BPO industry adjusting to new working practices, demand shift

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Like all industries, the local BPO (business process outsourcing) industry has been disrupted by restrictions on the mobility of workers, as well as fluctuations in demand.

The sector is frequently described as one of the two “legs” of the Philippine economy, alongside remittances from overseas Filipino workers. As BPO revolves around international companies delegating operations to the Philippines, it has long been regarded as a vital source of foreign exchange and high-value jobs for the country’s English-speaking and digitally literate workforce.

The industry employs around 1.3 million workers and contributes approximately 9% to the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) when its indirect and induced multiplier impacts are factored in. As a result of its importance, BPO was permitted certain exemptions from the lockdown to minimize the impact on the wider economy.

When quarantine measures were first imposed across Luzon from March 17, BPO companies were allowed to continue operations if they could utilize a skeleton workforce, maintain social distancing, and provide staff with temporary accommodation or a reliable shuttle service to homes within the immediate vicinity.

Alternatively, BPO firms and other export-oriented companies were given a deadline to implement satisfactory work-from-home arrangements for employees.

While many employees welcome the flexibility and safety of working from home, BPO firms were largely unprepared for a total work-from-home model, and had to overcome challenges related to Internet access, equipment transfers, and clearance requirements from clients. In the latest Speedtest Global Index, released in March, the Philippines was ranked 104th out of 139 surveyed countries for average fixed broadband speeds.

“Telecommuting would be much more viable over the long term if broadband connectivity improves in terms of speed and price,” Junar Amador, managing director at Ingram Micro Philippines, told research and consultancy firm Oxford Business Group (OBG).

According to Beng Coronel, president of local IT-BPO firm Pointwest, the initial work-from-home capacity of BPO companies operating in the Philippines varied significantly based on their size and the type of service they offered. Global in-house centers that form part of international companies found it easier to make the transition, as their clearance procedures were less complicated.

Pointwest itself was able to continue operating at 100% capacity upon implementing work-from-home procedures because it activated prior disaster recovery and business continuity plans, Coronel told OBG.

After solving capacity challenges, some BPO firms then had to contend with declining demand due to project deferments and cancellations.

Although a surge in flight cancellations, e-commerce orders and financial service enquiries may have temporarily boosted activity for operators with related contact centers in the Philippines, a significant proportion of the BPO work undertaken in the country is imported from the US, which is currently suffering from the world’s highest number of Covid-19 infections and record jobless claims. This highlights the need for the further diversification of BPO clients and activities to hedge against future disruption, according to OBG. 

While a slowdown in US consumer activity is likely to have a negative impact on the BPO sector in the short term, OBG said the Philippines can look towards building competitive advantages beyond English-language proficiency and customer service skills to position itself for the next wave of growth in the global BPO industry.

Basic call center services are currently responsible for around 50-60% of customer contact operations in the country, but demand for such services was already under pressure from artificial intelligence-powered ‘chatbots’.

In recognition of this threat, the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) in 2016 unveiled its Roadmap 2022, which aims to prepare its members for a transition towards automated services and more technical and creative jobs.

If managed correctly through targeted investments in technology and upskilling, IBPAP forecasts that as many as 388,000 mid-skilled jobs and 309,000 high-skilled positions can be created by 2022, against the loss of 40,000 low-skilled positions.

“We see intelligent processing automation and analytics as the next drivers for growth,” Coronel told OBG. “Now is the time to prepare, in terms of capability building and developing the services that will be needed moving forward. More than ever, cost will become a major factor in any decision that a business leader makes, and this is where our country can have an advantage: innovation at competitive cost.”

Another encouraging sign is the growth of emerging segments such as health care, gaming, and animation which fall under the IBPAP roadmap.

Prior to the outbreak, the Philippines was already established as a leading offshore/nearshore location for health care services delivery. In its November 2019 assessment, IBPAP forecast revenue growth in the segment of 7.3-10.8% through 2022, as well as revenue growth of 7.3-12.3% in gaming and animation. This compares to projected revenue growth of 3.3-7.4% in contact centers over the same period.  

As the Covid-19 pandemic raises global demand for health care services and home entertainment, OBG said it is reasonable to expect that growth in these segments could be even higher than previously predicted.

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