The COVID 19 pandemic has forced enterprises to rethink work culture and shift to automation, cloud-enabled remote working strategies to stay competitive. In this exclusive interaction with CIO dialogues Srinivasa Reddy Global CTO, Startek shares with us how his company responded to the crisis and overcame both IT and business challenges.
What has been your biggest challenge since the COVID 19 crisis?
Every industry has its challenges. Our services are tailored differently for different industry segments and clients. For example, some require 100% screen recording and some 100% voice recording. Some clients connect to our Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system while connecting to their applications. So our challenges differ accordingly. When we had to suddenly cope with the COVID situation, we were highly confused. Our President Rajiv Ahuja recommended we lead with cloud-enabled technology. Our immediate response was to decide on a swift transition to the cloud as it appeared there was no point in us holding on to virtual desktops or virtual infrastructure in their current form. We did have a cloud model and certain applications running on the cloud, but we never had our virtual desktops running on the cloud. Anyways, since our ACD (voice system) and a few other applications were already on the cloud we had some insights into how the cloud model worked. So we decided on transitioning into a cloud environment where our employees could work from home on their desktops or laptops (BYOD) or we could send the machines to those who needed them.
The transition to remote working must have been an arduous one considering the adjustments involved...
It’s difficult for us to manage the windows patches, antivirus, package, and other protective controls in a remote working situation. If it’s a virtual desktop we can manage these centrally and can control everything. But remote working involved physical desktops and keeping track of whether security updates were done regularly or not was a challenge. We immediately discussed with Microsoft and they offered Microsoft virtual desktops which they had launched recently. They asked us to use those and waived implementation charges as it was a new technology. We only had to pay a monthly subscription fee for each desktop.
As this tech had not been tested at scale for voice, we experienced initial teething problems.
This prompted us to quickly look for alternative solutions that we could present to clients.
We already had Citrix cloud-based licenses and we thought we would use all of them. Citrix agreed and subsequently we moved about 10000 Citrix virtual desktop licenses to Amazon cloud. We got a breakthrough there and were able to configure our systems in a very short time. In the meantime, MS engineers, who were working around the clock to solve our problems achieved a breakthrough. All our voice issues and contact center applications started working and we had an option between Microsoft and Citrix virtual desktops. We told our clients we were confident that both these options will work. Then they asked us to demonstrate the system(s)from a security point of view. We showcased blocking of files downloaded onto the desktops, disabled Print Screen option and accessing USB ports for the Keyboard & Mouse devices while we centrally controlled these activities The clients were convinced and allowed us to move on with these two platforms.
So, how is this transition working for you today?
We have around 48000 employees across the globe. Despite the COVID 19 crisis and highly demanding client requirements, we are 85% operational with our work from home set up. Some clients did not agree for a work from home arrangement probably due to the nature of their businesses or due to their businesses being closed due to the pandemic. Also in some of the countries where we operate we experienced some unique challenges. For example, we operate in Honduras, and to help enforce the lockdown, they had deployed their army on the streets. In such a scenario, it was very challenging for us to send desktops to homes or helping employees set them up. We created some videos and a global help desk and we sent these how to set up videos to their WhatsApp or through other social media channels. We also provided a comprehensive FAQ and set up a global command center immediately.
Remote working comes with its security issues. How are you dealing with those?
What we have done differently from other organizations is that we immediately took a sign off from all our agents that the situation was critical and they needed to adapt to remote working culture. We created a policy document specifying the do’s and don’ts while working from home. We also created a security awareness video which made them aware of the vulnerabilities of working from home.
As some clients were particular whether the same person was taking their calls every time, we arranged webcams and implemented an AI-based application for real-time tracking. It allows a supervisor to monitor who has logged in.
Some clients didn’t want mobile or paper for security reasons. For them the AI app checks and monitors agents if the agent is bringing any device near the system and sends an alert in the event of a violation so we can monitor the employee closely. The AI app allows us to closely monitor browsing details too. We also have a virtual agent that connects the supervisor or a manager with the employee for real-time help. We also deployed a BOT that monitors employee productivity and generates an automated report at the end of the day.
The nature of the business we are in is such that a majority of the applications we access are not hosted in our data center. What we have done differently here to ensure security is that instead of port-based firewalls, we have implemented nextgen firewalls from the cloud. This allows us to restrict applications at the firewall level, enabling a controlled environment. We also ensured we were meeting the compliance requirements for PCI-DSS, GDPR, HIPPA, ISO-27001 standards.
What’s your take on the automation of enterprises? Some of this can be technology-led instead of people led. There is potential to realize quick business benefits from the already automated processes...
After the COVID situation stabilizes remote working is going to be the new normal for BPM companies. We expect a minimum of 30-40% employees to continue working from home. The problem is the work environment at the employee residence. The majority of the employees who work in BPM companies do not have a dedicated workplace at home. We need to address issues like these.
Automation and RPA were on the cards of digitally transforming companies before the pandemic.
But in the post COVID era, we will see an acceleration in the automation of business processes as companies seek to optimize manpower. But moving forward, at Startek we are going to step up on automation technologies. Recently we appointed a chief digital officer. We now have a dedicated digital team that is highly focused.
What are your near term or short term IT priorities post-Covid?
Our infrastructure was built on an on-premise model. Going forward, we’ll need to see how the cloud model and remote working will integrate with on-premise. Our complete infrastructure strategy and architecture are being reworked and redesigned. This is our priority.
To meet your goals are you looking to increase investments in certain areas?
Cybersecurity will be our highest priority. Second is the adoption of RPA and AI which will be increasing. We also need to look at our infrastructure and figure out how it should transform. We also need to rethink all our business processes. Many of our functions such as HR and training are not designed to adapt to a remote working environment as of today. There is still more work to be done on these fronts.
Digital channels for various types of business operations and the quality function are also critical. As there are so many different moving parts, our President Rajiv Ahuja is personally leading the COVID task force and has formed an inter-agency group in the company, to help ensure we are ready for the future.