Spotlight on the supervisor

Can you build a meaningful culture
in a virtual contact center?


When Jay Lee clocked in for his first shift, he felt optimistic. He’d just begun working as a contact center representative for a popular national fashion retailer and assumed the culture would match the brand’s confident-yet-easy-going attitude. But he quickly realized he was wrong.

Supervisors ruled with an iron fist, micro-managing agents and penalizing them for using their initiative or discretion. Praise was rare, and criticisms for missing KPIs were common. Performance targets were unachievable for even the best agents on the floor.

“Working there was like walking into a kitchen on fire and trying to avoid getting burnt before you finish your shift,” Lee tells RingCentral.

The culture made Lee feel uncomfortable and scared to come into work. He and his co-workers constantly looked for new positions. Nearly every week, several colleagues would leave, with new faces taking their place almost immediately, making the place even harder to relate to with no true connections .

“There’s always rolling recruitment due to the high turnover,” Lee says. “I think that sums up how most people felt. They wanted to leave.”

Eventually, Lee secured another position and was able to move on. Reflecting on the experience, he heaps praise on his colleagues, who he describes as “friends for life.” But he admits the culture and atmosphere wore him down and forced him out the door.

Lee’s experience isn’t unique. Poor culture has long plagued the contact center industry. Historically, companies treated contact centers as a necessary evil. They cut costs wherever possible and implemented ever-rising expectations. That sort of mentality cultivates a bad company culture, one that drives a raft of organizational woes: agent churn, disengagement, absenteeism, stress, low productivity, and more.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past couple of decades, some organizations have reimagined what the contact center could be. Business leaders started investing in technology, systems, and people. Improving the culture was a massive part of that movement. By building a strong culture, they could re-engage agents, improve service standards, and turn their contact centers into a competitive advantage.

What is culture?

Organizational culture is a tricky concept to pin down. Ask the average worker what they think a great company feels like, and they’ll list off flashy benefits like foosball tables, Friday afternoon beers, and regular bonuses. But those perks are only half the equation.

The tangible rewards organizations give to their employees are eye-catching, but they’re unlikely to drive real cultural change. Sure, they help create a fun work environment, or help show you value your employees. But rewards alone are not enough to define, nurture, and retain a company culture that keeps employees engaged, productive, and happy. For that, you need to expand your definition of culture past the tangible, more obvious stuff.

People don’t take jobs because of foosball tables or regular happy hour sessions. But they will come if a company provides them with a clear career path and they feel connected to its overall mission and other employees.

And those internal psychological rewards come from what’s called intrinsic culture, which describes an organization’s values and behaviors — what you expect from your employees and what they expect from you. While creating a culture can feel like a daunting challenge, it’s not all that difficult to get started. By following a few simple steps, you implement a basic-yet-positive workplace culture.

Craft your values and set behaviors

Organizations often rely on mission statements and purpose documents as their “north star.” Those resources  set the ultimate goals for an organization and help employees align their work. Think about some of the best mission statements out there: 

  • Tesla: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
  • TED: “Spread ideas.”
  • Asana: “To help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together, effortlessly.”

But even these don’t tell employees how to act on a day-to-day basis — and that’s important. Your behavior — day in and day out — is your culture. If you’re kind and caring and supportive Monday through Friday, that’s your culture. But your employees need to know what you expect from them, in terms of how to act — and you do that by clearly communicating the company’s values

Consider the story of Tile, an item-tracking startup that, in the spring of 2019, hired a new CEO named CJ Prober. His first order of business was to review the company’s values. Working with his team, Prober devised five new values for the company: Start with Trust; Bring It; Build What Matters; Better Together; and Power What’s Next. Those values underpinned the company’s ethos, purpose, and mission.

It’s what Prober did next that really set his strategy apart: he defined how he expected employees to live each value. Consider Tile’s final value: Power What’s Next. “We are focused on innovation and pushing the status quo,” Tile’s VP of Engineering Steve Klinkner wrote. “Tile is data-driven, iterates, and reacts quickly. We stretch our comfort zones to continuously learn and raise the bar. Be curious, be bold.”

In other words, Tile does more than simply define a value, it explains what each one looks like in practice. This turns what would otherwise be little more than feel-good exercise into a tangible behavioral change. That’s true, no matter what sort of organization you work for. Tile’s product managers need guidance on how to act — just as much as your agents, supervisors, and managers.

“Embarking on the values exercise helped us to explore what [Tile] might look like,” Prober told culture consultancy, At Your Core. “It enabled us, as an organization, to focus not just on what is core to Tile today but also on those values and behaviors that will get us where we want to go.”

The common values contact center managers select — quality, responsibility, collaboration, trust, and so on — could mean any number of things. But when you define them and show employees living them, you create a behavioral template for employees to follow.

Connect agents with their results

In early-2007, Wharton management professor, Adam Grant, joined a team of student fundraisers. Their task was simple: call alumni and convince them to donate money for scholarships. As Grant explained in Harvard Business Review, it wasn’t the most riveting work: “These callers, whose sole responsibility is to convince alumni to donate money, face motivational challenges common in many sales and service jobs: repetitive work, low autonomy, and rude customers.”

The results will feel familiar to all contact center managers: Agents were unengaged and quit frequently. Annual turnover topped 400%, meaning the entire team quit every quarter. Performance, while solid, was nothing to write home about.

Grant learned the usual motivation tricks had all fallen flat. Fundraising managers had previously experimented with pay increases, improved breaks, and free food — but nothing worked. To improve performance, Grant took a different tact. He questioned what drew each fundraiser into the contact center. In other words, what was the why behind their work?

When he interviewed agents, he discovered something startling. Although the fundraisers were doing something virtuous — raising money for scholarships — they felt totally detached from the output.

“Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit,” admitted one caller. “You get a warm feeling, but no one else notices.”

It felt like they were throwing money into a black hole, rather than helping kids attend college, who otherwise couldn’t have afforded it. So Grant devised a strategy to provide visibility into where their work went. He invited a scholarship recipient into the contact center and asked him to give a quick five-minute presentation on how his scholarship had improved his life. Then the recipient took a few questions and thanked the callers for their work.

The result? Performance skyrocketed. Just one month after Grant’s experiment, agents had doubled their calls per hour. Better than that, they’d also increased their average amount raised by 400%. 

The reason for the improvement is clear: agents grasped the results of their work. That link is essential for a healthy culture. If you’re asking your agents to act and think in particular ways, they need to understand why. That’s just as true when your agents help customers troubleshoot tech challenges, assist with complicated product returns, or convince alumni to give out generous donations.

Cultivate interaction and engagement

A recent Cigna report found three in five Americans report feeling lonely at work. Not only is loneliness a problem for employee health, happiness, and productivity, but it stymies culture, too.

To maintain an engaged culture, employees must engage with their immediate teammates and talk to colleagues in different departments. Before the pandemic, it was easy to create environments where people could meet, talk, and get to know each other. You could hold social gatherings, parties, and all-hands events. But with the enforced rise in work-from-home, this challenge has grown even trickier. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though.

To learn how to cultivate interaction between employees in a remote setting, we should look to the organizations who have been remote for years. Consider Ollie Smith, founder of ExpertSure.

Smith founded his fully distributed company back in 2016. For the first few years, everything seemed to be going well. His B2B technology comparison business developed from a scrappy startup into a healthy small business. Once the novelty and excitement of his new venture wore off, cracks began to appear within his organization.

His once close-knit team drifted apart and arguments over trivialities became common. Previously engaged and committed employees grew distant and distracted. Productivity trended downwards.

“I noticed a dip in productivity, which did not correct itself,” Smith told RingCentral. “This was coupled with a sudden lack of urgency from a number of team members when it came to internal communication.” 

He called an all-hands meeting and asked what was up. Many of his employees highlighted the same problem: they’d worked together for eight hours a day for several years, but they still felt like a group of strangers. With everyone working from their own home, there were no chance meetings in the hall, no casual watercooler conversations, no hushed gossip sessions during lunch. Smith’s employees felt isolated and alone.

Smith knew social interaction was essential, and he realized it wouldn’t occur naturally. So the young founder began brainstorming how he could create opportunities for interaction. He considered popular ideas like weekly coffee dates between randomly paired employees and group events like book clubs. But what he landed on was a team-wide call called Team Thursdays.

Now, every Thursday morning, Smith and his employees log onto a video call and just spend time together. Sometimes they play games. “Last week we played Draw the Picture, which involved a team member describing a set of pictures and everyone else drawing what they think it should look like,” Smith says. But most of the time they just hang out, talk about their lives, and get to know each other as people.

After rolling out Team Thursdays, Smith says he recorded a sharp uptick in productivity. “It is clear that a bond has also developed between my team members since we initiated Team Thursday,” he explains. “That closeness was not evident a year ago.” 

All around the world, countless organizations are reliving Smith’s woes. The pandemic forced companies to close their offices and transition to remote work at breakneck speed. Shorn of in-person interactions, their employees began to feel lonely. As Smith discovered, isolated employees aren’t healthy employees. In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, engagement, knowledge sharing, and productivity all tanked.

For these businesses, the solution is more complicated than Smith’s Team Thursday fix. They often lack the tools and technologies necessary to cultivate healthy remote interactions. Tight-knit distributed teams are built on team messaging, video calls, and other communication channels. Without them, employees will never feel connected.

While contact centers can piece together a technology stack of separate services, the easier option is to invest in a cloud contact center with collaboration and communication tools built-in. When you provide a great working foundation, you encourage relationships between contact center agents and between agents and colleagues in other functional teams.

Build the best foundation for culture

Lee’s experiences were extreme and few others will experience an environment quite as hostile as his. More often than not, organizations lapse into weak cultures because they provide a poor environment for their employees. For example, if you provide inferior technology, agents will struggle to work, collaborate, and communicate. Your agents will get frustrated, agitated, and disengaged. Instead of working together cooperatively, they’ll argue and butt heads. In that environment, even the strongest culture will disintegrate. 

This is especially important right now. If you believe the news reports, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere soon. Remote working could be the norm for the next few years. With your workforce scattered across hundreds or thousands of micro-offices, the technology you provide is all the more important. 

That’s where we come in. At RingCentral, we’re dedicated to building platforms that bring contact center employees together. Instead of siloing agents, our collaborative contact center platform connects agents with their colleagues and builds bridges to other functional teams. With RingCentral, you have a platform where culture can blossom, helping your agents do their best work and your organization provide its finest service.

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