For the last two weeks, Jamaica has taken increasingly aggressive steps to manage the COVID-19 crisis, as the country grapples with a slow but steady increase in diagnosed infections. The Jamaican government has closed its airports to incoming flights, shuttered schools until after the Easter term, and encouraged businesses to turn up work-from-home options for all non-essential services.
In this context, Jamaica BPO providers are allowed to continue operating (despite an island-wide curfew) if operators follow a list of guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Wellness to prevent the spread of COVDI-19. (A total of 63 cases have been reported, and a total of two citizens have passed away.)
The guidelines instruct employers to make workplaces clean and hygienic by developing a weekly cleaning schedule for all work areas. Surfaces (e.g., desks and tables) should be wiped clean with soap and water and disinfected with commercial bleach wipes at the end of the day. Objects like light switches, elevator buttons, telephones, and keyboards should be wiped using a cotton ball moistened with 62% and above alcohol.
The guidelines include that employers should promote regular and thorough handwashing by employees, contractors, and customers and that members of staff and customers have access to places where they can wash their hands with soap and water. Employers are also required to brief all employees and customers that anyone who is ill with a cough or fever needs to stay at home until symptoms have resolved.
However, when pressed on the level of compliance to these guidelines, Petre Williams-Raynor, Manager of Public Relations and Communications at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, directed us to the local public health authorities, which she said have the responsibility of enforcing the guidelines. (Subsequently, several unsuccessful attempts were made by Nearshore Americas to reach local authorities.)
Industry’s Preparedness to Face the Pandemic
Meanwhile, Jamaica BPO sector is moving quickly in an attempt to stay ahead of COVID-19. BPO companies in Jamaica are trying, like their counterparts throughout the Nearshore, to manage the crisis within the crisis, meaning that the chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new layers of logistical complexity deeper within organizations. From provisioning workers with work-at-home hardware to re-examining business continuity planning (BCP) to re-prioritizing the responsibilities of team-leaders, the Jamaica BPO sector is facing intense pressure to adapt on the fly to the surprisingly fast-moving conditions created by the pandemic.
The transition has been easier for some providers than others. In many cases, providers with mature work-at-home processes have had an easier time than those who are trying out work-at-home for basically the very first time. For more than two weeks now, providers in Jamaica hay have put in place adaptive measures, which include work from home, social distancing, crowd controlled gatherings and sanitization of the work environment.
Kingston-based Advantage Communications, for example, has made several moves to protect its 500-person strong workforce. “We have been pretty clear from day one that the safety of our workers is a priority,” said Gregory Hough, CEO at Advantage Communications, in a telephone interview last week. The measures that the firm has implemented include sanitizing the work environment more regularly. “We have doubled the number of cleaners that we have, as we have done a lot of deep cleaning,” he said, to ensure that workers’ work stations are sanitized.
At Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS), the sanitization of the workstation has become more regular, according to Anand Biradar, vice president and business head at HGS Jamaica.
Yoni Epstein, CEO at Itelbpo, also said his organization has installed washbasins by the entrances and sanitizer stations throughout the buildings, as well as more frequent wiping of high-traffic areas.
Of course, sanitizing the work environment will not guarantee the safety of workers. It has become common knowledge in offices around the world that the strongest, most effective step required to eliminate risk is to establish physical distance among company staff.
Work-At-Home in Jamaican BPOs
Many of the organizations have already been implementing work from home strategies for business continuity.
“That is the only thing you can do to have business continuity within Jamaica. For any other situation, we could depend on other countries as part of the BCP (business continuity plan), so the only other way is to have the work from home ramped up,” informed Biradar about this measure in the COVID-19 context.
He said one-third of its workforce of 2,600, work from home in Jamaica, which allows for effective implementation of social distancing to prevent COVID-19.
“Within the next three to four days, 60 percent of the workforce will be working from home, which means there will be extra space in the office,” he said, adding that there is a six feet radius of space between agents.
The HGS vice president and business head said the work from home strategy has to become a standard practice for businesses now to continue to operate.
“People will lose jobs if work from home is not implemented, so it is no longer a matter of choice. So anybody who can has to do it to survive,” he pointed out.
Speaking to the security risk of client data being exposed, he said there are risks, but there is an undertaking from the employees that client information should be protected.
He, however, notes that where the technology is used, safety is more robust. There is analytics, webcams, which can monitor the leaking of information.
“The desktops we give to people are hardened (highly secured). So you cannot steal information, you cannot copy and paste,” he said.
In the absence of technology, he said: “We have done the training in terms of helping people to understand why they shouldn’t; signed a contract they wouldn’t, and daily they inform at the end of the day that customer information was safe and they were no issues.”
For Advantage Communications, it is easier to implement this initiative as a year ago it had invested in equipment such as PBX systems that will enable a virtual environment. He said the organization also became PC accredited.
This, he said, means its network is safe and, as such, customer information is secure even if their employees are working from home.
Christopher Boucher, Country Manager at VXI Global Solutions, said his organization has also implemented work-at-home but only for support staff, such as human resource personnel and finance. Meanwhile, for agents, work-at-home is still being explored as the infrastructure would have to be in place and adequately tested.
Epstein divulged all of his administrative staff is working-from-home or in staggering numbers on-site. He noted that the organization has a robust network of work-at-home agents across the USA and has the expertise and proven capabilities to deploy and manage an at-home workforce.
“We have been testing it here in Jamaica with big success. The key is ensuring that each location has a solid internet connection and the necessary building infrastructure to deliver uninterrupted and secure customer experiences. In cases where the residential internet and infrastructure is inadequate, we have found a go-around by partnering with hotels,” he said.
The organization is also looking at renting hotel rooms and using them as single-person offices. “We’re very excited about this solution because it means protecting jobs both in the BPO sector and the hotel sector. Several clients have indicated their interest in this plan, which we will roll out over the coming weeks once approved,” he said.
Social Distancing and Other Measures
Underscoring the importance of social distancing, Biradar said it was critical to contain the spread of the virus. At the cafeteria where persons meet and congregate, that has been addressed with allowing workers, except for the production floor, to eat in areas that allow for automatic social distancing.
“Every part of our office space, we have been pushing social distancing. I feel good so far with the measures taken, all of our employees have remained safe and healthy, and business so far is ok because it is not a shut down in Jamaica,” he said. Boucher said, fortunately, his organization had two unoccupied floor space. As such, the additional space had become handy and has been configured, so agents are sitting one cubicle apart.
“So it really worked out to our advantage that we were not to full capacity at the time when this virus happened in Jamaica. What we have done is to use our on-site security guard to monitor the exterior of the compound, so when employees are purchasing lunches, they practice social distancing,” he said.
At Itelbpo, for employees working on-site, the organization has implemented spacial restrictions, which is more extensive distance between cubicles, limited movement between office units and buildings, and restricted the number of people allowed to gather at a time.
Advantage Communications provides transportation for its members of staff to limit workers commute by public transportation.
Biradar said HGS already had a transportation system in place for the late shifts. He said social distancing is also enforced where there are few persons per trip.
Meanwhile, for VXI, while transportation is in place for the late shift, employees have to make their way to work.
“At this point, we have not implemented anything for the day shift. We have implemented for the night shift where anyone leaving work after 8:00 p.m. is taken home, and the reason we have taken this approach is because of the government’s approach to controlling social distancing on the public transportation,” which includes reducing the number of persons allowed in the taxes and on the public buses. Itelbpo also shared that it also has a similar approach as it relates to transportation.
Biradar informed that a temperature check is also done when employees enter the building before they are sent to their workstation.
“Anybody with a 99-degree temperature [Farenheit, 37,2 degrees Celsius] and over (would not be admitted) we would take them to the clinic and seek doctors’ advice and have them stay home,” he said with their compensation covered for the period they are out sick.
A similar approach is made at VXI, where a security guard scans everyone on coming in the establishment. Employees are also given hand sanitizers with portable wash containers where everyone is also encouraged to wash their hands.
Agents and WAH Implementation Jamaica covid
Initially, Birabar said that absenteeism had increased beyond its eight to 10 percent to 17 to 18 percent at the onset of the virus. But now that the organization has implemented the work from home, it has reduced and stabilized.
At VXI, Broucher said absenteeism was not an issue at his organization, which is below double digits.
“Our absenteeism was slightly elevated in the first week as the panic started, but it has come back more in line to our normal. We have not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at any of our sites, but we have suggested to single mothers, those feeling ill and those that may live in a quarantine zone stay home and take sick or vacation time,” said Epstein.
Jamaica BPOs Will Survive COVID-19
Gloria Henry, President of the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica, said she was happy with the measures that are being implemented on the ground by its members to protect the health and wellness of members of staff and ensure that there is business continuity amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nothing could have prepared us for this pandemic, but the resilience and the whole operational framework that is focused on employees’ health and wellness and putting the employee first is being tested now,” she said.
Henry shared that the sector has been rolling out the work-at-home solution and have lobbied the government for a waiver on computers to facilitate this.
While she is confident that the sector in Jamaica will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, she has not ruled out any fallout.
“We are preparing ourselves to survive. We are a resilient sector. It is why we are utilizing so many measures to ensure that there is some amount of business left during this period. We have a number of services that we know will survive, such as health care, telecommunication, and e-commerce. Some of the more vulnerable areas such as tourism, travel, and hospitality; we expect there will be fall out in those areas,” she said.
Jamaica BPOs are already suffering the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The BPO company GOSL recently had to fire employees after closing an account because a client could not uphold their business.
In the Parliament, opposition to the government is calling for a stimulus package for the BPO industry, which employs around 40,000 people in the country. Jamaica has already agreed to create an unemployment subsidy for those economically affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and former BPO employees are eligible.