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Pandemic Response: Keeping the Data Flowing via Virtual Call Centers

May 27, 2020

A key lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the worst outbreaks tend to take place in environments that are enclosed with people in close proximity, such as nursing homes, prisons, churches, certain workplaces and … call centers.

Despite the successful migration of many survey efforts to web-based approaches, there is still a critical need for conducting telephone surveys with “live” interviewers. Studies that require high quality, timely, representative data – such as political polls or rapid-response monitoring; those that deal with sensitive issues or potentially  “triggering” topics like abuse or mental or emotional health issues; and those that may have longer, more complex sets of information being collected are often better administered over the phone by a live interviewer.

Abt Associates is committed to both the health and safety of our telephone interviewer workforce as well as the critical need to continue to collect data. To manage both priorities, Abt has moved most of our research interviewers out of “brick and mortar” call centers into a “virtual call center” (VCC) environment where interviewers, like many professionals, can work from the safety of their home during the pandemic.

Not only does the virtual environment minimize the risk of exposure for our staff, but it also allows us to continue to collect the critical information our clients need – from special COVID-19-related surveys to other types of non-pandemic related data collection efforts. This reduces the risk of disruption to ongoing projects while providing the capacity to take on new data collection needs. At a time when a number of other commercial and university call centers have had to close their doors or significantly curtail their efforts, the VCC allows us to continue operations in a manner that safeguards employee health.

A key to running a VCC environment successfully is the ability to maintain the level of rigorous oversight and quality that Abt has in place in our physical call center locations -- where supervisor and staff work shoulder to shoulder. Abt has achieved this by focusing on 5 key areas:

1. Cloud-based, secure systems: Our Data Collection Platform (DCP) is built on a secure, cloud-based infrastructure provided by Amazon Web Serives (AWS). This allows us to set-up interviewer and supervisor work stations in any location where internet access is available. Abt has outfitted our entire remote interviewing staff with Chromebooks to ensure standardization of screen resolution, the display of questions on the screens as well as survey, monitoring, and supervision functions.** These machines act as “dummy terminals”: no data is stored on the local machines; rather, all of the data is transmitted toand resides withinour secure, FISMA Moderate environment.

2. Training: Our interviewers receive rigorous training and practice on the use of the virtual interviewing stations before dialing actual households.  This includes initial set-up, ensuring adequate internet speed and bandwidth (which is continually monitored to ensure the stations  meet performance expectations), and on-going tech support.

3. Work hours: The surveys we conduct require an adherence to protocols around the days of the week and times of day calls are made. These protocols enable us to make the maximum number of attempts on each telephone number selected for the study. This is done to ensure we reach a wide range of respondents and that the survey results are representative of the population of interest.

4. Monitoring & supervision: Because our brick and mortar centers operate on the same systems as our virtual center, essential oversight tasks such as live call monitoring, managing sample release, and supervising staff are accomplished in a similar manner. Chat boxes, Skype, and the occasional email replace face-to-face interaction between supervisors and interviewers, but all other functions are performed in essentially the same manner as in our physical centers.

5. Evaluating metrics at all levels: Operating a VCC environment requires continuous vigilance. Our supervisory staff work closely with project directors to ensure data quality, calling efficiency, and cost effectiveness. Our project teams monitor several key metrics, including completions per hour, average length per complete, labor hours per project, live monitoring rates, and staffing levels.

Moving forward, the VCC allows us to (1) broaden our hiring base geographically and add interviewer capacity as needed across time zones, (2) scale well-past the physical capacity of our brick and mortar call centers, and (3) more easily hire people with physical disabilities who can do the work but perhaps are limited in mobility. It ensures the health and safety of our staff, provides continuity for our clients, and produces the same high quality results that Abt has always delivered. That’s why Abt’s VCC isn’t just a short-term pandemic response; it’s an ongoing approach to providing our clients with rigorous, science-based survey data.

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