A record one in four Americans quit their job in 2021. This has left many employers scratching their heads and wondering where things went wrong, and more importantly, what they can do to return to more sustainable levels of employee attrition. While some industries are citing the pandemic as the cause for waning employee retention, it’s not that simple.
Rather, it is a situation of slowly then suddenly. In any relationship, including the employer-employee relationship, there can be something that builds up over time. Then, suddenly, there’s an event that triggers a breakup. The “slowly” part was pre-pandemic.
We underestimate some perks of working in an office. You’ve got your friends there. It’s like a home away from home. You get a break from your family. You get to work face-to-face. There’s a certain level of inertia that just keeps us wherever we are, and because of that, we can tolerate a lot that’s not so great. We are able to tell ourselves, “You know what? These other benefits really help a lot.”
But as people started to work from home in the pandemic, a lot of those positive workplace elements got removed. At first, working at home feels great. Then people start to realize it’s not as great as they thought it would be.
That’s when people start to ask themselves, “What am I doing with my life?” They may not even know what they want to do with their life, but they have the feeling that something is off, and now is a good time to take a step back and reassess their situation, which often leads to leaving their current job.
The slowly then suddenly way to re-engage your service team
Luckily, there are ways to re-engage service agents to break out of this cycle, and adding one type of meeting to the agenda could kick-start this process. But before we get to this meeting, let’s look at what some companies are offering employees to encourage them to stay.
If employees don’t have a sense of progress, even if they feel it’s a great company, they don’t stay. While a company may not be able to constantly promote employees to a new title or pay grade, they often have the ability to provide career progression by broadening an employee’s skills beyond their current job. In the strongest companies, high performers are encouraged to make lateral job moves to learn about other areas in the business and upskill themselves for new challenges.
At Zappos, we had a life coach who would discuss people’s dreams — what they wanted for their personal life. Then we worked with them to make those dreams possible – like buying a home, or taking a trip to Ireland. But you don’t need a full time coach to do this. With my own team, I would simply ask about them. And I wouldn’t stop. At our check-ins I would continue to ask. We put pictures of up of their dreams so everyone on the team would know. And by keeping them top of mind, they worked to achieve them.
Start by asking questions like ‘Do you feel fulfilled?’, ‘What do you need?’, and ‘What would career progress look like?’
While these two big drivers of an engaged culture take time, there are things you can change more immediately. The first is getting and listening to honest feedback from your service agents. Start by asking questions like “Do you feel fulfilled?”, “What do you need?”, and “What would career progress look like?”
But don’t take this feedback to the boardroom with just the management team to try to figure out what to do next. Instead, share the aggregated feedback with your entire service team, and have a conversation as a team. Showing this level of transparency and making your agents feel heard goes a really long way. One effective way to do this is to host an open space meeting focused on service team culture.
How service teams can use Open Space meetings to drive culture change
It is challenging to host productive, transparent team meetings about workplace culture across a large customer service team that includes fully remote employees, hybrid employees, and those who work exclusively in the contact center’s physical office. That’s where Open Space meetings come in.
Open Space Technology is an open-source, social technology developed by Harrison Owen, who realized, after hosting conferences, that everybody loved the coffee breaks more than hearing the speakers because they got to talk to each other. With the Open Space meetings approach, he identified the minimal amount of structure that could create conversations based on mutual interests, problems, and issues, with the maximum amount of freedom.
In Open Space meetings, leaders set the direction for the meeting in the form of a question.
Instead of putting together a culture summit meeting, defining the agenda, and assigning the speakers in advance, in Open Space meetings leaders set the direction for the meeting in the form of a question. It could be “How do we create a great culture?” Or “How do we make it through this pandemic?” It’s any question that focuses everybody on what that goal is of bringing everyone together.
Prepare to be surprised
From there, participants can split off into any number of smaller discussions, and anyone is free to lead a conversation as a discussion. That doesn’t mean they have to have a proposed answer, just that they want to lead and be part of that conversation. Your agents are free to lead or participate in as many conversations as they want.
As these discussions take place, participants also write down all the results, so everybody can see it in one report whether or not they were part of a specific conversation. Through the report, the leadership gets to see, in real time, where there’s a lot of heat and energy. This is where one of the principles of Open Space comes in: be prepared to be surprised.
During an Open Meeting I helped lead, a huge number of people went to the conversation about the diversity of the leadership team. Prior to this, the leadership team didn’t realize their lack of diversity was such a big issue for employees. But seeing that being what organically drove the most passion from employees, they realized this was a critical area they needed to focus on. And thanks to the report of the proceedings, they now had the right information and ideas from the team to help them make the right decisions.
To deliver exceptional customer experiences, get the customer perspective
Giving employees a freeform platform like an Open Space meeting seems like a radical approach to driving culture change for many companies. But some companies take this to the next level by inviting customers to be participants in these meetings.
Pick your 5 or 10 best customers, and ask them if they would do you the honor of helping define what exceptional customer experience looks like. Customers who love your company, and want to see you succeed, will be thrilled to be asked to personify the voice of the customer in this way. And they will give you that honest, supportive perspective on how you can improve because they want to see your company succeed so they can continue to be a customer for a very long time.
As an example of this, as part of preparing for a roundtable I led, I was talking to someone who loves the Salesforce platform. He raved about how he fully customized it for their use. I got to have this amazing conversation with him where he said, “I would love to improve this, this, and this,” and it was coming from a place of being helpful. He was trying to make the platform be even more amazing and useful for his company and other companies with the same challenges. It’s customers like this who, because they are a big fan, can be honest about what’s working and what’s not.
Make building a strong remote team culture everyone’s job
If building a strong service team culture is so important, then surely that means it should be someone’s job, right? The trouble with that is, unfortunately, you can’t hire a chief culture officer and have them wave a magic wand to create a fantastic, engaged culture. Your company culture is built one interaction at a time, by everyone on the team.
‘Would you please tell me what you think I don’t want to hear?’
The fastest, quickest way to get there, I find, is a question that I use in my book, The Culture Blueprint. The question is, “Would you please tell me what you think I don’t want to hear?” When a service leader asks that of their people, they are creating a safe space for the learning and trust that an engaged culture of service is founded upon.
The wording here is very important. If I ask someone whose livelihood depends on my opinion of them for feedback on my leadership style or the company culture, I might not hear anything substantial enough to drive culture change.
But when I ask someone to tell me the one thing they think I don’t want to hear, it changes things completely. Now, I’ve given them the green light to say something that they might have otherwise thought they could be fired for it. And that’s when you get to find out the stuff that you didn’t realize was a problem. And then it’s up to you to act on it, and build the engaged service team culture that makes your goal of delivering an exceptional customer experience a reality.