The Covid-19 Crisis: Do We Put Our Energy into People, Process or Technology?

WRITTEN BY SANGEETA BHATNAGAR

Challenges and Priorities Survey

COVID-19 has impacted everyone’s lives in so many ways. As we all learn to navigate our way through this global crisis, there are increasing demands on our contact center agents as well as the leaders who support them. When you put your people and your customers at the center of your process and technology decisions, you will be able to turn this negative situation into a better experience for your customers, and more importantly, for your team members.

Right now, everyone is in execution mode, moving at a fast pace to ensure that agents are deployed to work from home, or if they are on-site, changing seating configurations to ensure proper social distancing, ensuring health checkpoints upon entering the contact center, and providing paid transit to avoid public transportation.

After speaking with many industry leaders, there are common stressors that I’ve been hearing. Through my interviews with these leaders and the webinars that we run locally, I’ve also heard some great ideas that are helping centers of all sizes. Although, there are several challenges, I will share just a few.

Current Top Challenges for Frontline Agents

Here are just some of the key challenges frontline agents are facing in the current state.

  • Increased isolation and loneliness.
  • Increased uncertainty/feeling overwhelmed.
  • Mental health/anxiety issues: Increased fears for commuting, family members, personal health and wellness.
  • Technology challenges.
  • Transitioning to a full work-from-home (WFH) model OR feeling left behind to work on-site.
  • Handling increased call volumes.
  • Overworking/not having enough time boundaries.
  • Managing work while possibly having a full house with children, siblings, parents.

Let’s go deeper into the first four points.

1. Feelings of Isolation from Their Teams Is Kicking In

The first week was new and everyone was in overdrive mode, but now, after a few weeks, the new normal is showing and it is not that exciting for some.

For some agents, work was a place they really needed to come to escape their homes. Many agents, especially new-hires feel nervous about being totally on their own as they are used to having their team leads or supervisors close by to take escalations or to help with technology. Now, their perception is that they are totally alone. Coffee breaks, lunch breaks and ping-pong were some of the fun social things that they are now missing from work.

Some solutions that industry leaders are implementing include:

  • Daily team huddles, check-ins through online tools; e.g., Zoom, GoToWebinar, WebEx, Microsoft Teams.
  • Increased one-on-one emails and conversations to reduce the feeling of isolation.
  • Online coffee breaks, lunches, after-work drinks.
  • Playing online games together to continue the camaraderie.
  • Online exercise or yoga sessions for your teams to log into.
  • Immediate responses to internal messaging when agents ask support-related questions so that, when there is a technical issue, the agents do not panic.
  • Using remote monitoring to check how the agents are doing emotionally versus “did the agent say the customer’s name three times or did they follow the thank-you script 100%.”

2. Feelings of Uncertainty or Feeling Overwhelmed

Some agents and leaders are uncertain about the future and their jobs, and are feeling overwhelmed with the news, the new lifestyle and the constant calls.

Some solutions that industry leaders are implementing include:

  • Consistent AND transparent communication.
  • Open dialogue about “how are they really doing.” Leaders can share some of their own challenges and the solutions that are helping.
  • Leadership must ensure that the agents are safe and home, and that they have clear boundaries of work and personal life to avoid burn-out.

3. Anxiety Issues

I know of many centers that had staged WFH deployment and, during that process, the agents who were left to keep working on-site were very anxious about taking public transit. Many companies paid for their agents’ Uber or taxi rides, and ensured staggered start times so that everyone could keep social distancing throughout the day. Many companies maintained healthcare support on-site to check staff as they entered.

Once at home, agents can get anxious over making mistakes, or are not comfortable answering or emailing responses alone. They need to feel that the support has not changed and that their team leader is just a click away. Speedy response times from team leaders, supervisors and managers is required to give the frontline agents confidence.

Suggestions include online yoga classes, meditation and one-on-one chats to alleviate anxiety. Many leaders use essential oils as a tool to relax and reduce anxiety. Sharing your own worries and becoming vulnerable, sharing the fact that we are in this together can be a big help for your agents.

Show your understanding that your agents will have many competing demands on their time if they have their kids, siblings and elders to support at home.

4. Technology Challenges

When the tools that the agents use fail to work or are too slow, the anxiety and frustration is intense. Less tech-savvy agents tend to panic and can freeze up if they cannot start their shift or when they are trying to help a customer.

It is important to communicate regularly that there may be some issues in the beginning—for instance, connections may not be as fast at home as in the office, and some folks are using personal laptops, which may not be compatible with the software used at work. These “hiccups” will be there, but your team should know that we are all going through this together.

Keeping that in mind, it is important for leaders to know that they need to loosen the expectations around productivity as there will be some glitches as the agents move to the WFH model.

Leaders need to ensure that there is clear empathy shown toward the agent who may be having technology challenges. It is frustrating at the best of times, but imagine being stuck on a call, everything freezes, and you cannot reach anyone. For someone already worried about talk time or productivity, this can add more stress and anxiety. It is not so easy to be on hold or on a long call with the help desk with crying children in the background.

How Can Leaders Make a Difference?

By becoming a better version of ourselves by conscientiously developing our soft skills!

As we are just a few weeks into this drastic lifestyle change, we are just beginning to see some of the human impact. As the weeks and months go by, the toll on the agents as well as the leaders who support them will grow. It is with this compassion and understanding that we must navigate through this situation.

With increased remote workers, clear, concise communication, highly developed soft skills along with well-developed emotional intelligence will be required much more.

Last week, I read this tweet from leadership expert Tom Peters: “‘Soft’ skills will be 10X more important in a virtual/work-at-home world. Team dynamics, individual growth, team creativity will dominate effectiveness.”

With the increased isolation and remote working, we need to be fully committed to creating meaningful human experiences at every point of contact. It starts with being kind to ourselves, our families, our communities and our team members, as all of this will impact our customers.

We need to be extreme in terms of building trust, caring for others, showing genuine empathy during these very challenging times.

Nothing Shows That You Care More Than Listening!

Listen to your team members (really listen without any distractions). Serve your team members just as you want them to serve your customers.

As we are moving at lightening speed to get so much done, so quickly and with so many working from home, communication is critical. Regardless of which tools you use to communicate with your teams, it is important to be mindful of WHAT you say, and HOW you say or write it.

Many times, there is a big difference between what you think you said, what you actually said and what the other person actually heard.

Understanding communication styles and needs according to personality temperament is so important as we navigate remotely through stressful times. It is also important to be aware of your temperament and style. Note: We all can ADAPT once we are AWARE of our BEHAVIORS and TENDENCIES.

  • Understand yourself and how you tend to communicate under a variety of stress levels.
  • Understand each other and how those around you will respond to your communication style.
  • Adapt your style to communicate in a more clear, concise and thoughtful manner to serve the needs of those around you.

Body language still matters. On video calls, maintain eye contact just as you would in a face-to-face meeting; i.e., don’t look down at your phone, and watch your facial expressions while on webinars as everyone can see you and, in turn, feel your emotions (whether good or bad).

Elements of Emotional Intelligence Leaders Need to Develop

As we continue to develop into the best versions of ourselves, so too must our overall emotional intelligence. This is a deep subject and deserves its own article, but here are a few high points to consider.

  • Self-awareness: It is more important than ever to be aware of your biases, personality style and communication style; i.e., do you communicate in a bottomline method with a team member who may need a more conversational approach? Do you allow time for people to process information at their own speed?
  • Empathy: In all training, we expect our agents to have empathy for our customers. In this time, in particular, it is critical to have compassion and empathy for the team members that you are supporting. It is very important NOT to assume anything about anyone and work to build the TRUST with each team member so that you can ensure that they are all doing well.
  • Self-Regulation: While working from home, it is important to make sure that you regulate your work hours and not overwork, as that will eventually lead to frustration, anxiety and burnout. Maintain self-care with proper breaks, exercise and boundaries between work and family. When you regulate for yourself, you are leading by example and you will automatically allow your team members to do the same, ensuring long-term engagement.
  • Self-Confidence: We are all learning and adapting together. When you doubt yourself, do not be afraid to ask for help. Believe that you can rise to the occasion with full confidence as you learn and grow.
  • Social-Awareness: Be aware of the “new” social etiquette and online etiquette as it is so important to adapt to the new normal.

Leading with Compassion

During my conversations with industry leaders, I had a big realization. We speak about leading with compassion. So many servant leaders put themselves last, but this challenge will not be a sprint. The leaders are bearing a huge responsibility on their shoulders.

Many leaders are thinking about the safety of each of their team members, as well as their families. Remember: Lead with compassion, but first and foremost, lead yourself with kindness and compassion as you lead your team through this crisis. We will come out of this as better versions of ourselves.

Thank you to all the contact center leaders for your selfless work for others and demonstrated servant-leadership to support your agents and your customers! Many thanks to all the agents serving customers across the board! I am so proud of our global CX community!

Sangeeta Bhatnagar is Founder of the boutique Human Capital firm SB Global, which focuses on talent acquisition for top-tiered Contact Center & CX professionals. With an emphasis on Human Behavior, Sangeeta helps companies to attract, retain and develop top talent using behavior models, strategies and Emotional Intelligence principles. Sangeeta is a best-selling author of the anthology “Called to Action,” as well as the Chair of the Greater Toronto Area Contact Centre Association.