In early March, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the United States, T-Mobile made the previously unthinkable decision to send home its nearly 12,000 frontline employees. Indefinitely.
Almost instantly, the company’s massive work-from-home experiment created a logistical nightmare. Executives at the telecom had to figure out how to break apart 17 individual contact centers and distribute the technology and processes to 12,000 houses, condos, and apartments. During a 20-day transformation, employees picked up their new kit at curbside collection points, set up their new home office, and learned to adapt to their new settings.
It was a significant change, but agents quickly adapted to their new environments—so much that the telecom giant’s NPS score jumped to a record high, in the ensuing weeks and months.
But for another group of employees, the transition was more disruptive. The pandemic may ultimately have had little effect on agents, but it has completely upended the workplace for their supervisors. Indeed, since the coronavirus crisis pushed teams out of the physical contact center, their job specs have evolved at a breakneck pace.
How to embrace this new “role of roles”
Today, supervisors must manage an organization spread across hundreds or thousands of miles. And they must do so without their usual management tools — floor walks, one-to-ones, and so on. Not only are supervisors performing a different job in the post-pandemic contact center, but they’re doing it in a radically different way.
But it’s not just the practicalities of management that have changed. Today’s supervisors must take on a barrage of new responsibilities. Indeed, their role has become a “role of roles.”
They must act as cheerleaders, keeping their agents happy and engaged, even during these unprecedented times. When contact center performance dips, they must become the enforcer and drive standards. If agents are struggling emotionally, they must step in as therapists, providing sage advice and a shoulder to cry on. And when agents feel stymied in their development, supervisors must act as their coach, supporting their professional development.
For those in the role, it can feel overwhelming. But the supervisor’s new “role of roles” need not be a breaking point. For those willing to embrace the challenge, the change represents an opportunity to elevate supervisors to a new level. Instead of focusing solely on hard data, they can support their direct reports as people.
Let’s examine each of these roles a bit more closely:
The first role of the modern supervisor is to support their agents emotionally as they navigate this new work environment. It’s the supervisor’s responsibility to motivate people, generate excitement, and keep agents engaged.
Sometimes, this is easy. When your NPS score is setting records, and your first-call-resolution rate is sky high, you just feed that back to your team. You quantify their excellent work and celebrate their achievements.
But other times, it’s tougher to find reasons to celebrate. Right now, tough times are more common than ever. For example, since the pandemic, the rate of “difficult” calls to contact centers has more than doubled, heaping pressure on already-stressed agents. Yet it’s times like these that your employees most need support.
“During these tumultuous times, it is important for supervisors to acknowledge efforts with praise wherever possible,” Michelle Dennis, Chair of Department of Leadership and Applied Psychology at Adler University, tells RingCentral. “Encouragement serves to reduce feelings of uncertainty and can nurture the confidence necessary for employees to go above and beyond expectations.”
Dennis highlights the importance of positive feedback for remote employees. Working alone in their own homes, agents often feel disconnected and isolated. Reaching out to provide thanks or rewards is a prime way to re-engage colleagues and cultivate feelings of inclusion.
“I make use of technology to send quick notes of appreciation to the members of my team,” she says. “I also make sure to deliver accolades during meetings so that all members of the team can join in the praise.”
For top managers, everything always comes down to results. The same goes for supervisors. Executives and managers judge contact center performance on a battery of standard metrics — customer satisfaction, first-contact resolution, quality scores, service level, and so on.
When performance dips, supervisors must drop the niceties and play the role of enforcer. When providing performance evaluations, Dennis stresses that respect is critical.
“It is important to avoid feedback practices which could potentially cause harm, such as department-wide shaming for failure to meet deadlines,” she explains. “Practices such as this serve to demoralize the direct report in question and the entire team.”
She recommends supervisors highlight performance opportunities in one-on-one meetings. These conversations should go deeper than solely identifying issues and problems. Instead, Dennis advises supervisors to provide direction, feedback, and encouragement. In other words, show agents how they can fix the problems you highlighted.
Supervisors also can have a much broader impact on performance. They should set the tone with a morning kickoff call, drop in on calls throughout the day, and wrap the shift in the afternoon. While most modern contact centers provide agents with a performance dashboard, supervisors need to stay involved, providing a qualitative assessment on what’s working and what must improve. But that’s hard to do without the support of your technology.
To work at their best, supervisors need collaboration tools within their contact center platform. That way, they stay connected to employees and their work. From one platform, they can check performance data, send team-wide chat messages, and drop in with agents via video meetings.
Journalists love to describe the Covid-19 pandemic as unprecedented. While it’s become a cliche, it isn’t any less true. Never before has the modern world experienced such significant and intertwined health and economic shock. No one knows what the future holds and that’s scary.
This is especially true for remote employees. Now only are they dealing with the uncertainty of the world, but they’re doing it alone. Shorn of their workplace interactions, remote employees often struggle with isolation, loneliness, and disengagement.
A good supervisor will recognize that we’re living through a rough period of history and they’ll acknowledge the stress it’s heaping on agents. Not only that, but great supervisors will also step into the role of therapist, helping their direct reports care for themselves.
“I firmly believe that supervisors must take regular inventory of the needs of their direct reports,” says Dennis. “One strategy to ensure awareness of employee needs is to pose questions during one-on-one meetings. A simple “How have you been?” may allow the supervisor to assess the level of stress. In cases where rapport has been established, and the supervisor is perceived as genuine and transparent, most employees will share their support needs.”
Managing agents means taking an interest in them as people and helping them work through problems. This is particularly true for distributed organizations. When a supervisor worked shoulder-to-shoulder with agents in the office, it was easy to pick up on problems. But now, when colleagues see each other for five- or ten-minute video calls a day, those issues tend to stay hidden.
All workplaces have underlying tensions. A hint of office politics here, a heated debate there. But when you suddenly flip from in-person to remote work, those small moments of friction can grow. If supervisors don’t step in, tensions often escalate into full-blown conflicts.
“Effective facilitation skills are invaluable when working remotely,” Dennis explains. “When leading online teams, it is important for the leader to fully engage, set a positive example, and provide regular feedback and encouragement along the way.”
When setting a positive example isn’t enough, supervisors must step in and act as a coach. Good supervisors will jump into the fray, separating parties and facilitating compromise between them. But the best coaches will treat every moment of conflict as an opportunity for improvement. They encourage agents, boost confidence, and provide employees with the tools they need to solve conflicts on their own.
Building a new normal
Distributed organizations require a new leadership approach. To unite a scattered team, align them behind a single goal, and keep agents working at their best, supervisors must embrace their new role of roles.
That change is only possible because of technology.
If the pandemic had struck a decade ago, it may not have been possible to transport the contact center from the physical to the virtual world. The technology and infrastructure weren’t sophisticated enough. But now, we have everything we need to efficiently and securely run a distributed team.
At RingCentral, our system is designed and built for distributed teams scattered throughout the country or around the world. With RingCentral, you have a tool that allows your supervisors to switch from one cheerleader to coach to therapist to enforcer — all without leaving the platform.