Before a bank can even begin approaching greater call center profitability, it must first design the right environment for peak customer service rep performance.

Can the design of your call center affect your bank's profitability? It's logical that a pleasant working environment results in happier employees which, somehow, must help the bottom line. The problem is that somewhere in every decision-making process lurks the CFO demanding a "business-case" analysis of any design solution that costs more than the lowest cost, baseline call center. After all, that's the way capitalism works; in business, the ultimate goal is profit. If a direct connection between a business decision and profit can't be made, the decision can't be justified.

The issue for a bank and its call center facility design is: How do you prove ideas in terms that can be understood and approved by "financial gatekeepers?"

First, let's put the potential of good call center design in economic perspective. In 1990, the International Facilities Management Association and the Electric Power Research Institute completed a study of 70 million square feet of office space indicating that if the cost of personnel is included, the cost to build and maintain office facilities is only 15 percent of the total, with the remaining 85 percent going to salaries. Unfortunately, the facilities management and design professions still focus on the 15 percent associated with construction and operations, while the vast potential for savings associated with the 85 percent salary component goes largely untapped.

increasing productivity

Some would argue that the influence of design on productivity is dubious at best and certainly difficult-if not impossible-to prove empirically. However, substantial research over the last 10 years demonstrates how design can affect productivity of building occupants. Some examples:

Improving Productivity in the Workplace, authored by Timothy J. Springer, Ph.D., describes 48 studies that examine how the physical environment, furniture, equipment, facility management and changes in work procedures affect work performance.

Springer studied the impact of ergonomically designed furniture on performance and productivity of video display terminal (VDT) operators at a major insurance company, which concluded that the best ergonomic furniture had a 10 to 15 percent performance improvement over normal conditions, with one-third of this attributable to improved seating.

Aetna Insurance has completed several before and after studies of upgrades from open, bullpen work environments to enclosed cubicles. Productivity increases ranged from 5 to 21 percent.

Michael Brill, president of Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (BOSTI), has conducted research on office productivity for more than 15 years. His research considers a collection of 18 "facets" things like physical enclosure, aesthetics, privacy, furniture, status, communication, temperature control and lighting. Data obtained from research involving some 8,000 workers in 80 organizations suggest that the theoretical upper limit of benefits from "perfect" workspace could be as much as 20 percent of annual salaries.

These are scientific studies, empirically defensible, that demonstrate the phenomenal potential of increased productivity. Let's look at how design might affect a call center, for example. Although bank call center personnel, density, and compensation varies drastically, let's assume a 30,000 square foot space, populated by 300 individuals who make an average yearly compensation of $20,000. Experience indicates that, depending on a variety of factors, the cost to "fit-out" office space for call center use can range from $22 to $38 per square foot. Assuming the average cost of $30 per square foot is borrowed at 9.5 percent for 10 years, an increase in the staff productivity of 15 percent will pay the debt service for the entire construction cost necessary to improve the space for call center use.

The question is, how can this information be used to convince management that good bank call center design has a profitability payback? Three steps are necessary: Understand the elements of good call center facility design; connect those elements with valid research; and do the numbers and calculate the return on investment (ROI).

Call centers are perhaps among the most complicated business units to plan and implement. They require introspective corporate strategic planning. They involve unique human resource considerations and make use of advanced communications hardware and software technology. Although designs for bank call centers should respond to specific situations, there are some universal components to good call center facility design, no matter the industry.

What's Good Call Center Design?

Lighting is critical. The most common physical problem in keyboard-intensive environments is eye strain. A computer screen acts as a mirror, primarily reflecting the ceiling surface. Design must provide uniform ambient illumination at levels high enough to prevent extreme contrast, but low enough to reduce glare.

Typical power requirements, such as surge protection and uninterrupted power supplies, apply to call center design, in addition to more sophisticated issues such as power harmonics. Computer transformers tend to shunt a portion of the electronic sine wave, which finds its way back to the main transformer, multiplies and disturbs overall harmonics.

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems typically designed for office space are often inadequate for call centers because of the higher density of people and computers.

Ceiling height should increase as floor size increases. Large spaces with low ceilings often feel claustrophobic; higher ceilings are also beneficial for penetration of natural light into the space and even distribution of artificial light.

Proper ergonomic design and training provide excellent opportunities to reduce health care costs and increase productivity.

Acoustics has been described as the "last frontier of modern office design." There are compelling reasons for open-plan workstations in call centers which, combined with constant verbal communication, make acoustical design a critical challenge. Absorptive surfaces, sound masking systems and thoughtful space layout can go a long way in improving acoustics.

Once the components of good call center design are understood, it is necessary to make a business case for incorporating them into the design solution. An excellent example is ergonomics. The cost to provide ergonomic support is minuscule compared to the benefit. Citing the Springer study mentioned above, let's assume the lower number of a 10 percent productivity increase with "ergonomically designed furniture."

Other ROI calculations produce similar results. Personal environmental modules cost about $1,500 each but represent a ROI of over 300 percent. The ROI for workstation panel heights ranges from 300 to 900 percent, depending on the study cited.

The ROI becomes particularly important as financial institutions focus on the profitability of call centers. Most incoming bank call centers have an "outward" focus; once a customer service representative (CSR) acquires certain skill sets, he or she is encouraged to focus on calling customers. Career advancement requires more formal training to acquire additional skill sets. Then, it's back to the cubes, for more "outward" focus.

Current thinking in call center design reflects this process. Call centers include formal classroom training spaces and seas of regimented cubicles that, with the exception of access to a supervisor, have no functional relationship to each other. This means that call centers now have a relatively low "churn rate" (change in layout configuration) at a time when other high-density office design trends are responding to increasing churn rates by allowing for more flexibility for change.

As banks realize the potential for call centers to efficiently provide more complex services to their customers, the result will be a need for more layout flexibility. And as call centers field increasingly complex tasks, classroom education will provide only a portion of the consumer service rep's developmental needs, and the requirement for informal education derived from communication with fellow workers will increase. The appropriate facilities response will involve the ability to constantly reorganize the space around "service teams" that focus on a specific group of services. Layout configurations should promote informal communication. For example, imagine a cluster of workstations organized around a central conference table that would allow CSRs to confer with each other and supervisors in between calls.

The best way to "future proof" an inbound (or outbound, for that matter) call center is to allow for substantially more layout flexibility than is typical today. Components that should be considered include: uniform, ceiling mounted indirect lighting systems that are layout independent; furniture on wheels or furniture systems that can be reconfigured overnight; and raised floors that allow ultimate cabling flexibility.

Perhaps the best way to put the need for increased call center flexibility into perspective is in terms of how business is evolving. As we move toward the millennium, successful businesses will be knowledge based and must have the ability to change quickly and efficiently in order to survive. As call centers become an increasingly integral part of a bank's success, they must also have the ability to change at the "speed of business."

Roger Kingsland, AIA, is managing partner of KSBA Architects, a Pittsburgh, PA-based firm specializing in architecture, planning, interior design and project management of call centers.

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