We talk to Martin Bird, Head of our Contact Centre, about his experience of supporting the business through COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 affected your role at Specsavers?

Back in January, I was in the role of Head of Projects and Programmes. My team were busy delivering strategic change projects, and I was working on setting up to deliver the 20/21 annual plan and shaping our long-term framework.

When suddenly, mid-February, COVID-19 became the biggest project in town. Initially, I was working with a team on how we were going to handle individual cases in stores and in the support office.

I remember a very early case of COVID-19 in Brighton, which was close to one of our stores. But very quickly we realised there was going to be a massive impact on the entire business, at which point that became the main focus and almost every other project stopped.

What were your key priorities?

We quickly went into crisis management and for me personally that was a frenetic but fascinating time; I was on daily meetings with the UK board, looking at what our response was going to be. This gave me a real insight into the way the company’s leadership work together under extreme pressure. I was massively impressed by the Specsavers response. Everything started with ‘what do our customers and partners need from us?’

The decision from the board was that we were going to stay open as much as we could, in order to provide services to our patients who needed us at this time. And this was before we knew about furlough or any other government financial support. It was a values-based decision that wasn’t financially driven in a time of existential crisis for the business. That said a huge amount to me about the company that I joined in June last year.

For me personally, COVID-19 also meant a change of role. With fewer projects and programmes running, the team which I led became significantly smaller as we reset our business focus. I was fortunate to be offered the role of Head of the Contact Centre, which I started in June.

In the Contact Centre, how did you make sure colleagues felt safe coming to work?  

As lockdown started, the entire contact centre team of 110 people had moved to working from home – an extraordinary achievement for a team who had never worked from home before. Then gradually, from June, we started reopening our office.

We have two metre social distancing in place across the contact centre floor, everybody’s got a designated desk, and there’s a lot of space between desks so you don’t have somebody sitting next to you on either side.  We’ve made some corridors one-way; the kitchen areas are now a maximum of two people in at a time, we have hand sanitizers everywhere and there’s an amazing cleaning team constantly going round and wiping everything to make sure anything that was touched by anybody is cleaned. Our facilities management team have done a wonderful job at making those of us who need to be back in the building feel safe.

I feel this has created an extremely safe working environment and we haven’t had a single transmission case in the contact centre.

How many people work in the contact centre and how many calls and emails do they respond to?

We have a team of 110 colleagues, 90 of whom are answering calls and responding to emails, with a great team management and quality support structure.

The team answer just over 20,000 calls, emails and live chats per week. In October we communicated with a combined total of 91,571 customers!

What have you learnt about yourself over the last 10 months?

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can only run at sprint speed for so long. You have to take a long-term view with projects that will take longer to complete. I’ve learned that myself and I’ve also seen the way that Specsavers has recognised that and acted on it.

You can talk about the health of your business from a financial bottom line perspective, but if you don’t also consider the health of your people, you’re not going to have a business.

I’ve found that this is genuinely recognised and talked about at Specsavers, and in lots of ways there is a real focus on colleague wellbeing.

How did you look after your own well-being during this time?

I would say for that first three months of the pandemic, between March and June, I was not looking after myself terribly well. My work-life balance had got out of kilter – I was struggling to switch off, and I’d stopped running and cycling which I knew had to change.

I’m lucky in that I’ve got a separate office space at home, but the downside is that it’s so easy to just pop back in and work at home for longer. Returning to the Specsavers office in June helped me to get my work-life balance back in line, but I’ve also really learned how to compartmentalise better in order to have some down time, and to get some exercise in when I do work from home in order to avoid burn out, which has proved very useful during lockdown 2.0! My contact centre leadership team have been a huge help in this, and I’m grateful every day for their support.

What have you enjoyed over the last 10 months?

We’ve got a fantastic weekly get together with the contact centre team on Friday afternoons and it’s a time for sharing messages and stories. Lee Bennington runs it in a really engaging way – we have a bit of fun and a laugh, and we celebrate the fantastic service that our specialists are giving to customers day in day out. It’s just a great time to see everyone (on Teams of course!) and to reflect on the smiles we’ve put on to our customers’ faces that week.

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