Designing the Next-Gen Contact Center

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  October 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions

There is a next generation of contact centers that is emerging, one with employer-provided facilities supplemented by home-based agents and by informal agents such as subject matter experts linked via unified communications.

The next-gen centers will have facilities that will be professional-appearing, versatile, smarter-built, energy- and ergonomically-focused and cost-effective, fitted to serve agents communicating with customers via text as well as voice, as firms seek to attract and retain quality agents to serve more demanding customers while controlling expenses.  

The next-gen center will utilize software that can show them what their new environments will be like, which will give them an opportunity to suggest changes that can be then incorporated instantly to portray what it would look like instead.

To that end Interior Concepts uses ICE software to create an interactive quoting and design program that presents customized and modifiable contact center furniture and layouts. The firm utilizes web conferencing to connect its design engineers and its customers, who can view the furniture on their screens and request the engineers to make changes on the fly that it found makes the order process go much faster because customers see the furniture as they are making changes.

The next-gen center focuses on branding to develop and reinforce employee identification, loyalty and performance for their employers. HLW remodeled Barnes and Noble’s 30,000 square foot, 140-workstation contact center, located in Lyndhurst, N.J. completed in May 2009. The center’s break room has the feeling of a retail store including books and warm finishes and a variety of seating options from lounge seating to bar stools. Colorful graphics from the retail store are applied to the back of the offices on the floor and act as a backdrop.

“We often discover through our unique interactive workshops with focus groups of call centers that there is a lack of a connection to the business or brand of the company they are supporting,” says Kimberly Sacramone, principal and director of design. “It is with this insight that we strive to incorporate the ‘essence’ of the company.”

Performance is Key

Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates (KSBA) has had a next-gen approach long before the term came to be applied to contact centers. In 1998 KSBA developed a process called “Performance Design” to connect design solutions to profitability via decreased capital, energy and healthcare costs and increased productivity. It promotes efficient wiring and air delivery systems through access floors: raised floors where voice, data, power supply and optionally heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) run underneath. It focuses on ergonomics that zero in on employee health and productivity that are reflected in deploying adjustable-height keyboard trays, monitor heights and seat heights and at installing indirect lighting and putting in exercise/game room spaces. 

The performance design methodology is most practical inside completely new buildings or top-to-bottom renovations of existing structures, such as vacant big-box stores. Elements of it, such as sound masking and furniture can be retrofitted in partial renovations though the full benefits will not be achieved.KSBA managing partner Roger Kingsland admits that with the current economy his firm’s business is a little slow, but his clients are interested in the next-gen performance design approach. For example his firm has been working on a 90,000 sq. ft. 600-employee contact center for VistaPrint in Montego Bay, Jamaica, scheduled to be completed in August 2011. Its features include outdoor views from the workstations, adjustable keyboard trays, modular cabling, solar hot water, a 250,000 gallon rainwater harvesting/reuse system, employee-controlled HVAC, exercise and game rooms, child care, a soccer field and food service. 

“The firms who see value in tying design to user performance are continuing to specify a performance design approach,” says Kingsland. “It isn’t costly and it has a positive ROI when it is done right.”

HLW International calls its next-gen design philosophy “Better Performance by Design.” It focuses on reducing turnover by changing environmental factors: noise, lighting and movement while keeping costs low. The method stresses the right use of colors for paint and carpet and careful lighting fixtures to provide indirect light that can prevent eyestrain while natural light has significant positive effects on employee morale. It emphasizes careful space planning and strategically considering the adjacencies of the various required spaces such as for help desks, supervisors, break room, restrooms and training rooms to improve productivity by shortening access times.

“Our mantra is that smart design, especially for contact centers where the nature of the business is notoriously stressful causing tremendous turnover should be taken very seriously for companies that want to attract and retain the best talent, improve productivity and increase their bottom lines,” explains Sacramone.  

Fitting Out the Multichannel Center

The next-gen contact center will be multichannel: with text-based communications sharing close to if not equal billing with voice and have to be designed accordingly. KSBA’s Kingsland reports that noise from conversations must be suppressed or masked more in a multichannel center or section than in a traditional voice-only or in a text-only facility or department to enable agents who are answering text communication to concentrate over the din of chatter.

If one is on the phone wearing headsets they do not notice the effects of their talking but it becomes apparent when they stop and have their sets off, he points out. Yet there will always been some sound even with the best of approaches and systems.“You can eliminate noise to a certain extent,” explains Kingsland. “The solutions are good sound masking and lots of absorptive surfaces such as ceiling panels to reduce reverberation and thick carpeting on the floor to suck the sound up. But still if you have a lot of people in small workstations near each other’s you are going to hear stuff.”

Liberation From (or Likely Less) Wiring

New technologies such as wireless LANs and voice over IP (VoIP) can deliver cost savings in wiring and in flexibility by making it easier and less expensive to build and alter floor layouts. Wireless LANs avoid communications cabling altogether; VoIP eliminates separate voice lines.KSBA’s Kingsland is not seeing much use of wireless LANs in contact centers or in other high-tech buildings. Instead they have been employed in limited controlled environments such as meeting spaces and there only as backups to wired LANs.

IT personnel are concerned, he explains, about building material such as concrete and steel and floor layouts affecting signal strength resulting in varying bandwidth that could reduce data speeds (quality-sensitive applications such as VoIP and IP video may also be affected – ED.).

In contrast he is seeing VoIP almost exclusively with very few separate-wired new TDM installations. This shift cuts the number of cable “drops” (from ceilings or from underfloors) from three: phone, computer and backup to the last two.KSBA says access floor goes one better by enabling firms to use just one communications cable. It also permits faster and less costly workstation addition, alteration, removal and layout changes than above-floor cabling. “The only reason to have a backup cable is that it is there if the problem is difficult and time consuming to fix,” explains Kingsland. “But with access floor or any other access system it is so easy to change out a cable so that if you have a problem you can change it out in no time, so why double your cabling cost?”Interior Concepts has simplified wiring even further for training rooms and making their layouts even more flexible with tables powered by its Connect2 power system. The Connect2 is “plug and play” which means that the tables are powered simply by plugging them into a wall; no electrician is required.

Going Dumb is Smart

The smartest computing is making terminals dumb. Computer/desktop virtualization i.e. cutting down on the tasks performed by, number of or eliminating individual workstation PCs reduces equipment capital and hardware and support costs.

This method can also slice facilities expenses by shrinking power consumption both directly through efficiency gains and indirectly by axing the amount of heat generated on the floors that must be removed. That in turn can slice capital costs by permitting smaller HVAC units.

Ncomputing says its solutions enable energy demand reductions as much as 90 percent per user. RingCube (News - Alert) estimates that its vDesk virtualization solution results in power costs that are 10 times less than conventional PCs.

KSBA’s Kingsland reports that the savings from heat reduction can be significant. A PC generates as much heat as a human body he points out. In hot summer climates a low-density office would need 300 square feet to 350 square feet per ton of BTU in HVAC capacity but in high-density contact centers that efficiency drops to 200 sq. ft. /ton BTU, with a corresponding and costly HVAC unit size and power load increase. With virtualization the lessened air conditioning need can bring that ratio to 250 to 275 square feet /ton BTU, resulting in capital and operating cost savings.“With computer virtualization what you are doing is transferring the HVAC load from the work environment where it adds unnecessary heat and noise and put it into the computer room where it is designed to handle it more efficiently as it is concentrated and can be cooled with cooler air, ” explains Kingsland.

Going Green

The next-gen center is greener. That means natural lighting: indirect and direct, provided that the latter is facing away from the sun to avoid adding to heat load, to reduce the power draw by artificial lights and it means sourcing EnergyStar-rated appliances.

Green also means in the materials. HLW incorporated in the Barnes and Noble center certified- carbon-neutral carpeting that contains 24 percent post industrial recycled content. Also the acoustical ceiling tile used for the majority of the job is made from 70 to 75 percent recycled content and was manufactured within 500 miles of the jobsite, making it a regional material which reduced transportation emissions and costs. All furniture has low to no VOC (volatile organic compounds) content, as does all the paint used throughout the project.

Focus on Ergonomics

The next-gen center is about ensuring safe and healthy, and leading to cost saving performance and that means a focus on ergonomics. Strong cases can be made for adjustable chairs, monitor heights and lighting. They are also easy for agents to change for their own settings.

Yet other ergonomic tools may be difficult to successfully implement and/or justify.Adjustable-height keyboard trays enable agents and supervisors to set and maintain individually comfortable angles for their wrists. The concern is not whether they will work but if the agents will actually use the height-changing features, which if not could waste the investments. The barriers are a general lack of education on the trays’ benefits and having to convince agents to use these features voluntarily reports KSBA’s Kingsland.“Contact centers still primarily deal with calls with minimal keyboarding, which means neither the agents, supervisors or HR staff perceives the actual cause-and-effect advantages of these trays,” explains Kingsland. “I suppose with the growth in nonverbal responses that will change.”Sit/stand workstations, which contact center agents to modify the height of their work surface throughout the day, may reduce discomfort and improve work performance. An Interior Concepts white paper “Call Center Ergonomics: I Can’t Stand to Sit” points out that frequent position changes can help to prevent work-related, repetitive stress injuries.

Roger Kingsland thinks there is only a limited benefit of sit/stand work stations and they cost an extra $800 over conventional workstations. While the theory is that sit/stand stations would translate into fewer break times, the reality he says is that in tightly managed contact centers the staff have set and scheduled break periods, regardless of whether the work station is flexible.

Interior Concepts may have an alternative approach. It recently launched an updated workstation with sit-to-stand functionality for contact centers that improves ergonomics while reducing costs over older variations. These use adjustable keyboards and monitor arms with enough adjustment to be used while in sitting or standing positions. In contrast, traditional sit-to-stand stations involved having the entire desktop move up and down either by hand crank or power, which added to the price. The Interior Concepts sit-to-stand accessories add approximately $300 per workstation compared to manual sit-to-stand mechanisms that can run over $600 and electric mechanisms that can run $1,000 or higher.

Attractive/Effective Amenities

Contact centers are high-stress environments, which mean its employees need places to unwind. The basics are break areas and in the larger centers cafeterias, and increasingly, quiet lounges, fitness centers to work it off and stay healthy, and Internet cafes. This last one pays off by giving staff an outlet to access their e-mail and surf online: without using their employers’ machines. In the Barnes and Noble center HLW installed an Internet café in the break room that also included vending machines, flat screen TVs, and a variety of seating types including banquettes.

At the other end of the health scale is managing smokers; contact centers appear to attract many such employees. KSBA advises creating two separate outdoor patios, the farther apart the better, for smokers and the other employees.

Locating the amenities is just as important as their features. HLW’s Sacramone recommends having break rooms located directly adjacent or having visual access through glass fronted office to supervisor for quick and immediate support on calls that decreases the amount of time agents must take to arrive back at their workstations.

KSBA’s Kingsland advises placing break areas in the core of the contact centers. In this fashion they become the central foci for employees which then builds he says “a sense of community” as well as offering quick access to the call floors that maximizes both needed downtown and productivity.


The Pros and Cons of Plug-and-Play

A combination of a continuing challenging economy, shifts to self-service and to homes have left many vacant contact centers across the U.S. and Canada, often with switches, workstations and furniture intact, thereby creating ready “plug-and-play” facilities for firms looking to open new centers. While in the past these shuttered premises have too often been located in poor labor markets, this is less of a case today as many of them are in prime communities.

Not surprisingly contact centers, especially BPOs have been selecting plug-and-play sites which if designed and located right can save them money while slicing go-to live times over the other space options.

“We find little interest in Class A office space largely due to the limited amount of parking in most office buildings or office parks,” explains Susan Arledge, president and CEO, Arledge Partners Real Estate Group. “There is a huge amount of vacant and/or surplus retail as a result of the economic recession; however, the costs to convert these shells into a call center can be very time consuming, as well as expensive.” 

Yet plug-and-play centers could cost more than a completely new or extensively remodeled facilities created on next-gen lines. Roger Kingsland, managing partner, Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates (KSBA) ended up overhauling a so-called plug-and-play center for an unnamed outsourcer in an old bank building for $55 a square foot. The center needed a new HVAC system, cabling and finishes.He recommends in selecting such centers to look for comfortable workstations, preferably bordered by low panels with glass tops for increased light and air flow, adjustable chairs in good condition and confirm that the cabling technology will be adequate for the use. 

“The outsourcer client was aghast that it would cost that much for what they were told was plug and play,” recounts Kingsland.



Blending Fitness and Work

For contact centers having employees who are physically fit improves alertness and performance while lowering absenteeism and healthcare costs. Yet not everyone can afford or justify on-site gyms and they are only feasible for before or after shift-end.

The TrekDesk Treadmill Desk may offer a unique and imaginative happy compromise. It is a full-sized, height adjustable workstation that attaches to existing treadmills that allows individuals to walk slowly while working. First intended for home offices, it can be readily used in employer-provided facilities.

The emphasis Trek Desk says is on exercise through slow movement throughout the day which is proven to be essential to health and energy levels. The cost is reasonable: less than a typical one months’ health insurance payment.


The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:

Arledge Partners Real Estate




Interior Concepts


Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates


nComputing (News - Alert)






Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi