Designing for Workforce Engagement in the Contact Center

In the two weeks that immediately followed the declaration of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, contact center reps found themselves under a level of pressure most had never experienced. The percentage of calls scored as “difficult” more than doubled, from a normal level of 10 percent to more than 20 percent, according to a study of more than a million calls published in the Harvard Business Review. Customer emotion and anxiety spiked, making what can be a difficult job under normal circumstances even more so.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm in the contact center, both for front-line employees and the middle managers who oversee them. An unprecedented combination of high volume, high employee burnout, and high emotions is one that today’s contact center workforce has likely never witnessed at this scale and intensity. Navigating this context requires a strategic approach guided by the principles of design thinking—one that intentionally addresses the needs and challenges of employees at all levels of the organization.  

High volume: Contact center reps are fielding a higher volume of calls than ever before with unforeseen patterns of demand, including fewer calls from business customers and more from consumers. With the once typical nine-to-five workday a relic of the past, people with more flexible schedules are calling into contact centers at all hours. In the hard-hit travel industry, United Airlines saw its call volumes initially double as the pandemic spread, causing the company to staff customer service channels with employees from across the organization to keep pace with demand. Organizations are also experiencing drastic changes in call type and customer scenarios. These scenarios strain existing contact center processes that are typically rigid and often offer limited latitude for decision-making in ambiguous circumstances. Middle managers and employees, faced with new questions and requests, lack a defined playbook for how to answer these new inquiries—increasing the risk of customer frustration. Data and analytics are critical to understanding call volumes, adapting customer response strategies, and adequately staffing for anticipated customer demand, which may include some element of upskilling or reskilling staff.

High burnout: The contact center workforce is highly measured in terms of performance, and employees are accustomed to knowing where they stand on a day-to-day basis. In addition to the inherent stress of increased call volume, today’s conditions introduce a new set of stressors, including a more fluid workday that extends well past the five o’clock hour. Employees working remotely may find themselves juggling the competing demands of caring for loved ones at home. They may also feel the loss of the celebratory, physically connected contact center environment. On the other hand, employees still working in physical contact center locations may fear personal health risks. This sentiment can impact productivity as well as morale. Middle managers’ ability to uphold workforce engagement in a new setting can significantly enhance the employee experience while providing preventive support for burnout.

High emotions: Employees must be increasingly attuned to customer emotions while grappling with their personal fears surrounding the pandemic—all while meeting performance expectations that exceed what used to be considered “normal.” Also, the newly remote workplace has introduced tensions for workplace inclusion. There is inherent fairness in physical contact centers (e.g., work environment, hours, equipment) that no longer exists in the virtual setting. Not all contact center workers are in a place where they can talk to customers distraction-free in the home setting. Dealing with pets, caregiving for relatives, or supervising children who are no longer in school are all sources for added anxiety and distraction.

In this landscape, mid-level managers now have a greater role to play, not only in matching customer demand to staffing, but also in addressing employee emotion and burnout so that they may focus on customer care. Many of them, however, are finding that existing tools and solutions for scheduling, performance management, employee care, and skills development are no longer relevant for a remote workforce. 

The Importance of Design Thinking

Design thinking puts the people impacted by change at the center of the solution. By focusing first on people, design thinking improves adoption by transcending hierarchy, fostering inclusion, and engaging all employees as people commonly dealing with today’s crisis. You can apply the principles of design thinking to craft an intentional, adaptive workforce strategy that allows you to optimize employee care alongside contact center hours, skills, and staffing models for maximum productivity and engagement:

  • Empathy: As leaders, we’re naturally inclined to think we know what others are experiencing. Yet, we don’t—not unless we probe or examine a situation from a completely different point of view. Leaders must demonstrate compassion and support for both the end customer and the employees dealing with those customers. They should proactively look for signs of employee need and have empathy for the unique challenges of their contact center employees to ensure that they feel supported. At the same time, employees need to understand how to deal with heightened customer emotions. In this climate, a focus on cultivating emotional intelligence and soft skills (e.g., self-awareness, conscientiousness, situational adaptability) can help employees navigate customer needs while juggling their personal fears and anxieties. To build additional empathy into customer interactions, some companies are creating dedicated service paths for high-risk or higher-need customers. For example, a bank might move seniors and customers with disabilities to the front of branch and phone lines.
  • Co-creation: Leaders may also subscribe to the fallacy that involving employees in the design of solutions is more time-consuming or cumbersome. Yet the opposite is true: 93 percent of organizations in our research report that involving employees in the design of change solutions leads to higher adoption, ultimately accelerating value realization. Companies can’t get kids out of the dining room or change employees’ home-work situation, but they can adapt to work around employees’ schedules and the times they’re most productive. By engaging employees for input on how their workday will look, companies can ensure that they’re focused on high-energy, high-effort activities when they’re at their best. Crowd-sourcing coverage for contact centers based on employee availability can optimize both outputs and experience. Consider allowing employees to self-select into schedules or even tasks so that they can show up at their best. Whether it’s addressing scheduling or another challenge, meeting employees where they are is your best bet at coming up with solutions that actually work.  
  • Iteration: Leadership and employees alike should be reminded that it’s okay to try things and fail if they learn, grow, and adapt from those failures. An adaptive strategy becomes crucial as companies navigate the uncertainties of COVID-19 and the next normal. Iteration can also foster a sense of inclusion, rallying the entire organization around a shared commitment to learn, grow, and improve. Different sources of data can help managers understand customer demand and employee productivity—and effectively balance these dual interests. Employees’ and customers’ lives will continue to change, so companies need an approach to managing the workforce that can keep up. And given the unprecedented nature of this experience, no one will be able to, with 100 percent accuracy, predict what the future holds. You can, however, try things, learn, and then redesign until the way forward is clear. 

Leaders must intentionally consider and design for the experiences of their contact center employees amid unforeseen challenges in the new world of work. In addressing these challenges with design thinking, you'll enable more effective workforce strategies that maximize the value of employee care, productivity, and flexibility—ultimately propelling your business towards its strategic aspirations.