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How T-Mobile shifted 12,000 call center employees to work from home in less than two weeks

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A little less than two months ago, Callie Field, T-Mobile’s executive vice president of customer care, was sitting in a meeting with the wireless carrier’s senior management team strategizing about dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Part of Field’s role is overseeing 17 call centers employing 12,000 people around the U.S., and Field was starting to worry about workers getting sick. But T-Mobile had dealt with previous infectious outbreaks, as well as hurricanes and other natural disasters before, so she had confidence in the company’s contingency plans. Adding to the challenge: Because T-Mobile was about to close its two-year merger with Sprint, Field was about to inherit four more call centers through the acquisition.

Some of the people at the meeting who dealt with handset makers in China or finance markets in Europe were trying to sound the alarm that the outbreak could bring business to a standstill. Within weeks, the pandemic would sweep through the Seattle area, where T-Mobile is based, but at that point, the disease seemed relatively far away.

“We were thinking about building a system for taking care of people who tested positive,” Field recalls in an interview with Fortune. “It was starting to wash over us what was happening, but we had such limited information.”

The people in touch with China and Europe “were saying we need to shut everything down, we need to get everyone home,” she says. “We were, like, ‘They’re really scared, but that’s crazy.’”

As far as working from home, Field thought maybe one or two call centers would be shut down. “I thought maybe it would be one call center in one week and another maybe a few months later—I had no idea,” she says.

Within days, Seattle’s mayor urged businesses to send workers home, and area employers including Amazon and Microsoft swiftly ordered their staff to go home. By March 23, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a statewide shutdown, and governors in many other states swiftly followed.

The 17 call centers, one of the key elements in T-Mobile’s “Un-carrier” strategy to beat its wireless rivals, depended on call routing hardware that was wired into the facilities. Call center employees worked in close-knit teams that sat together and were assigned to specific groups of customers. Working from home wasn’t completely forbidden, but it was discouraged. And everyone logged in to the system via desktop computers.

Quickly, Field and her team started to sense that the usual strategy of simply shifting calls from one center that might be overwhelmed to another that was fully functioning wasn’t going to work for the COVID-19 outbreak. “We didn’t have any of the right solutions,” she admits.

With states issuing more stay-at-home orders, in less than a week, absenteeism shot up to 50{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} across the call centers, from the typical 15{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} rate. Call volume was steady, so the average wait time shot up from 90 seconds to four hours. A system that tracks the words customers say to the call reps started seeing a spike in “coronavirus,” “job,” and “scared.”

Field’s system was in meltdown. “Those were the longest wait times I’ve ever seen,” she says. “That was going to break us.”

So starting on March 11, the company shifted to a whole new strategy. Workers were sent home, and teams started disassembling the call centers. T-Mobile never could have obtained and set up enough laptops, so the teams sterilized desktop computers, monitors, and other gear, packed them into boxes, and set up curbside pickup for workers to retrieve the equipment and use it at home.

T-Mobile had already been already shifting some call routing to a cloud-based system, so it condensed the multiyear transition into weeks. The company also set up virtual private network software and collaboration apps like Slack. “It was kind of terrifying,” Field says.

The shift came to a head in New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered a shutdown of all nonessential businesses within two days. Field got on the phone with Grisham to explain how T-Mobile was sending people home but needed weeks, not days, to transfer over 1,000 workers at two call centers in the state. Grisham didn’t budge. “She told us, ‘Get this closed down in 48 hours, no exceptions,’” Field says.

T-Mobile’s disassembly teams went into overdrive and sped up the shift in the state.

Now T-Mobile is reaping benefits from its massive overhaul. For the past few weeks, call wait times have dropped back to 90 seconds. And with workers at home and able to schedule their days more flexibly, the absenteeism rate has fallen to 8{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00}, half the typical level before the pandemic. Field has written a blog post to explain the experience to others in the business world.

And she’s dramatically changed her perspective on the value of working from home. “In the past, I had the idea that children playing in the background, or dogs barking, or the laundry going off, was not the way you do customer service—that’s not professional,” she says. “Now our ideas on what’s professional and what’s acceptable are changing. Because it’s really about the customer. It’s not about rules and codes and hierarchies that we have built up over time.”

“You can have a really excellent call with a customer with a baby sitting on your lap,” Field says. It’s a challenge for working parents, for sure, she adds. But it’s changed her attitude permanently: “What should we learn from this experience that we should keep? There’s a lot we should carry forward.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—What the law says about forcing employees back to the office
—The next round of stimulus checks goes out this week. What you should know
—Five weeks off and nowhere to go: How the coronavirus sabotaged the European vacation
Unemployment claims are taking some states weeks to process. What to know
—Scammers made 150,000 fake stimulus check websites. How to protect yourself
—Mike Schur talks Parks and Rec coronavirus episode and why remote TV production isn’t the future
—The coronavirus pandemic is impacting critical research into neuromuscular diseases
—PODCAST: How two CEOs outside health care decided to pivot to fight COVID-19
—WATCH: Fortune’s top 10 heroes of the coronavirus pandemic

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