New Directions in Call Center Design
Demanding Challenges for a Complex Workplace
Today’s call centers have evolved to become
sophisticated, high-tech showcases of service,
support, and sales. Meanwhile, the look and
layout of call centers is changing to keep up
with the new demands being placed on them.
Call centers are getting more respect as their image
morphs from backroom to corporate centerpiece.
No longer do executives dismiss their call centers
as a necessary evil best operated on a shoestring.
Instead, many progressive companies are coming
around to the opposite view, one that recognizes the
potential of call centers to have an unrivaled impact
on the bottom line—for better or worse.
“The boiler room mentality is disappearing,” says
Laura Sikorski, managing partner of Sikorski, Tuerpe
and Associates, a call center consulting firm in
Centerport, New York. “Today, executives are
realizing that the call center just might be their most
important asset—and are treating it accordingly.”
What’s responsible for the elevated status of call
centers? Mainly this: Nowadays, many companies
interact with their customers primarily—if not
solely—through their call center. In effect, the call
center isn’t just another department, it’s the front
door—often the only opportunity companies have to
build a relationship with customers they’ll never see.
“Call centers are increasingly the main point of contact
between a company and its customers,” says Roger
Kingsland, managing partner of Kingsland Scott
Bauer Associates, a Pittsburgh architectural firm that
specializes in call centers. “And that trend will continue
© 2008 Herman Miller, Inc ® L is among the registered trademarks of Herman Miller, Inc.
as the technology becomes more sophisticated and
agents in a pleasant environment with comfortable
our economy becomes more reliant on information
furnishings and they’re more likely to maintain a
patient, friendly attitude than if their workplace is
hot, cramped, and depressing.3
Many, varied call center applications
A showcase for the corporate image
After being introduced by the airlines in the 1970s,
No department expected to serve as an organization’s
call centers soon became synonymous with the
front door can operate out of a back room. As call
telemarketing industry, where their reputation
centers become central to business strategy—witness
languished for years. Today, there are tens of thousands
the number of ads and billboards featuring a smiling
of call centers in the United States—and seemingly
agent wearing a headset—companies are eager to
as many reasons for their existence.1
show them off. Today, the impromptu corporate tour
often winds through the call center—and it better
Yes, call centers are still used for reservations and
telemarketing. But they’re also used for technical
support, customer service, telephone banking, catalog
A collector of strategic data
sales, surveys, collections, and crisis intervention.
Many companies use the information collected in
their call centers to build databases that can be
Call centers have become so complex they aren’t
mined to improve products, strengthen customer
even sure what to call themselves anymore. “Call
relationships, develop advertising campaigns, uncover
center” doesn’t seem quite right, especially for a
problems, and make better decisions. Chrysler, for
place that’s as likely to communicate via e-mail and
instance, fields calls from mechanics seeking guidance
on-line chat as traditional phone calls. That’s why
on repairs, then electronically transfers the data to
many companies prefer “contact center,” “customer
engineers who review it with an eye toward building
care center,” or perhaps “help desk” instead.2
better cars.5 By not skimping design and furnishings,
And what about the people who work the phones?
companies can send a clear message to agents
Are they agents? Representatives? Technicians?
about how highly their work is valued.
Advocates? That depends on whether they’re making
sales, assisting customers, resolving a technical
Keeping agents comfortable and content
problem, or attending to any of the dozens of other
Aside from customers and the corporation at large,
tasks assigned to modern call centers.
there’s another audience call centers need to
serve—the people who work in them. Employees
Then, too, advances in technology are expanding
may well be the most demanding audience of all and
what call center representatives do. Many are using
unquestionably the one most influenced by how their
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). It transmits
workplace looks, fits, functions, and feels.
voice through the Internet, putting all the information
the agent needs on screen. That enables agents
Call center agents vary greatly in income and skills.
to provide a deeper level of assistance beyond,
Years ago, call centers were staffed almost exclusively
for example, what customers can get from the
by low-paid workers required only to take orders,
pitch products, or answer simple questions. Today,
call centers are just as likely to need highly educated
Big responsibilities for design and furnishings
workers with a command of both technology and
As the role of call centers expands, so does the
understanding of how they should be set up to best
But no matter where agents fall on the spectrum,
fulfill their potential. Technology that promises to
they share one thing in common: They’re hard to find,
increase agent efficiency often gets first consideration.
especially for those call centers that need dozens or
But the look and layout of the physical space occupied
even hundreds of them. Why? Because call centers
by call centers merits equal attention.
are tough places to work.
Here are some examples of the heightened expectations
Agents are tethered to a workstation for hours at
surrounding call centers—and an inkling of how those
a time, obliged to stare at a computer virtually
expectations can better be met with proper design
nonstop, and required to address repetitive—often
negative—issues without losing their cool. And, they
A provider of dazzling service
can expect their performance to be strictly monitored
The rationale here is simple: The better agents are
through systems that time their calls, count their
treated, the better they’ll treat customers. Put
keystrokes, and allow supervisors to listen in. Is it
New Directions in Call Center Design
any wonder working in a call center isn’t everyone’s
agents to customize their workspace to their size
idea of a coveted career?
and preferences. This flexibility becomes even more
essential in multi-shift operations that require agents
Consequently, absenteeism tends to be high—making
to share workstations.
life even harder for the agents who remain—and
turnover often runs at least 50 percent per year.
Beyond the physical side, comfort also has a
psychological aspect. Workers in all types of offices
A comfortable, well-designed workplace won’t eliminate
and job functions say they are happier—and more
staffing problems, but it can go a long way toward
productive—when they have some control over their
attracting agents and keeping them happy and on
workspace. Take temperature control, for instance.
the job. Without one, top performers will have one
Workers consistently rank it among the top 10
more reason to go elsewhere. If times are bad and
workplace qualities that have the strongest effect
they have no choice but to stick around, they may
on job performance.
unconsciously vent their discomfort on customers,
which will end up costing far more than any
“There are many other things that affect satisfaction
investment in space planning and furnishings would
like job design and company culture,” says Craig
have in the first place.6
DiLouie of the Lighting Controls Association. “But
when workers can adjust their offices to their
“Call centers were traditionally designed as sardine
individual styles and job requirements, they tend
factories, packing people in as tightly as possible.
to be more satisfied and report higher productivity.”7
You can only imagine what kind of service that
environment engenders,” says Andy Feinour, senior
The U.S. government’s General Services Administration
director at Holder Properties, an Atlanta developer
(GSA), which manages government facilities worldwide,
that has built several million square feet of call center
confirms the importance of psychological comfort.
space. “The challenge today is to incorporate those
The author of a recent GSA report says, “It is obvious
environmental enhancements that are needed to
that people who are constantly uncomfortable, or
promote customer service and agent satisfaction
have to continually interrupt their work to make
without adding significantly to the cost.”
themselves comfortable, will be less productive than
those who don’t have to deal with such distractions.”8
One way new call centers can keep costs in check,
Feinour says, is by adopting a prototype—a proven
Measurable results from workstation design
base design that can be customized, eliminating
much of the expense associated with planning
For some corporations, the intelligent use of furnishings
architecture and interiors from scratch.
is actually increasing their effectiveness. Convinced
that more open work environments—with their
“Most call center operators understand the value
tradeoff between enhanced collaboration and
of proper design and furnishings,” he says. “What
reduced satisfaction with conversational privacy—are
many still need to learn is that it doesn’t have to cost
key to better performance, several have asked Herman
a fortune to get them.”
Miller to quantify the results.
The value of good design—for the space and its
In one study for a financial services organization,
furnishings—is evident in the comfort it provides
Herman Miller studied nearly 1,000 employees.
agents. They sit for hours on end, often in a
About half were part of a Control Group that did
high-pressure environment, making them prime
not move, and half made up the Experimental
candidates for aching backs, necks, and wrists.
Group that moved to a more flexible and open work
Aches and pains, in turn, can lead to absenteeism
environment. Researchers collected data on agent
and costly injuries.
behavior and performance from both groups four
Ergonomic furniture that can be adjusted easily to
support comfortable postures is critical. So is training
Data indicated “there was no significant difference
on how to make proper adjustments. That’s especially
in the number of calls taken, or in the time required
true for seating—the more you sit, the better your
to complete the work after the call was completed,
chair should be, which means high-performance
between the two groups. However, employees who
chairs are justified in call centers more so than
moved to the new work environment spent 37 percent
more time on the call itself, interacting with the
customer, than did employees who did not move.”9
Adjustable work surfaces, keyboard trays, and
monitor arms are also important because they allow
Seeking to finalize furniture standards, a
telecommunications corporation asked Herman
New Directions in Call Center Design
Miller to evaluate two of its call centers and determine
So how do dilemmas like these get resolved? Here are
if there were any bottom-line differences between
some strategies employed by call centers that work.
furniture types. One facility uses a frame-and-tile
system, the other a pole-based system. The question
Planning for change
was whether one might do a better job of promoting
Volume in call centers can ebb and flow for any number
collaboration, a stated objective for this corporation.
of reasons: seasonal demand, a new promotional
In a survey of agents at the two facilities, Herman
campaign, perhaps even a product recall or surprise
Miller found that agents working in the pole-based
media coverage. Also, as call centers become more
system reported greater satisfaction with ergonomics,
complex, many prefer to assign their agents to teams
less work-related pain and discomfort, more control
to facilitate informal communication between and
over their environment, and better communication
during calls, essentially supplementing classroom
training with on-the-job collaboration.11
What’s more, the facility with pole-based workstations
Either way, it’s important to design in the ability to move
proved superior in two key measures of agent
things around quickly, whether to bring in extra agents
performance—After Call Work (the time it takes to
on short notice or restructure teams if a more efficient
complete wrap-up work after a call is completed)
combination becomes apparent. Consequently,
and First Call Resolution (the percentage of calls
workstations should be easy to reconfigure—the
completed without being transferred to another
fewer parts, the better—and voice/data cabling
resource). The pole-based system even came out
should be easy to access for quick change.
ahead by delivering greater customer satisfaction
Unexpected growth is another consideration.
with agent performance, fewer lost workdays, and
“Whenever a call center opens, every marketing and
lower workers’ compensation costs.10
salesperson thinks of another role it can play, so I
Granted, many factors contribute to those differences,
encourage my clients to plan for at least 50 percent
but Herman Miller researchers were able to trace some
growth,” says consultant Laura Sikorski. Without it,
of the variance to specific workspace attributes. The
she points out, that carefully planned conference or
conclusion? Workstation design has a direct impact
training area might soon disappear under a swarm of
on how well call centers work.
new agent workstations.
Another way to plan for change is to think ahead
about the possibility of shared workstations. With
Whether the job involves building new or overhauling
operations that are 24/7, it may be possible to have
existing space, call centers are arguably the most
more than one worker use a workstation. The key is
daunting environment to pull together, involving a
to choose furnishings that can accommodate a range
combination of challenges found nowhere else.
of workers' needs—from personal storage space to
a work chair that adjusts easily for correct fit. This
approach offers an operation the flexibility to handle
• They’re high density, dramatically compressing the
ratio of square footage per employee, which affects
everything from parking to acoustics to washrooms.
• They’re stressful, employing workers who could
Data and communications. That pretty much sums up
benefit from a little environmental stimulation—not
what call centers are all about. While all workplaces pay
easy to provide when the starting point may be
homage to these twin gods of office technology, none
hundreds of people in a huge room with no
are quite as subject to their whims as call centers.
After all, the relentless quest to improve service
• They’re technically complex, requiring sophisticated
and stretch the value of call centers means that any
computer and communications systems—and the
technology used in them today will have to be better
ability to adapt quickly when something even more
and faster tomorrow.
sophisticated comes out.
It’s critical, then, to plan call centers so that new and
• They’re hard to pin down, often required to adjust
improved technology can be incorporated with little
staffing levels, to provide shared workstations
hassle and expense. Integrating technology in a way
among multiple shifts, and to maintain a tricky
that doesn’t hinder reconfiguration is equally important.
balance between privacy and collaboration.
Raised floor systems are a popular choice in call
centers because cables can be accessed by simply
New Directions in Call Center Design
lifting up the appropriate floor sections. While that
4) they encourage the collaborative sharing of ideas
makes for an easy initial installation, reconfiguration
and resources that is becoming so important as the
can be problematic because installers may need to
complexity of agent responsibilities increases.
move panel-system workstations off the floor sections
before they can get at the cables underneath.
Regardless of configuration, however, maximizing
density will always be an issue. Among the options
A better solution might be to invest in systems furniture
for fitting the most agents in the least amount of space
boasting generous lay-in cabling capacity. Older systems
are so-called boomerangs—workstations angled at 120
that require cabling to be fished through the framework
degrees. When Bell ExpressVu, a Canadian satellite
should be avoided, but most newer products feature
TV provider, opted for this setup, the company
easy-access trays that permit cabling to be laid in or
reduced square footage per workstation by nearly
lifted out with minimal effort.12
30 percent, though agents consistently said the new
arrangement felt roomier than the one it replaced.16
Even more flexible is an unfixed power-and-data
distribution system in which cables run on the exterior
Seeing the light
of vertical poles and within overhead trusses that
are independent of other workstation components.
Since computers produce their own illumination, many
When freed of cable-management responsibilities,
call centers are far brighter than they need to be.
workstations are exceptionally easy to plan and change.
Harsh lighting creates monitor glare that causes
eyestrain and headaches, lowering productivity and
potentially increasing turnover.
Open, single-floor call centers work best because
One way to minimize glare? Indirect lighting that
they provide installation economies of scale and
bounces off the ceiling instead of beaming directly
simplify supervision. Designers typically allow for
down from it. To accomplish this, fixtures should
about 90 to 140 square feet per agent seat. Actual
shine upward, either by being suspended from the
workstation size only accounts for perhaps one-third
ceiling or attached to workstations. If agents frequently
of that figure, leaving plenty of room for hallways,
take their eyes off their monitors to refer to manuals
training areas, break rooms, and administrative space.13
and handle paperwork, they can be provided with
adjustable task lighting that delivers extra illumination
The square footage allocated to workstations depends
without contributing to glare.17
largely on how computer intensive the application is.
Example: Order-entry agents who spend all of their
Natural light is also important to keep gloom down
time keying in data can get by with less space than
and spirits up. Recognizing this, Accor Economy
technical service people who frequently need to
Lodging in Dallas gave all of its reservations agents
access reference materials.14
the perimeter space adjacent to windows and put its
managers in the interior.18 If there aren’t enough
One of the most striking trends in call center design
windows to go around, skylights and low workstation
is the movement away from rows of “ice cube trays”
panels or translucent screens also can help bring the
and toward a team-based work model that groups
outside in. Newer buildings designed specifically for
agents in small clusters.15 Clusters of teams can have
call centers often use clerestory windows. Arranged
many configurations. These depend on the role of the
in long rows near the ceiling, these windows afford
supervisor, the level of technology used, and provisions
light and a sense of day or night without the possible
for handling expansion.
distraction of direct sight to the outdoors.
Organic design is becoming a popular way to arrange
Hearing less noise
clusters. It departs from a rectilinear grid to create
free-flowing layouts inspired by nature. (Think a path
When a roomful of people all talk on the phone at
that wanders through a forest as opposed to a paved
the same time, it gets loud—potentially approaching
street.) Besides the interest this approach provides,
the level of some power tools.19 The noise can fray
it can also allow a higher density of workstations
agent nerves and jeopardize their productivity and
without sacrificing comfort.
composure. Worse, a hum of background chatter
sounds unprofessional on the other end of the line.
Whatever the configuration, a team-based approach
offers multiple benefits: 1) they help agents feel like
High-performing call centers keep the racket down
they’re part of an intimate group, not one of a thousand;
through a number of design techniques. Among
2) they eliminate the maze effect that screams “call
them: sound-absorbing ceiling tiles, carpeting, and
center”; 3) they make it possible to pair rookie agents
wall coverings; strategically located plants; and
with veterans to accelerate their development; and
artwork that isn’t covered by reflective glass or plastic.
New Directions in Call Center Design
Staggering workstations so agents aren’t directly
For call centers that “hot seat”—that is, assign
opposite each other also helps, as does isolating
the same workstation to different agents on different
copiers and other equipment away from agents.
shifts (one of whom could be 5'2" and the next
Also, improved headsets can dramatically alter the
6'5")—adjustability becomes even more important.
level of noise agents generate.
Also worth considering are specially sized chairs
designed for people who are bigger or smaller
“White noise” is often used as an acoustical treatment.
Typically generated through ceiling speakers, it masks
a broad spectrum of sounds, including the frequencies
Work surfaces. By pairing an adjustable chair with
of human speech, lowering the intelligibility of
an adjustable work surface—and training agents how
neighboring conversations by as much as two-thirds.20
to use them both—call centers can eliminate the
Even better are newer technologies that produce
majority of ergonomic problems. Sit-stand work
“pink noise” targeted specifically at voice-spectrum
surfaces allow agents to occasionally conduct business
frequencies so that their sound masking can be
while standing or moving about, a welcome break
operated at lower volume. These new systems offer
from the usual routine.
an additional benefit if they can attach directly to
office furnishings, making them easy to remove and
Though there are a variety of ways to adjust height—
reinstall if necessary.21
pin, electric, and crank methods, among them—torsion
mechanisms are fast and easy to use and probably
Fine points of furnishings
the most appropriate for call centers that hot seat or
want to provide sit-stand capability. For extra comfort,
Call center agents sit, stare, and type for long
flexible work surface edges are a plus, especially for
stretches of time in a high-pressure environment,
call centers that don’t use keyboard trays.
a combination of circumstances that makes them
prime candidates for musculoskeletal disorders
Keyboard trays. With adjustable chairs and work
(MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome.
surfaces, agents can place their keyboard directly on
their desktop and be close enough to their monitor so
Dr. Alan Hedge, professor or ergonomics at Cornell
they don’t have to squint or hunch. If keyboard trays
University, refers to call centers as “white-collar
are used (and often they’re not, even by agents who
have them), they should be adjustable so agents don’t
have to bend their wrists when keying or mousing.
“If you experience constant stress, like people
yelling at you on the phone, your muscles tense up,
Panels/screens. The trend is toward shorter panels
aggravating the risks of developing an MSD,” Hedge
and screens—42 to 48 inches. Low panels/screens
says. “This doesn’t occur to the same extent in other
facilitate collaboration by making it easy for agents to
motion to a supervisor or lean over to ask a colleague
for help. Plus, they create a sense of space even
Ergonomic furniture and training are indispensable
when workstations are small. Splitting the difference
weapons in the battle to reduce call center injuries,
by using taller panels or screens to shield an agent’s
absenteeism, and turnover. For example, Verizon’s
core work area and shorter panels elsewhere also is
call centers saw carpal tunnel disorders drop by 38
popular. Technology giant EDS, for example, installed
percent and worker’s compensation claims plunge
stepped panels in its contact center in Nova Scotia to
nearly $200,000 in one year after implementing a
strike a balance between privacy and collaboration.24
comprehensive ergonomics program designed by
consulting firm Humantech.23
Monitors. Monitors should be height adjustable so
the top of the screen is at or slightly below eye level.
Here’s a broad look at how call center furnishings
Also, larger is better because the more information
can help support ergonomics, promote efficiency,
that appears on screen, the less mousing is required.
and attract agents:
Flat panel monitors are becoming more popular in
Seating. Chairs are the backbone of call center
new call centers because they use 60 percent less
design. If agents can’t get comfortable, any chance
energy than conventional monitors and take up little
of running a high-performing call center vanishes.
space, allowing workstation size to be reduced up to
Adjustability is crucial—for height, obviously, but also
15 percent.25 Equally important, their look appeals to
for armrests, lumbar support, seat back angle, and
prospective agents, especially those being recruited
seat pan angle. Controls should be easy to reach
for high-tech applications.
from a seated position.
New Directions in Call Center Design
Hardly an afterthought
For final evidence of how call centers are a breed apart
Kroll, Karen M., “Bigger Role for Call Centers,” IndustryWeek
from other corporate environments, consider the
(Feb. 21, 2000).
employee amenities they often feel compelled to offer.
Mitchell, Lori, “Call Centers Satisfy and Retain Customers,”
InfoWorld (Dec. 22, 2000).
In the 1990s, there was a movement toward on-site
Call Center News Service (www.callcenternews.com), “Call Center
fitness centers, jogging tracks, game rooms, tennis
Facilities & Design” Info Guide.
courts—anything to offset the sedentary nature of the
Read, Brendan B., Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business
(CMP Books, New York, 2000), p. 26.
work. Conveniences like on-site day care, cafeterias,
Kroll, “Bigger Roll for Call Centers.”
and grocery stores also began appearing to help
Read, Brendan B., “Bottom Line Property and Design,” Call Center
attract employees.26 Quiet, comfortable break rooms
Magazine (March 5, 2003).
give agents a place to decompress.
Craig DiLouie, “Personal Control: Boosting Productivity, Energy
Savings,” Lighting Controls Association (September 2004).
Clearly, companies realize they can’t afford to treat
U.S. General Services Administration Office of Real Property, “The
their call centers as an afterthought anymore. Strict
Integrated Workplace: A comprehensive approach to developing
attention to design and furnishings can pay big
workspace.” (1999): 30.
dividends by giving call centers the infrastructure
Herman Miller, Inc., “Financial Services Organization: Workplace
needed to meet the new demands being placed
Metrics Study,” Internal Report, April 2005.
10 Herman Miller, Inc., “Telecommunications Organization: Workplace
Metrics Study,” Internal Report, May 2006.
11 Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates, “Take Me to Your CFO:
Connecting Call Center Facility Design With Profit,” Scope
(Volume 2, Number 3), p. 4.
12 Read, Brendan B., “Shopping Smart for Property and Design,”
Call Center Magazine (March 4, 2002).
13 Read, Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business, p. 111.
14 Call Center News Service (www.callcenternews.com), “Call
Center Facilities & Design” Info Guide.
15 Lunt, Penny, “Contact Centers That Work,” Customer Support
Management (Feb. 1, 2001).
16 Herman Miller, Inc., A History of Excellence: Call Center Project
Profiles, p. 9.
17 Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates, “Indirect Ambient Lighting Improves
Call Center Performance,” Scope (Volume 1, Number 2), p. 1.
18 Lunt, “Contract Centers that Work.”
19 Read, Brendan B., “Ergonomics: Rx for Call Centers,” Call Center
Magazine (May 7, 2001).
20 Read, Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business, p. 116.
21 Herman Miller, Inc., Sound Masking in the Office (2003), p. 3.
22 Read, “Ergonomics: Rx for Call Centers.”
23 Read, “Bottom Line Property and Design.”
24 Lunt, “Contact Centers That Work.”
25 Kingsland, Roger L., “Thinking Like a CEO: A Holistic Approach
to Facilities Design,” Contact Professional (March/April 2003).
26 American Productivity & Quality Center, Customer Call Centers:
Best-Practice Report (1995), p. 38.
New Directions in Call Center Design