EOH subsidiary, MPC Connect successfully transitions online language training centre into a remote working environment, just in time for COVID-19.
The way we work has been fundamentally changed by COVID-19, along with the various measures taken in response. As a result many organisations have begun to fundamentally reconsider the way in which they work. They have also had to reassess how people are trained and reskilled and how they embrace opportunities to future proof their organisations against future major global events, like this pandemic.
As an organisation, EOH and its subsidiaries have actively embarked on the journey towards remote working and digitalisation both internally and with its clients.
Meeting the demand for South African English tutors
EOH subsidiary MPC Recruitment (Pty) Ltd, which was established in 1998, was initially a recruitment business with a small outsourcing division established under the brand MPC Connect in 2006. In 2015, company was approached by an online English-language learning juggernaut: the Chinese company TutorABC, who were looking for an outsourcing partner in South Africa to teach people across Asia how to speak English. South African English tutors are valued because we have a comparatively neutral accent, however at the same time there was a level of caution around our national infrastructure, particularly in terms of energy supply and network capacity.
For this reason TutorABC was keen to establish centres in which tutors could be physically present as opposed to “Home Based Tutors” – to mitigate the Technology and Energy risks associated with South Africa. The first TutorABC/MPC Connect centre in South Africa was based in Johannesburg, and the model took off almost immediately, opening a second centre in Cape Town, followed quickly by three more in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria.
Frans Reuvers, MPC Connect’s Managing Director, recalls the excitement of this growth: “We managed to get it right, and it just exploded. During Asian summer holiday peaks, we taught in excess of 600 000 students across China in per month. It was phenomenal. We have had at times, nearly 1700 tutors working for us, across multiple shifts.”
COVID-19 shifted the business model
The impact of COVID-19 had an understandable impact on their centre-based business model. Clearly, it would not be possible for hundreds of tutors to continue to field learning sessions while seated in close proximity to one another.
It was, as Frans recalls, an intimidating logistical challenge. “We managed to get our workforce relocated to a home-based system in just three days. We had to physically move desktops to the homes of tutors who didn’t have their own computers. Furthermore we had to make sure they all had high-speed, reliable network connections. Connectivity has been the biggest challenge: migrating from a managed, single contract with one network provider to hundreds of individual network provider relationships, through unmanaged domestic infrastructure. Our centres had access to networks running up the east coast of Africa, which is the quickest path to Asia, and suddenly we were at the mercy of the networks, and had no control over routing, which has major impact on the quality of HD Streaming capability, not to mention the potential of power outages”
Nonetheless, the migration was a success – MPC Connect was able to get 60% of their tutors home and online within the timeframe. Interestingly, the quality of teaching, as measured by approval ratings assigned by the students, has increased since the transition. As Frans observes, “We’re trying to work out whether that’s because the tutors are happier and delivering a better service, or simply because our pool of tutors is slightly smaller and it’s a statistical fluctuation. Nevertheless, it’s a reassuring outcome.”
Coincidentally, and conveniently, MPC Connect had moved their training function online in 2019, and so were able to continue to train large volumes of tutors on curriculum changes remotely, via Zoom. But challenges remain, as Frans explains. “The data in the domestic-use environment is substantially more expensive. Data costs went up 74% in our first month of working remotely and required some negotiating with the networks to give us bulk buying deals. So while we are satisfying the client we were also raising costs dramatically. We’re in the process of trying to negotiate a further improved rate from the networks. With hundreds of individual connections our technical-support team has increased rapidly, and they’re playing different roles, which requires additional training.”
As the lockdown is gradually phased out, there are learnings that will be incorporated into the model that MPC Connect adopts going forward. According to Frans: “We’re fortunate that we’re better positioned than most to thrive in a post-COVID-19 paradigm. Our home-based tutors are doing exceptionally well, and it would seem to make a great deal of sense to pursue a hybrid model, with those who aren’t able to work effectively from home coming in to a centre, and those with proven reliable connections and who prefer home-based work continuing on that basis. We’re going to have to look at how to best manage the tech requirements of multiple users, but there’s certainly potential there. There is clearly also a big demand amongst the workforce for home-based opportunities, because people are at home, they have time, and they want to increase their skills as they prepare to re-enter an increasingly competitive job market, not to mention negating the cost of transport”
To take advantage of this demand, MPC Connect has developed a white-label platform that will allow its tutors to continue working for themselves in markets that MPC Connect is helping develop for them, South America being one.
Added Frans: “Being a part of EOH means we have also had access to sharing ideas internally around remote working solutions and digitalisation. It’s been particularly exciting to see some of these fantastic and innovative ideas like the EOH crisis management App, Sikhona, the remote-working solution EOH developed with the SAMSUNG call centre and the world-class Healthcare solutions like ICUlate – an “intensive care and isolation ward in a box” solution, now available to the market and able to make a meaningful difference in South Africa’s fight against COVID-19.”
On reflection, Frans was particularly struck by the willingness of stakeholders to work together to allow an effective response to an unprecedented situation, and offer this advice:. “Don’t underestimate the resilience of your workforce. It became a really amazing joint effort to get the whole project up and running. The adaptability of the people in this process was incredible. Draw your team in close to you, and talk to them all the time, and help them on the journey towards embracing remote working and digitalisation.”