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Call centers sending workers home

Industry looks to telecommuting in wake of virus cluster

Mar 12,2020
A worker disinfects the call center at the Gyeonggi regional government office in Suwon, Gyeonggi, Wednesday afternoon, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. [YONHAP]
Retailers and infomercial networks have ordered their call center staff to either work from home or keep each other at arm’s length after a large cluster infection was traced back to a call center in Guro District, western Seoul, Tuesday.

Given the nature of those workplaces, where hundreds of employees are talking virtually nonstop in a small space, call centers are considered especially vulnerable to the spread of airborne pathogens.

Korea has 48 telemarketing and call center businesses registered as members of the Korea Contact Center Association.

Just those associated with home shopping channels employed 4,600 workers as of 2018, according to the Korea TV Homeshopping Association. CJ O Shopping, Hyundai Home Shopping and Lotte Homeshopping each have around 500 customer service agents, and GS Homeshopping has around 600 employees handling inbound calls.

Infomercial networks in Korea were early to respond to the fast-spreading coronavirus, with many having already begun to send some employees home to work remotely in mid-February. They are gradually expanding that telecommuting plan to include more employees.

CJ O Shopping said it sent half of its staff home to work remotely, and Hyundai Home Shopping has ordered 20 percent of its workforce to telecommute.

GS Homeshopping said it will order its call center staff to work from home. Fifteen percent of its workforce was telecommuting as of Wednesday.

Lotte Homeshopping, which outsources its customer service work, had sent 5 percent of its call center workforce home and plans to expand the remote work order to more employees.

Four call centers in the infomercial industry said they were confident they have the necessary infrastructure for its employees to work remotely, and some have educated staff on how to access their internal network through a virtual private network or created special task forces to support them.

“Background noise could be one issue, but other than that, we don’t have any problems. Everything is moving smoothly,” a CJ O Shopping official said.

Leftover employees were advised to maintain a “social distance” from their colleagues.

“We are trying to keep each employee as far away from each other as possible. We’ve spread our workforce out to different locations like our company’s training centers and meeting rooms,” a Hyundai Home Shopping official said.

But these companies still share security concerns, as some were previously held accountable for personal information leaks.

Industry officials said they are being extra careful since such problems can happen anytime, despite strict protocols already in place that prevent individual employees from siphoning off private information.

“We operate under the same security protocols used in the office. Inbound operators can only access a very limited amount of information on their laptops,” an industry official said.

E-commerce websites are expanding remote work.

11st said it has issued a remote order last month to all its customer service agents working in Daegu. It also aims to have 40 percent of inbound call receivers in Seoul and Gyeonggi working from home. The company rearranged seats so that every other desk can be left empty, in order to minimize contact.

Market Kurly, a high-end online grocery store, completely closed its call center in mid-February and said it will receive all inquiries through Kakao messages or its official home page.

Meanwhile, government officials said at a Wednesday press briefing they will provide a guideline of preventive measures for establishments that are especially vulnerable to cluster infections.

BY KIM YOUNG-JU, KANG JAE-EUN [kang.jaeeun@joongang.co.kr]


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