All over the world right now, companies are scrambling to figure out how to accommodate the Center for Disease Control’s request for employees to work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For some, this is a relatively simple transition — they can bring their laptops home, pop a squat on the couch and complete their workload remotely. But for those working in monitoring call centers, the transition to working from home isn’t so easy.
Typically, monitoring is not allowed outside of the operating room in UL-listed central stations. But with the threat of COVID-19, UL is making exceptions.
“At UL, our driving mission is to help create safe living and working conditions for all of our constituencies,” news on The Monitoring Association (TMA) site reads. “This value shapes our standards and program policies. The emergence of the COVID-19 virus presents a new challenge, but by working together, we can find ways forward.”
UL released an initial draft of guidelines for call center employees now working from home, which you can find here. A work-issued computer, encrypted VPN, multifactor authentication every 24 hours and proof of childcare are some of the requirements listed.
U.S.-based stations monitoring National Industrial Security System accounts still must get approval from a U.S. federal security agency to enable call center employees to work from home.
The Monitoring Center (TMC), a ULC-listed, CSAA 5 Diamond central station out of Oakville, Ontario, with customers across North America, is one example of a company that’s taken advantage of the UL’s recent leniency.
Jason Digioacchino, president of The Monitoring Center, said he started preparing for his employees — including those in the call center — to start working from home on March 2.
“People weren’t really taking [COVID-19] seriously [at that time], but I had a feeling, and thought we might as well have what we need just in case,” Digioacchino said.
That preparation started with ordering double the workstations, and then moved to asking TMC’s monitoring software provider, DICE Corporation, Bay City, Mich., how call center employees could fully operate from home.
Thankfully, DICE has a disaster preparedness mode built into its system for scenarios — typically natural disasters — that force call center employees to work from home.
“Because our system works with the cloud, we can open it so users can work from home,” said Cliff Dice, president and CEO of DICE Corporation. “Normally we have restrictions so if you work at the central station and you go home and try to log in over the web, it doesn’t allow you to because you don’t have the central station’s IP. But in this case, we’re taking restrictions off. They’ll need an ID to log in, but we’ve opened the gates to let people in.” DICE is able to route not only the alarm signals to employees' homes, but the phone calls — and the calls are recorded.
This has become increasingly useful since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-seven central stations have asked DICE to remove these restrictions so their call centers can work from home, and Dice expects these numbers to continue to increase. Typically, DICE receives only one or two requests a month to turn off restrictions in disaster response.
“This is significant for everybody — shutting down the building and telling everyone to go home, and managing everyone from home — no one has ever done that too much,” Dice said. “This is a pretty unique development that puts central stations that have gone cloud-hosted at a big advantage over centers that aren’t.”
Still, many central stations are not allowing call center employees to work from home, but are instead enacting different initiatives in response to the threat of COVID-19.
Affiliated Monitoring, Union, N.J., for example, instead received special designation of its employees as “essential employees” so they are exempt from any government action that would restrict travel, enabling them to get to work. The company has also increased the cleaning of its facilities, restricted business-related travel, stopped allowing visitors to its monitoring centers and had non-monitoring employees start working from home.
“Affiliated’s mission for the last 43 years has been to protect the safety, security and health of customers,” a March 13 email from CEO Daniel Oppenheim read. “Emergency preparedness has always been central to the focus of Affiliated, and we have long prepared for all scenarios, including what we are all now facing. We want to reassure you that we are singularly focused on ensuring our continuity in monitoring your customer’s life safety systems.”
In case the government continues placing cities on lockdown, UL encouraged monitoring stations to plan for WFH scenarios.
“At this time, we encourage monitoring stations to make contingency plans for operating in environments where operators are not able to physically come together to monitor signals in a central station operating room,” UL’s statement read. “There is a meaningful risk that the rapid spread of COVID-19 could trigger governmental movement and assemble recommendations/controls that would preclude normal station operation.”
Avi Lupo, executive vice president of DICE Corporation, urged central stations to move its employees to home offices ASAP.
“We need to take some sort of action to continue the business going and not have all of the operators sitting in one room — that’s a necessity for us right now,” Lupo said. “So now we’re looking to the future, because [the end of COVID-19] will not happen right away, it will probably be in the next 1-2 years, and life will be so different afterwards. There needs to be some kind of action by each and every central station.”
And this shift to call center employees working remotely may not end once the threat of COVID-19 passes.
Digioacchino said he envisions this pandemic will forever change the way his central station operates. Just 2-3 days into working from home, he said his employees are finding they are 25-30 percent more productive than they were in the office.
“I’m always looking ahead, and I know this is here to stay — it’s not going to go away quickly,” Dioacchino said. “So in the long-term, yes, people are going to get comfortable working from home. We’re going to put every single thing we can possibly put into place in order to ensure the security, efficiency and collaboration we have in the workplace, in employees’ home offices.”
Dice also envisions a future in which central stations will continue operating remotely.
“When 9/11 happened, I didn’t really understand how much travel and security would change, but we all saw that it did,” Dice said. “Now, by the end of this week I assume we’ll have over 1,000 work from home requests, and instead of 12 central stations operating remotely, we might be pushing 30-40 companies. And I suspect that some of these owners are going to start to wonder what they have a building for. There’s going to be a small percentage of those that will go back to the way things were, but otherwise they’re going to see they found a way to cut costs. I think this is one of those life-changing events that will change the way we look at things for a long time.”