Laying off Australians and sending customer support services offshore has been the darling of many a profit-minded CEO for nearly 20 years – but the practice has come back to bite telecommunications companies, airlines and other service providers as overseas COVID-19 lockdowns make thousands of staff unavailable overnight.

Inundated by mass cancellations due to the government’s ban on overseas flights, Virgin Australia, for one, is struggling to handle customer enquiries and reports suggest Qantas customers are waiting for 5 to 6 hours to reach an operator.

“Due to new government restrictions in the Philippines requiring home isolation, one of our call centres is currently unavailable,” Virgin Australia advised customers in a recent update.

“Please bear with us while our team here in Australia process your enquiry, and please only contact us if your guests’ booking is within the next 24 hours.”

Telecommunications companies were suffering similar delays, with overseas contact centres straining “due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on our teams and partners in Australia and around the globe”, Telstra advised in a recent update on the pandemic’s impact.

“Our call centres in Australia remain open, however with fewer people answering calls there are significant wait times,” the site warns, noting an increase of more than 50 per cent on “certain routes and geographies” including a 20-fold increase in calls to some government call centres.

“You will experience delays getting through to our customer service team and getting some issues fixed.”

Optus was similarly affected, warning that “due to COVID-19 impacts to our messaging and call-centre teams, we unfortunately can only respond to critical enquiries”.

The situation has become so bad that industry watchdog the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has granted telecommunications companies extra time to respond to the expected “increase in urgent complaints” as the “cascade effects of the COVID-19” emerge.

Companies now have 15 days to respond to non-urgent complaints referred by the TIO, up from the usual 10; urgent complaints must still be resolved within two days.

Reaping what they sowed

With “enhanced community quarantine” measures already isolating contact-centre workers in the Philippines and a new three-week lockdown keeping a billion Indians home, Australian skeleton crews are stumbling and once-enthusiastic adopters of offshoring are scrambling.

Telstra – which copped extensive criticism for last year laying off 9,500 staff and moving new jobs offshore – has paused its retrenchment strategy and is looking for 1,000 additional “temporary” contact-centre staff.

Controversy around offshoring bank staff has simmered for years, with analyst firm IBISWorld recently argued the horse had already bolted and Telstra admitting it would be too expensive to ever bring the jobs back to Australia.

Automation has been flagged as a more viable and sustainable alternative to offshoring, but it can do little for the high-contact services now being affected.

“Yes, there’s a journey with automation, and some hard readjustment to be realised,” SurePayd chief operating officer Karen Stephen argues, “but innovation stops for no-one. It’s important that we see past the early pain automation can bring and look toward the value it can ultimately deliver.”

The importance of automation was recognised years ago in a 2015 Deloitte Access Economics whitepaper about the benefits of offshoring – but that same paper reflected a very myopic view of offshoring’s risks.

Deloitte didn’t anticipate losses from a force majeure event like a pandemic, focusing instead on risks such as retaining staff in “typically low-end jobs that can be repetitive or not very interesting”, competition between offshoring service providers, regulatory concerns and risks, and cultural differences such as training staff in the use of Australian slang words.

Deloitte’s advice was that companies not consider offshoring a way of redeploying onshore staff rather than reducing them – but Australian companies did just that, and are now left scrambling for a solution.

IT service providers could also be hit hard, with overseas contact centres facing shutdowns and even domestic capacity threatened by tightening Australian government lockdowns.

In an effort to prevent massive job losses across the sector, industry group the Australian Information Industry Association recently wrote to the government begging it to exempt IT support services from the lockdowns on the basis that their role supporting “critical infrastructure and essential services” makes them ‘essential services’.