2020 was a tough year for contact center supervisors. While the quick shift to work-from-home was a shock to almost every level’s work routines, no role has transformed as much as that of the frontline supervisor.
Network and technology glitches aside, contact center agents can perform the majority of their tasks as well at home as they do on-site. After all, agents are used to interacting remotely with customers. Supervisors, however, had to travel a more difficult road. Many have been trained in line-of-sight management techniques that are incompatible with the remote-work environment.
5th Talent’s Ted Nardin and Brian Kearney noted in their August 2020 Pipeline column, “Supervisors who have proven to be more successful in a work-from-home model are those who adopt more of a ‘life coach’ role vs. a command-and-control leadership style. As life coach, they strive to help their team members be more competent in their job, focused on the task at hand, and connected socially to others at work and around them at home.” (See “Change Your WAH Model to Fit Your Agents’ Needs.”)
Add to that the employee wellness priorities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as daily check-ins with individual team members, providing emotional support for those who are struggling, helping agents combat feelings of social isolation, and monitoring overall employee well-being. The responsibility can be overwhelming for someone who hasn’t been instructed in emotional wellness techniques.
These types of activities that keep agents connected in a virtual environment require quite a bit of time and effort on the supervisor’s part, adding hours and stress to an already overloaded work week. While much attention was given to worker burnout during the pandemic, the toll on managers was more severe, though less acknowledged.
Yet despite the emotional strain and impact on their own well-being, managers remained dedicated throughout the pandemic, putting their teams’ needs first. According to the 2021 State of the Manager report from Glint and Linkedin, employee engagement among managers actually rose 5% in 2020. The bad news is that manager burnout increased 78% between Q1 and Q2 of 2020. Heavy workload (40%) and feeling disconnected from colleagues (37%) were the top two precursors to burnout reported by managers.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
A majority of frontline managers suffering from these types of symptoms could be of considerable consequence for contact centers, given the supervisor’s influence on employee experience. Besides the impact on employee performance and engagement, supervisor burnout will also hinder the operation’s ability to adapt to change.
It’s time to address how the coronavirus crisis has transformed the frontline leaders’ role and identify new skills to future-proof this critical position.
Align Frontline Leaders’ Roles with a Dynamic Workplace
There is no doubt that the pandemic has been a catalyst for change in the contact center. Communication, coaching, employee engagement, hiring, onboarding, training, performance management—many of the processes that worked well in a face-to-face setting have had to be reengineered for the work-from-home environment. In some cases, temporary workarounds are still in place as company leaders plan employees’ return to the center or a hybrid approach to allow agents to continue working from home part-time.
For supervisors, navigating constantly changing and ambiguous circumstances adds to the stress load. The following are a few tactics to help support and strengthen this pivotal leadership role.
Set clear priorities for supervisors
To ensure frontline supervisors are set up for success when leading remote and hybrid teams, the first step is to clear their path, says Afshan Kinder in her June 2021 column (“How Do We build Culture with Distributed Teams?”). “Tame your competing priorities,” she states. “Senior leaders can achieve significant gains by executing well against a few key game-changing initiatives. This sends one clear message to all teams and creates a sense of purpose and clarity of what’s important. When clarity goes up, resistance goes down, and change is easier to introduce and ultimately sustain.”
Provide frontline leaders with more ways to collaborate, learn and share
As the 2021 State of the Manager report revealed, 37% of managers cited feeling disconnected from colleagues as a precursor to burnout. While frontline leaders have been taking great pains to help their team members combat feelings of isolation, they have had less opportunity to share and collaborate among their own peers in the center or across functions.
In fact, companies have generally become more siloed during the pandemic. Trends analysis by Microsoft found that employees’ interactions with their immediate team members at work increased at the onset of the pandemic. In contrast, interactions with their broader networks diminished. Over time, even the close team interactions started to decline. “When you lose connections, you stop innovating,” notes Dr. Nancy Baym, Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft. “It’s harder for new ideas to get in, and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.
“As companies balance a mix of in-person and remote teams, it will be important to remember that remote work makes for more siloed teams,” she adds. “Leaders must look for ways to foster the social capital, cross-team collaboration, and spontaneous idea-sharing that’s been driving workplace innovation for decades.”
Reduce team size
Are your frontline leaders managing hybrid teams—or will they be? “Managing mixed teams (in-person and remote) is definitely higher effort for supervisors. Think about simply conducting team meetings two different ways, and booking meeting space vs. jumping on Zoom,” says remote-work expert Michele Rowan, president of WFHAlliance, in her article, “Considerations for Return to Office.” She recommends reducing the team size for supervisors overseeing mixed teams. “Otherwise,” she notes, “you will burn your supervisors out quite quickly.”
Assess current skills gaps
Workarounds for the loss of face-to-face interactions have helped teams get through the transition to WFH. Still, to transition to a more sustainable model, supervisors will require additional training to learn new methods of listening, communicating and coaching WFH teams.
Overall, updating employees’ skills for the remote/hybrid work environment has been an HR priority this year. According to a recent Gartner survey, 71% of learning and development leaders said that more than 40% of their workforce has needed new skills due to changes to work brought on by COVID-19. When assessing for skills gaps, Gartner’s Mary Baker recommends that leaders “foster internal movement across the organization by engaging employees to gauge their own skills, goals and points of confusion around organizational skill needs.”
Future-Proofing: Shape Your Supervisors’ Post-Pandemic Journey
What will your workforce look like post-pandemic? In addition to identifying current training needs, develop a forward-looking skills assessment of your agents and supervisors. Consider which activities agents will perform and the skills they will need to thrive in your future environment. This will help shape the frontline leader’s role and how their skills will need to expand.
For instance, as Kweilin Ellingrud, senior partner at McKinsey & Co., noted in “Future Of Work Post Covid-19,” companies will need less work that requires basic cognitive skills, such as data input and processing since automated tools can do that work faster and with fewer errors. “On the other hand, we will need much more depth in social and emotional skills (interpersonal skills, leadership, etc.) and technological skills (programming, interacting with technology effectively, etc.). Those two skills areas together make up less than a third of the time spent across occupations today but are projected to grow by about 20% over the next ten years. To help in shifting these skills over time, workers will also need to build their capacity to adapt and build an ability for lifelong learning given the increasing pace of change.”
In a previous article, I identified a few of the new traits and skills critical to the supervisor’s role progression from managing to coaching and development, which included:
- Passion for developing people
- Intellectual curiosity
- Growth mindset
- A Focus on lifelong learning
Other skills that have emerged as high-value for the future work environment include:
- Adaptability—Having the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances and a fast-paced work environment. The ability to embrace and manage change rather than resisting it.
- Resilience—The Center for Creative Leadership identifies resilience as the ability to maintain equilibrium under pressure. To strengthen leadership resilience, The CCL recommends three best practices:
- Personal Energy Management: Manage your own resistance. “Show up,” give your best, and relinquish attachment to the outcome. Stay in the present.
- Shift Your Lenses: Take charge of how you think about adversity. Understand your beliefs about the situation, and choose your response. Exercise compassion for yourself and others.
- Sense of Purpose: Develop a “personal why” that gives your life meaning. This helps you better face setbacks and challenges. Also, look for ways that crisis and adversity may connect to your larger life purpose.
- Emotional intelligence—Often referred to as EQ (emotional quotient), emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Psychologist Daniel Goleman has described the five core components of emotional intelligence as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Leaders who can recognize their employee’s emotions and feelings can connect empathetically with others in the workplace.
Maximize Your Supervisors’ Potential for Success
Contact centers will be at a critical juncture as they emerge from the coronavirus crisis. Supervisors will provide the pivotal leadership role that connects and engages frontline agents throughout a fast-changing environment—both near- and long-term. Take the time to maximize their potential for success.