Companies

BPOs struggle to accept WFH as new normal amid data privacy, client concerns

Venkatesh Ganesh Mumbai | Updated on June 26, 2020 Published on June 26, 2020

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$147 billion worth of IT and BPO exports at stake

Even as BPO companies start to embrace WFH amid the Covid-19 outbreak, they are struggling to put in place systems that can mimic an office environment.

Consider the following scenario: In the pre-Covid era, BPO employees would walk into the office, keep their phones, electronic equipment (such as pen drives) in the locker, collect them only after the shift and would work on desktops.

Flash forward to the current scenario, and many BPO employees who hail from remote towns have to either access work through personal systems or rely on laptops provided by the organisation. “To this day, we are struggling to get people to work on our systems, as some employees’ hometowns are located far away,” said a customer service manager from a Gurugram-based BPO company.

Access concerns

Outside of a BPO office, the company has significantly less control over an employee and this could be one of the reasons companies are hesitant in getting their employees to WFH. “Unlike software programmers who can be given restricted access to information, in BPOs, since voice is the predominant mode of conversation, it is difficult to control sensitive financial or healthcare data,” said a BPO executive.

This problem gets accentuated among small-sized BPO companies with less than 600 seats, in comparison to larger BPOs, industry-watchers opine. “During the initial days of the lockdown in end-March, when we were migrating our people to work from home, we did face challenges in providing IT infrastructure to all employees and ensuring necessary continuity in operations with stable internet connectivity. But we ensured that we have provided them with equipment and technology access,” said Srinivas Palakodeti, CFO at Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS).

Startek (formerly Aegis BPO) has gone in for AI-based WFH technologies to win client confidence, build controls such as blocking of files and downloads onto desktops, disabling print screen options, gesture and posture detection, facial recognition and disabling usage of USB ports for the devices.

“We are using AI-based predictive and behavioural analytics to monitor the performance and trust quotient of the teams, mask and blur confidential information, detect foreign objects and unauthorised persons, monitor browsing history and idle time performance,” said Rajiv Ahuja, President. Startek has 48,000 employees across 13 countries and 55 per cent have transitioned to WFH.

Client issues

What’s at stake is $147 billion of IT and BPO exports, which could come under considerable stress if such measures are not taken. However, such moves also cannot solve the problem.

In developed markets, regulations related to data privacy are being strictly enforced, and one of the mandates (to an outsourcing company) is to ensure that data resides in a “pre-defined” location. Post-Covid, many companies have asked their clients to give their nod to WFH in their contracts but regulations prevent them from doing so.

Recently, Tiger Tyagarajan, Genpact’s President and CEO, said that even as it has transitioned 97 per cent of its 90,000 workforce to WFH, there are banking customers who haven’t agreed to it due to regulatory compliances. “We have witnessed cases of clients who have not been comfortable from WFH delivery given IT security and data privacy issues, although the impact does not appear to be very material,” said Raja Lahiri, Partner, Grant Thornton.

Companies like HGS have, in the last four months, showcased WFH as a delivery model on a global scale and are awaiting clients’ feedback. “We will explore adding WFH as part of Service Level Agreements (SLA) as an alternative operation across verticals and geos,” said Palakodeti. HGS said it has 44,500 employees across seven countries, but did not give a number on employees working remotely. Ahuja pointed out that the focus is to use AI-based algorithms to learn more about every transaction, so that it can assess and predict which touchpoint is the most vulnerable or most effective.

So, will clients accept WFH as a new normal? They have to think of WFH as the “next-normal” and what’s needed now are technological solutions that will allow companies to digitise manual and paper/email-based processes and to transform their business model — to be open to collaboration even when participants (clients and employees) are remote from each other, stated Amit Ghosh, Head of APAC of R3.

Published on June 26, 2020
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