Coronavirus has accelerated the virtualization of call centers worldwide, supercharging a trend that was already underway. Well before the pandemic, Gartner was forecasting that 35% of customer experience workers would be working from home by 2023, while other experts noted that perhaps 25% to 50% already did. Midway through 2020, many businesses continue to struggle to keep workers safe and businesses resilient amidst ongoing uncertainty. Blended workforces of in-office and work-from-home employees seem likely to continue to be the norm for call centers for months, if not years, to come.
In terms of day-to-day operations, much of the responsibility for sustaining high performance in these new and unprecedented circumstances falls to managers. Supervisors and their teams are facing all sorts of new technical, social, psychological and resource obstacles every day. These challenging times call for exceptional leadership from managers. Ten essential practices can equip them to drive success—for themselves and the teams they lead.
1. Be a Calm Presence
Remote work challenges the concept of what it means to be present. In the same way that someone who isn’t listening is not truly present; a manager who learns to listen can be present despite connecting virtually. With teams looking to them to set the tone, managers must take responsibility for the emotional impact they bring. How do you want to show up? To be able to listen and respond positively to challenges, leaders must first find and practice the rituals and habits that support their mental and emotional well-being. Avoiding burnout is job one to sustaining effective leadership.
2. Lead with Agility
Agile leadership, as the name implies, is ideal for scenarios in which things are changing fast. It encourages workers to explore new approaches, knowing that not all will work. This environment of being “safe to fail” encourages creative problem-solving. McKinsey & Company describes the benefits of an agile organization in times of change: “They focus on customers, fluidly adapt to environmental changes, and are open, inclusive and non-hierarchical; they evolve continually and embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. Such organizations, we believe, are far better equipped than traditional ones for the future.”
While managers may work within a corporation that follows a traditional hierarchical structure, applying agile management practices can empower remote or hybrid call center teams. The agile strategy of helping teams to own their goals and create the paths to achieve them is more relevant than ever for call center teams at distributed locations.
3. Create a Safe Space
Affiliative leadership is an approach highly relevant to managers of virtual or hybrid teams, particularly those thrust into the state by the crisis of a pandemic. An affiliative leader promotes harmony, resolves conflicts, and builds teams that feel connected to each other. For call center employees used to working side by side with colleagues, the approach can help ensure that workers at home or off-site feel heard and included in a team.
Avoid a “business as usual” tone. Unspoken fears can become powerful distractions. Acknowledge the challenges and uncertainties of the current situation and be open to supporting all through it. In one-on-one or small group meetings, allot time to let people express how they’re feeling. Schedule virtual coffee dates or working lunches to encourage informal social bonding between both virtual and in office employees.
An essential element of affiliative management is trusting that people on your team want to be successful and will work hard to achieve meaningful goals. Trust that your people can manage themselves when working remotely, just as you do those who are in the office.
4. Build Toward a Shared Vision
“Where there is no vision, there is no hope,” said scientist and educator George Washington Carver. In times of disruption, a vision for the future is vital—yet what does this mean for call center managers?
Leadership expert Daniel Goleman writes in “Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence” that a visionary leader is one who conveys where the team is going, “but not how it will get there—setting people free to innovate, experiment, take calculated risks.”
Building on the affiliative approach, the visionary manager supports engagement and builds a sense of team cohesion, uniting the group around the common vision. In practical terms, this comes down to coaching—first to help people create meaningful goals that will self-motivate them when working remotely.
5. Set Clear Expectations and Structure
Remote and distributed teams benefit from additional clarity. Set concrete deadlines and write them down on a shared document. Create a standardized meeting cadence for both team and individual meetings. Outline (in detail) the role and responsibilities of everyone on the team and determine a reporting cadence on progress toward goals. When delegating tasks with the virtual team, write them out explicitly.
Virtual platforms can go a long way to connecting teams across distributed or remote locations. A T-Mobile blog describes how in a matter of days they transformed 12,000 reps from 17 call centers around the world into a WFH workforce. “To keep our newly socially distant teams working together, we swapped in-person collaboration for digital tools like Slack, WebEx and Skype and made sure everyone had home internet and training on the new collaboration tools nearly overnight.”
Support the transition by increasing the cadence of one-on-one meetings. Meet at least once a week to ensure alignment and support. Use multiple communication methods to engage with different learner types (videos are a great way to add context). Choose platforms that allow for two-way communication. Create communication channels for feedback and FAQs.
Virtual meetings not only help ensure progress toward common goals but play a vital role in creating social interaction. Embrace “cameras on” as a way of working and communicating. Consider creating virtual team rituals, such as fun ways to celebrate birthdays or share wins. After meetings, continue engagement by using shared documents to record minutes or notes on key insights shared, commitments made or actions assigned.
7. Provide Reliable Information
This begins with being as transparent as possible. Don’t sugarcoat tough news. If you don’t know an answer, admit it. Where there is panic or uncertainty, ask: “What do we know for sure? How do we know it?”
Be a knowledge broker, looking for ways to facilitate knowledge. This could include creating a workgroup focused on updating the organization, sharing the most recent research and trends, making information accessible to virtual and in-office employees.
8. Coach On
Many centers uphold quality service through a strong sense of the physical team and on-site coaching. Not only do workers sit side by side where they can hear, learn from and support each other, they often have on-site coaching resources. When faced with irate customers or tricky problems, reps can turn to expert coaches who can listen in on calls and offer advice. It’s a proven approach that goes way beyond “monitoring calls for quality assurance.” As the article, “Know When to Manage and When to Coach,” explains in Forbes, while “managing is all about telling, directing, authority, immediate needs, and a specific outcome, coaching involves exploring, facilitating, partnership, long-term improvement and many possible outcomes.”
Coaching works and is especially valuable in newly (or long-term) remote scenarios. To create that sense of engagement and continual support when teams are not in the same space, equip teams with collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams, WebEx, Slack and messaging programs.
9. Leverage Technology
Distributed workforces require centralized depositories for information to be shared and visibility into the team’s progress toward goals. Be sure to assemble the tools and train your teams to ensure all are comfortable using basics like shared calendars, documents and projected trackers to keep everyone up to date and able to quickly collaborate on work projects as needed. Create and use shared virtual communities to communicate informally, too. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, IM or WhatsApp groups can all help. And the same tools can provide access to IT help, allowing workers to quickly get help with connectivity or other technical issues so they can maximize their productivity and focus on customers.
10. Keep It Human
The role of technology will continue to evolve, supporting a call center’s mission to serve customers. Artificial intelligence and chatbots are poised to play a greater role in handling simple engagements, leaving people to handle complex inquiries. Similarly, as remote and virtual call centers continue to transform digitally, the human connection is vital.
As director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Erik Brynjolfsson observed, “Knowing how to keep someone motivated and how to keep a connection are skills humans have learned and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. A robot can’t figure out whether you can do one more push-up, or how to motivate you to actually do it.”