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May 1999

New Directions In Call Center Design


The vast selection of office products available for the workplace and the claims of cost effectiveness and productivity enhancement are staggering to the average buyer. There is clearly a need for a comprehensive approach to understanding and evaluating these products. Call center professionals, who must consider a host of factors before deciding to purchase products, should be keenly aware of the risky decisions involved in trying to anticipate the future needs of the organization. A view among some factions is that newer is better, while other organizations are trying to limp by with furniture purchased in the 1970s and 1980s. Both of these approaches are simple but unrealistic in today's call center environment.

Companies with large, embedded furniture bases are also finding it difficult to make older products fit today's workspace trends and advancing office technologies. The ability to decide which product features best support call center workers who perform many different tasks is clearly a cultivated skill. Research shows that the following issues are key for companies thinking of purchasing furniture products:

  • Flexible products that support and enhance organizational change,
  • Employee satisfaction with the choice of products,
  • Cost and lifecycle of products,
  • Technology integration,
  • Interchangeable product components,
  • Recycling strategies, and
  • Man/machine interface (ergonomics).

Furniture Response To Job Task Diversity
During the infancy of the telesales and service industry, job tasks were comparatively stratified. Creating furniture product designs for the workforce was predicated on individual job levels and employees' specific tasks. Managers managed and clerks answered telephones. Workplaces for managers were designed to accommodate the interactive nature of their jobs, while furniture for support staff sustained the notion of a one-job-one-seat mentality. As technological growth made knowledge sharing an integral part of both management and support jobs, it became more critical for furniture components to be flexible enough to support a variety of job tasks simultaneously. Since the furniture was not inherently task-responsive, job tasks became more associated with setting change (moving to a special task location), as opposed to altering the environment to account for individual changes in tasks.

This is where the split between newer and older furniture systems becomes increasingly evident. The ability to modify older systems to meet task diversity goals becomes more constrained and costly each year. These costs occur in two areas -- the actual cost to modify existing furniture products to support activities for which they were not designed and the inherent reduction in the productivity of individuals who are inhibited from working effectively with their current workplace furnishings. One of a design professional's most difficult tasks is encouraging senior management to recognize these economic impact issues and respond with cost-benefit analyses that take both sides of the issue into account.

Furniture Response To Technological Evolution
Although the PC has been widely used in the workplace for about 15 years, the impact of technology on furniture design and usage has only been a significant factor within the past eight or nine years. Most furniture product solutions that existed prior to that time did not have the capability of effectively supporting the technology (power, interconnections and ergonomics infrastructure). As long as stand-alone workstations were the rule, supporting the one-job-one-task work pattern was simple. The primary planning issues were design support for small desktop tools, work surface area/shape and power.

Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, most office furniture products were extremely limited in their capabilities for low-voltage interconnections and technological mobility. Today's office technology, on the other hand, can require significant mobility and positional relocation, multiple low-voltage interconnections, increasing acoustic attenuation and multiple platform support. The imbedded base of pre-1990 furniture product designs appears decreasingly supportive to these needs, creating a higher potential for product and workplace obsolescence.

Newer products are much more adaptable for future change. Products such as the segmented panel system, for example, favor a design that allows planners to concentrate technology support wiring and cabling in panel areas that require high-tech solutions. These same systems offer lower-cost tile options (glass, painted, perforated steel, etc.) in areas that have some other functional requirements. Most of the major manufacturers have these products in the marketplace or on the drawing board. Other solutions that are appearing more regularly, particularly where older furniture systems exist, include alternative scenarios for cabling and power distribution in raised floors or other architectural elements.

Effective Use Of Embedded Base
Many of the original furniture system products were designed as substitutes for contractor-built elements. These products were designed to be extremely durable and resistant to all but surface deterioration. With modest refurbishment, these products continue to be attractive to companies with cost-conscious management strategies. For organizations that resist purchasing new products, there are still effective ways in which embedded base products can be used. Research has highlighted some of the ways organizations approach the issue.

  • Identify employee job function tasks and carefully match them to the appropriate older furniture systems components. It is very likely that it will be necessary to supplement some newer components (within the same workstation); however, it is possible to create supportive environments that are more in line with today's jobs while maintaining at least some portion of the older equipment. The result may be more eclectic in terms of design, but can remain tasteful, particularly with some modest refurbishment. Many refurbishment companies have cropped up throughout the U.S. to meet these market demands, so opportunities to achieve good results continue to increase.
  • Implement alternate power and cabling solutions such as the newer low-profile raised floor systems, which create an added potential to use older systems products in conjunction with current technologies without sacrificing wiring or cabling flexibility and capacity.
  • Use new add-on components from specialty vendors, such as articulating keyboard arms, equipment and document holders, surface wireways and free-standing storage components. This can be a relatively lower-cost way to adapt older products to newer functionality.
  • Consider selective upgrading. If much of your embedded product comes from a single manufacturer, conduct an evaluation of the existing inventory to determine which elements are still useful and which product components can be selectively recycled with new products. By working closely with the manufacturers, their dealers and design professionals, this type of approach can be far less costly than a total replacement.

Negotiate National Contract Models
Many organizations, particularly those with large "national contracts," fail to keep their options open. These companies rarely conduct periodic contract reassessment by competitive bidding, as they feel obligated to safeguard their perceived benefits and their relationship with the manufacturers. This prevailing notion seems to suggest that the contract arrangement only benefits one side of the partnership. Clearly, these contracts benefit both sides equally, or companies would never have agreed to them in the first place. Probably the best news for organizations with these arrangements is that current thinking affirms that national contracts are a good starting point for negotiations, rather than the end-game enigma. No organization should feel restrained from considering what cost benefits competition can bring. Furthermore, no organization should feel it has the "best deal" that could be made, as the market is not static. The ebb and flow of the market economy brings with it opportunities based upon many factors. It behooves negotiators to pay close attention to the marketplace to intelligently judge when negotiations would be in the best interest of their organizations, and then act accordingly.

Some specific conditions that would prompt call center managers to reconsider an existing furniture contract include:

  • Significant price increases from current supplier organizations,
  • Business growth in terms of volume and location,
  • Financial environment (i.e., interest rates, incentive for R&D, tax adjustments and business health),
  • Project volumes (i.e., size of project, strength of new business to vendors),
  • Annual fluctuations and seasonal volumes for production.

Staff Satisfaction With Furniture Products
Significant cultural shifts continue to precipitate a rethinking of office environment strategies and product development. Demographically, the U.S. is becoming a country of minorities, no longer dominated by a single ethnic group or gender. Personal and family issues continue to influence the design of the workplace as over 31 million people now work out of home offices (and many of these jobs are call center-related).

While the emphasis in the political, social and human resources environments has clearly shifted toward increasing diversity, the converse is true in the "built" environment. Organizations strive to contain change rather than engender it. Workplaces are driven toward uniformity rather than the recognition of individual or cultural diversity. Since furniture is the medium of expression for the tactile office, furniture is perceived as a symbol of corporate resistance to individual recognition. So while furniture products are being developed to allow for the expression of increasing individuality, older embedded products represent an increasing dichotomy of this expression. The implication of this trend is increasing dissatisfaction with these staid symbols and growing employee complaints as to the call center environment's ability to stimulate the spirit of the organization, sustain staff retention and foster productivity.

In the current organizational climate of self-awareness, diversity and group identification, it is extremely confrontational for facility professionals to maintain uniformity and resist variety in workplace product decisions. Furthermore, workplace satisfaction is not necessarily associated with newness, but with participation. In a period of time where 4.5 percent unemployment prevails nationwide and 2.5 percent unemployment exists in many major cities, staff satisfaction begins to take on a new dimension of importance. Hiring, training or replacing a productive individual may not be simply a matter of salary; exit interviews often indicate a lack of environment quality as a turnover factor. Replacing or upgrading furniture in collaboration with affected staff is not only a valid strategy to improve job satisfaction, but also a necessary one to preserve a productive, profitable future. Furniture dollars, in this case, can be directly related to productivity enhancements and non-facilities-related net gains.

Recycling Strategies For Older Products
Thinking and buying "green" is more than a good neighbor policy. The cost of landfill sites is growing while the availability is shrinking. A 30 cubic yard dumpster filled with recyclable product is far less costly to dispose of compared with an equivalent volume of non-recyclable material. In the future, it will not be a function of cost, but simply the fact that landfills will not accept any non-recyclable products.

The marketing strategies of most manufacturing companies are geared to product replacement of obsolete items. The furniture industry, however, has chosen an alternative course of offering little or no realistic economic program for customers who wish to recycle and replace older products. Manufacturers cannot ignore the enormous amount of embedded base furniture and corporations' resistance to losing or throwing away money on furniture they currently own. Instead of looking for effective solutions for these issues, manufacturers have inadvertently created their own competition and potentially contribute to the lack of environmental change their own research says is necessary for better worker productivity.

The established concept that recycling providers offer refurbished products at lower costs and equal quality to new products is not justified in today's market. Some customers are willing to sacrifice value and feature benefits for cost, however, this assumption needs to be carefully evaluated. In some cases, the cost/benefits report does not authenticate the value of the manufacturer's warranty, UL or fire ratings, all of which may be in jeopardy with refurbished products. In purchasing older products for the center, the buyer is potentially creating future obsolescence and risking the safety of employees.

The sale of used furniture as a means of reaping some return capital is a disappointing experience for most call center executives. The pricing allowance for these trade-ins is usually in the range of $.02 to $.06 per $1.00 product valuation (new). Some manufacturers of high-end systems products, however, have developed aggressive trade-in and exchange allowances programs to support product-recycling efforts. These companies guarantee a residual value on their products before purchase as part of the negotiation strategy. Payment for trade-in products can be issued with a check or obsolete products can be "banked" with the money applied for future furniture purchases. In negotiating contracts for new purchases, it is important to consider the potential life of the products and incorporate terms associated with the products' disposal after their useful life. The cost of this strategy is minimal during negotiation and can create a viable route for center change in the long run.

Some call center companies broker their own used furniture. The Internet is an invaluable resource for product advertising, sales, auctioning, buyer search and pricing, particularly for overseas markets. This approach, however, is time-consuming and can be difficult to implement in most corporations. Local furniture rental companies are also a resource for product disposal.

Furniture industry trends are gearing toward creating workplace products that have greater user flexibility and easier component interchangeability of products with those of other manufacturers. The portability built into many newer products provides the means for managers to react quickly to changing business needs. Some center managers report that having workstations on wheels, for example, allows them to create different ways of dividing space and adapting work areas for higher productivity. To consumers, this should mean more choices and lower product costs.

With more than 200 manufacturer sources to choose from, furnishing the call center can be quite a challenge. Cost containment issues remain a prominent concern when selecting products, however, they should be considered side-by-side with life cycle costs, efficiency, flexibility and user satisfaction.

Gere Picasso is a principal owner and partner of Engel Picasso Associates (EPA). The firm provides consultative services for high-tech, high-stress work environments, such as teleservices centers, on a national and international basis. Ms. Picasso is an environmental researcher and space planning consultant who specializes in ergonomics, occupational stress and burnout issues and call center performance audits. She has designed call centers for the Office of the President of the United States, as well as for many corporations in the U.S. and abroad.

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