Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Indian outsourcers have to head home

Indian outsourcing companies are facing shortages of good quality staff, particularly in the call centers and business process outsourcing businesses. The attrition rate in these two businesses can be as high as 50 percent, according to some reports.

Most staff are leaving to join other companies for better terms. But some staff are leaving because of burn-out, including the long commute time to and from work. Some others are women who leave their jobs to start a family. India’s traditional joint families, in which entire generations lived in one household, are falling apart in the cities, reducing the traditional support systems offered to new mothers.

Indian outsourcers could have access to more workers if they would allow more staff to work from home. Apart from young mothers, a lot of other categories of people, including freelancers and pensioners may be willing to join the workforce, if given the option to work from home.

In this way, the outsourcers would go a long way towards empowering a whole section of Indian society. They would also save on transporting staff to and from work, providing them meals in the campus cafeteria, and other perks employees have come to expect.

To be sure, customers will not take kindly to calls being taken from homes with the dog barking, the door bell ringing, or a child crying in the background. But once home workers see the opportunity they will make the adjustments necessary to ensure that the customer gets top quality service, undisturbed by any extraneous noises.

None of the suggestions outlined here are startlingly new. They have been tried extensively in the US and the UK. They are new in the Indian context, where surprisingly Indian and multinational services companies have been hesitant to move away from proven techniques and processes to exploring new sources of staff.

But there are still a lot of challenges going forward. Mothers and pensioners in India are less likely to own personal computers. Outsourcing companies use their computers over three staff shifts. Giving a computer to a single home worker would therefore lead to an underutilized asset. Probably companies can enter into an agreement with home workers whereby they take a computer on a bank loan, on assurance of business from the outsourcer. High quality telephone and VOIP (voice-over-Internet-protocol) links are available, and outsourcers can probably buy the capacity in bulk and distribute that out to the home workers.

The biggest sticking point is however likely to be data security, the fear that outside company monitored facilities, home workers could misuse confidential information such as credit card and social security numbers.

Companies are already masking at their facilities the data that could be used to compromise the customer. In many cases because of data security laws in their home countries, customers themselves are already filtering what information is available to a call center agent.

So outsourcing companies will probably have to rely less on physical monitoring using closed circuit TVs (CCTVs) and other technologies, and focus more on masking the data that is accessible to the home worker. There are also a lot of processes in business process outsourcing that do not require handling information that is confidential and liable to misuse.

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