, supported by unique design metaphors resembling small towns, has not only made employees feel valued, but it has encouraged them to work together as teams.

Training And Hiring Space
Because of the rapid growth of many call centers, facilities must be able to accommodate large groups of people for orientation seminars and training. Large blocks of computer space should also be implemented to adequately train new employees.

Huddle Rooms
Another effective design feature for call centers are "huddle rooms." One company has created one-on-one meeting space for managers and employees. If a manager plans to offer suggestions to an employee, review tapes of calls or give positive feedback, the huddle rooms provide a place to do so in a less intimidating environment. Employees leave the rooms with a feeling of support and knowledge that they are receiving the manager's focus and attention (without interruptions from phone calls, coworkers or other matters of concern that would be prevalent in a manager's office).

Comfort and efficiency are becoming critical considerations for call centers. Comfortable seating, adjustable height workstations and indirect lighting to prevent glare on computer screens are musts.

One effective way to maximize sunlight without causing glare on computer screens is to install skylights. Skylight systems provide natural light to the work environment, give people a connection to the outside world and minimize -- if not entirely eliminate -- window glare. If skylights are not an option, many companies have used modern shading devices on windows to control sunlight.

It is important for call centers to consider what, if any, sounds they want their customers to hear. For some call centers, it is important to transmit background noise to show how busy (and popular) they are. For others, quiet is mandatory and sound-masking or "white noise" systems are used. A call center can be designed, and systems integrated, based on individual requirements.

If a loud, busy work environment is the sound your call center wants to evoke for customers to hear, don't neglect the comfort of your employee. Include quiet lounge areas in the design of your building.

Many call centers of the past were designed like sweatshops. Row upon row of cubicles or desks would line one large room, preventing a sense of warmth or camaraderie. We recommend teaming areas of clusters or pods where smaller groups of people can work together and get to know each other as a team. This type of design provides workers with more of an individual identity and team pride in the job they are doing.

Call centers can grow by as many as 1,000 people in six months. In addition, the 24 hours a day, seven days a week schedule of many call centers triples the wear and tear on the furniture, facilities and support systems. This dictates a durable design with durable materials, although it is important to balance durability with comfort and aesthetics.

Given the immense electrical load required for a call center, a design that will accommodate these needs and allow reconfiguration of workstations is a necessity. Some considerations include space for back-up generators, uninterrupted power supplies and cabling distribution that can be reconfigured. There is also a greater demand for cool air within call centers due to the heat generated by equipment and people.

Call centers are multiplying and many existing call centers are bursting at the seams. What may have seemed to be sufficient space five years ago may not be today, and many of these centers are scrambling to find extra space. When planning for and designing a call center, allow for ultimate flexibility in order to change and grow. Large, continuous space that can easily be rearranged to create larger or smaller work areas is ideal.

Due to liability issues, few, if any, of today's call centers include daycare facilities. This is unfortunate, given the fact that a majority of call center workers are parents. A call center with daycare facilities would not only be ultimately convenient, but would help attract quality employees. To offset the liability issue, call centers are seeking daycare providers who will locate in their area (and perhaps take space in their buildings) and accept liability responsibility. Additionally, call centers can subsidize employees who would like to place their children in the center.

Regional Differences
Another important consideration when designing a call center is the region in which the facility is being built. For example, a call center that was designed to be built in Florida should not follow the same design plans of a facility built in Minnesota. Call centers in colder regions must take into account the dark and dreary winter climate. To do so, design teams should provide bright, warm spaces that invite people in out of the cold.

In addition, different regions can have very different corporate cultures and may be comprised of people with different attitudes and outlooks about their jobs and lives. A design should reflect these attitudes and enhance them to make the facility a positive and happy place to work.

Design teams should consider how conservative or liberal employees are in their dress and attitudes and match the building's design appropriately. This will help to enhance employees' outlooks on their jobs and their desire to perform to high standards.

Call centers have evolved and so have their designs. Without taking all of these things into consideration, a call center operation risks losing time, money and employees. A good interior design will not only add to a call center's appearance, but to its ability to operate efficiently and retain employees.

Rick Burkett is a principal at burkettdesign, an architectural and interior design firm based in Denver, Colorado.

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