Audio Is the Missing Piece in the Online Productivity Predicament

The sudden shift to virtual working raised a lot of questions surrounding our ability to work effectively from behind screens. And new statistics on productivity in the United States are further underlining doubts among business leaders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, business sector labor productivity decreased 7.5 percent in the first quarter of 2022, as output decreased by 2.4 percent. This is despite U.S. employees working even longer hours. It's the largest decline in quarterly productivity since the third quarter of 1947, which puts the impact of the pandemic on productivity nearly on par with the effects of a world war.

This trend is impacting all sectors and workers, but the contact center industry has seen a particularly huge upheaval.

Call Center Crisis

Call centers have been plagued by noise issues for years, long before the pandemic propelled the world into digital. In a space where noise is constant on both sides of a call, whether it's in a crowded call center, in an uncontrollable remote working environment, or wherever the customer is calling, it's evident that poor audio is a source of stress and annoyance for customer service agents.

In a recent study>, we found that 89 percent of contact center agents claim poor sound quality and background noise impact results>, with 69 percent saying noise/distractions have a negative effect on their mental health and well-being. While this can be detrimental to any business, the customer service sector already experiences a shockingly high attrition rate. Agent burnout has polarized the industry for decades, with the highest turnover rate at up to 45 percent. Noise might be costing you your best employees and significantly hampering the productivity of the ones who remain.

Customer satisfaction and time-to-resolution are easily affected by loud noises too, whether they come from the customer's side or the agent's. Every minute wasted on repetition, waiting for noise to die down, and correcting misheard phrases is worth considerable money for call centers where margins are already tight. It's actually estimated that these audio-related issues cost the industry about $175 million a year.

A Problem Amplified

The shift to virtual only exacerbated these issues, with unexpected work environments further hampering the customer service experience. One contact center even found that 22 percent of its agents were using ironing boards and window sills as workstations due to the lack of a suitable desk. And call center KPIs suffered across the board, from increased average handling time to sunken customer satisfaction scores. Our research found that 85 percent of call center agents say noise results in wasting time repeating themselves or asking customers to repeat themselves.

These should not be brushed off as minor inconveniences. Interruptions can have a massive impact on the ability to communicate effectively, which in turn hinders our ability to both take in information and convey it. This leads to lower productivity, more mistakes, lost income, and even damaged well-being.

Beyond the contact center industry, this battle with audio and the insufferable "Can you go on mute?", "You're on mute", or "Can you hear me now?" exchanges extends to virtual communication everywhere, whether that's large businesses with global teams, startups with no fixed offices, telehealth handling appointments with patients on video calls, or online learning.

One study of 2,800 U.S. workers found that audio problems were the biggest pain point of virtual meetings, with more than half saying it had affected them in some way. This is backed up by another study that found that background distractions from other participants and audio quality were some of the biggest causes of video conferencing struggles. With the telehealth sector rising to 39 times pre-COVID levels and nearly 1.3 billion children becoming reliant on online learning worldwide, there is no doubt that poor audio unattended will have an adverse effect on productivity.

As long as background noise continues to be a problem, people will need to continue to mute, tell others to mute, miss important information, and ultimately fall short of peak performance.

Whether you're in a noisy call center, at home, or any location in between, the solution to bringing better productivity is audio-based. The good news is that there are already voice isolation tools that use artificial intelligence to remove background noise, such as barking dogs, noisy colleagues, busy traffic, and everything else from both sides of a call. This preserves the flow of the conversation and improves focus, engagement, and well-being for the people on both ends of the call.

Much like AI-driven virtual backgrounds, voice isolation enables workers to take control of their environments to deliver the best possible outcomes from every conversation—a key requirement for call centers in particular. Fixing your noisy environment is one story, but having technology that can make it easier for the person on the other end of the line can have huge benefits in customer satisfaction. Call centers need better quality audio if they want to solve the productivity predicament.

The productivity of call center agents is fragile. Noise and distractions are hampering the employee experience, and this can aggravate attrition and agent burnout. The customer service industry needs to invest more in better audio tools that unlock call center agents' true potential.

Tom Darnell is chief operating officer of IRIS Audio Technologies.