Earlier this year, as the Philippine government imposed strict stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of coronavirus, business process outsourcing companies (BPO) were exempted. While other sectors were told to make work-from-home arrangements if they were to keep their business open, IT-BPO companies were allowed to continue operating on-site albeit at a much reduced capacity.
Among them was TaskUs Inc., a US-based outsourcing company, which shifted 90% of its 15,000 employees to work from their homes. They were provided with desktops, as well as WiFi dongles and broadband for staff that live in locations with poor connections.
Even as the government allowed for more companies to work in their offices, TaskUs said most of its employees are still working from home and that less than 3% of its workers are doing their job onsite.
Jean Lim Parlade, senior vice president of Southeast Asia operations of TaskUs, told media that, “It was a huge investment but we felt that this is the right thing to do for our employees at this critical time.”
Such a work arrangement was made possible through its own work-from-home platform, and the use of virtual desktop infrastructure or virtual machines that manage desktops remotely.
TaskUs said it has been using artificial intelligence and automation to do away with cumbersome manual and repetitive tasks in the past two years, a move that was already happening in the BPO sector way before the pandemic.
The Healthcare Information Management Association of the Philippines (HIMAP), a segment of the IT and Business Process Management (IBPAP), said it has also seen “transformational changes” in the business models of its member companies before the coronavirus crisis.
Maria Susana de Leon, Executive Director of HIMAP said that, “The digitalization of information will help analytics develop to new and deeper insights with regard to health care, the use of technology and the evolution of new models in health care delivery and pharmacy, among others.”
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a 2018 report said the use of technology was impacting on routine jobs in manufacturing and service sectors and a specialist at the bank noted in August that “the pandemic is likely to hasten the emergence of some of these trends.”
Citing robotic process automation (RPA) as an example, the ADB said it has now evolved to more sophisticated rules-based chatbots and cognitive automation from just performing routine and transactional tasks initially.
"There will be an increasing push for RPA adoption. This process will continue as before, but now with a renewed push due to the global pandemic,” he said.
Victoria Alcachupas, Vice President of TaskUs, noted the increasing demand for analytics and cloud services in the outsourcing industry and said that, “The pandemic has accelerated the need for businesses to embrace innovations that are less reliant on legacy infrastructures.”
Rising demand in BPO jobs
Despite the pandemic’s impact on outsourced work, BPO experts said there has been rising demand for BPO jobs, particularly customer service support because national lockdowns have forced people to rely on various services online.
In June, the Philippine labor department said it expects a “resurgence” of the IT-BPO industry with more companies in Western countries seeking to offshore more jobs to save costs as a result of the global recession.
It also said that the Philippine government is banking on the BPO sector to provide jobs to the thousands of displaced overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are now returning home.
The IT-BPO sector is valuable to the Philippine government and considered an essential pillar of the economy that needs to survive the fallout from the pandemic. Although some worry that automation will displace lower level IT-BPO workers, they believe that the country will move up in BPO skills and that this will have a positive impact on a long-term basis.
Currently BPO services account for 20%of the country’s exports and 7% of its gross domestic product, while employing 1.3 million workers.
One expert in the industry noted that, “The largest share of total BPO jobs are comprised of clerical support workers mostly employed in call centers, and the changing demand for outsourcing services will have implications for education and skilling initiatives.”
Citing IBPAP’s data, middle-skill jobs will increase from 38% in 2016 to 46%in 2022 of the total BPO employment and jobs needing high-skill levels will increase from 15% to 27%.
While some routine tasks will disappear due to automation, the 2018 ADB report said more and better jobs will be created. But it will require IT-BPO workers to be better skilled at using new, sophisticated technology.
Renewed push for upskilling
Besides having internet connectivity, improving workers’ skills is equally important for the Philippines if its BPO market were to stay globally competitive especially now that the pandemic has pushed the urgent need for digital adoption.
The Philippine share of the global BPO market currently stands at 13%, with the Philippine government expecting to increase its market share to 15% by 2022.
To adapt to these changes, IBPAP has proposed to upskill and reskill Filipino workers two years ago. It renewed its call again this year as it noted that the use of sophisticated technology in the BPO sector has accelerated. It is pushing for a national program to upgrade the skills of 1 million Filipinos over a five-year period.
This year, IBPAP plans to launch a scaled-down pilot project of the program together with government agencies for 1,000 full-time workers. The pilot project hopes to replicate similar initiatives for BPO workers in Singapore, Malaysia and India and provide proof of concept.
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