Coping with surge of calls at the Ministry of Education Singapore

MOE call centre staff working from home due to the outbreak of Covid19. PHOTO: GovTech

A pandemic helped push WFH call centre needs at the Ministry of Education in Singapore

Since COVID-19 Minister of Education (MOE) in Singapore has seen a surge in calls to their call centres from parents and other stakeholders.

A rough summary of the nature of calls handled by MOE CC over the past few months include:

  • Jan – March: Parents asked about the precautionary measures undertaken by schools to ensure the safety and well-being of their children, e.g. seeking clarifications on travel declarations, Leave Of Absence, mask-wearing guidelines etc.
  • Late March: Tuition / enrichment centres had to suspend their operations. Call enquiries surged from these centres as well as from parents, seeking clarifications on the advisory and alternatives.
  • Early April: When full Home Based Learning (HBL) was announced, there was another surge of calls from parents asking about the scope of HBL, alternative childcare arrangements, definition of ‘essential services’ etc.

MOE Call Centre adjusted to manage the sudden volume and accelerated our ability to WFH, wrote the WFH Transformation Team at GovTech, Singapore Government’s digital agency.

“On one hand, we wanted to enable our staff to be able to answer calls and serve our public customers from home, as this would mean reducing the risk of Covid-19 exposure for ourselves and our families.

But on the other, this meant staff needed to be able to remotely access MOE’s Call and IT systems from home. The team had never done this, because there were all sorts of challenges in previous tests and it was very uncertain about how this could work.

“We knew it would tax the existing VPN network with both voice and data traffic and were unsure if our officers’ home networks would be stable enough to ensure undisrupted call connectivity and reasonable call audio quality,” the Team wrote. “The main concern? We did not want to frustrate the public if we could not hear each other properly, or worse still, have calls dropped midway through a conversation. There was definitely apprehension.”

MOE didn’t have the recommended quality of service for its LAN/VPN network infrastructure, maintaining call audio quality was also a concern.

“COVID-19 was truly an unprecedented event, and no one in 2019 could have foreseen that we’d all be working from home en masse in 2020,” wrote the Team. To overcome this, we worked a lot harder so MOE CC could serve our customers seamlessly.”

The Team could only carry out most of the system configuration work and testing for its Call System after our hotline operating hours, to minimise service disruption to the public – similar to how SMRT does track maintenance.

“Our team worked round the clock, including weekends and public holidays, with daily conference calls (due to the COVID-19 situation) to meticulously resolve and track project progress which included end-to-end testing, validating results and fixing issues expeditiously and effectively through close collaboration,” wrote the Team.

Some useful learning points:

  • Call Centre staff working from home without missing a beat. PHOTO: GOVTECH
  • Always bring in the experts early – the network team was brought in to join us in our daily teleconference with our vendors. This enabled more direct communication amongst the technical experts (both from MOE and vendors) which facilitated faster resolution of issues.
  • Communicate with empathy – Seeking to understand one another’s priorities, identify the conflicting ones and discuss, de-conflict and agree on the most viable option. Being able to discuss, and at times argue openly, objectively and focusing on the end goal would move the collaborative projects along quicker, and more productively.
  • Purpose and teamwork – having workdays that stretched till 2 am was definitely taxing on us, but two objectives kept us going.

“The first was that for every passing day that the solution was not in place, our frontline colleagues would have to commute into MOE to attend to calls from the public,” the Team wrote. “Now, more than ever, they needed to cater to the needs of their children who were undergoing home based learning and other family members during this challenging COVID-19 period.”

Secondly in times of crisis, maintaining communication with the public was paramount; and delivering reliable and consistent service was of utmost concern to assure the public. These were always at the top of the Team’s mind.

“Our officers at MOE CC might not be putting their lives at risk like medical personnel, but they too have an important role – keeping parents calm, informed and reassured during such turbulent times,” wrote the WFH Transformation Team.




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