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Opening Up About Contact Center Design: COMPANIES MUST CREATE CONTACT CENTER LAYOUTS THAT WILL WORK FOR THEM AND THEIR CUSTOMERS.

In August, it was widely reported that employees at Apple had begun to voice their dissatisfaction with the open layout of the company's new Apple Park campus in Cupertino, Calif., which is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The $5 billion campus will offer the latest in energy conservation and green technologies and a host of employee amenities, including a huge fitness center, a relaxing meadow and pond, and more. But not all of the 12,000 Apple employees who will be moving in are as excited as you'd expect. Many reportedly have a problem with the new open office design, a stark change from the closed offices that they had in the old facility.

Apple's employees are not unique in that regard. A quick Google search of the term "open office environment" today produces mostly negative sentiments in the top results. "Why Your Open Office Workspace Doesn't Work," read one headline from Forbes. "Google Got It Wrong. The Open-Office Trend Is Destroying the Workplace," read another from The Washington Post. A New Yorker headline referred to the open office as a "trap." The list goes on.

Nonetheless, open office designs like the one being implemented by Apple have been gaining popularity in the past few years. According to Gallup's "2017 State of the American Workplace" report, about 70 percent of U.S. offices currently use some form of an open floor plan design, meaning that individual work stations are separated either by low partitions or no partitions at all.

Open floor plans have been around for at least 10 years, and in that time they've seen their share of controversy. Proponents of the open office say it can stimulate collaboration among employees, spark new ideas and approaches, and produce a more inviting culture, but others say open offices can also hinder employee productivity and satisfaction. The top complaints generally relate to the levels of noise and frequent visual and aural distractions, as well as a lack of privacy.

When it comes to contact center employees, feelings on the subject are mixed.

To keep contact center employees--and, by extension, the customers they interact with--happy, companies must take the right approach and invest in the right people and technologies to make their office settings work.

CHOOSING AN APPROPRIATE OFFICE LAYOUT

With contact center design, unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Companies must ask themselves a number of questions to determine which approach will work best for them.

Many contact center operators might prefer to keep the cubicle model that has worked for call centers since the customer service industry's inception, but experts agree that the open office environment is not entirely out of the question simply because the contact center deals with customer interactions.

"It can...be helpful for the team to work together to meet service levels and ensure all contacts are being handled correctly and efficiently," maintains Angela Garfinkel, owner of Quality Contact Solutions, a call center consulting firm.

"A lot of the layout [decisions are] really going to be dependent on what channels you're going to be using to answer customer questions and the demographic you're servicing," says Jeffrey Wartgow, senior director of product management at Oracle Service Cloud.

As contact centers move away from phone-only contacts and see a huge rise in the use of messaging apps, for example, the old rules might no longer apply.

"There's a huge, huge push towards messaging apps," Wartgow points out. "People would rather text a problem [or] send a picture than describe it to you over the phone."

This decline in phone conversations is making for a quieter contact center, which could lessen the noise levels that have previously fueled the perceived need for more private workspaces, he explains.

The quicker that companies move toward new channels like messaging, the more accommodating an open space can be. "Human behavior is going to take out a lot of the old contact center distractions, and we're having to redesign all of our tools to accommodate this phenomenon," Wartgow says.

There are also plenty of scenarios in which seeing and hearing from other team members can have its advantages for customer service professionals. For instance, newly on-boarded agents can benefit from being seated near more experienced coworkers who can assist them with difficult cases or interactions. The open space also enables newer agents to more easily seek guidance from supervisors, as it allows them to signal or gesture to them. In a closed office space, this is less feasible; getting a supervisor's attention would require getting up from a seat and tracking down that individual.

Similarly, the open office can add a social dimension to what at times can be a dull or unstimulating job, Garfinkel says. Support centers that are more task-oriented--where the work can get drab and repetitive--might gain from an open floor plan that allows workers to congregate and converse in common areas. A sales-oriented contact center might benefit from the added energy of an open plan, she adds, as it might raise employees' spirits to see their peers in action.

IT'S THE CUSTOMERS' CALL

Still, there are other considerations any company must ask itself before committing to a particular office layout model. These questions should revolve around the needs of the company, its employees, and the overall corporate culture--but also, importantly, around the needs of customers.

A company that frequently handles cases where agents have to explain how to operate a complicated piece of equipment might benefit from a video chat option, for example. In those cases, the company should understand that agents' work stations must accommodate the scenario. If a customer is going to be seeing the agent on the other end of the phone, not only should the agent be presentable but the space he is sitting in should be presentable as well.

"When you have agents who are doing things like fielding video calls, [the open office is] not necessarily the environment that's conducive to a great customer experience," says Keith Pearce, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Genesys. "We see all manner of things happening there. How do you introduce more elements that can mitigate the noise factor?"

Financial software firm Intuit solved for that by installing Chroma key screens on the backs of agents' Aeron desk chairs. These screens prevented callers from seeing everything else that was going on in the office and mitigated most of the noise.

Companies that go with an open plan and have teams composed of blended agents assigned to handle all manner of interactions (email, chat, video, social media, phone, etc.) should be set up to know when a particular customer is of high value, and thus worthy of added attention, experts agree.

When, for example, an influential customer who could do some serious brand damage with a bad review comes on the line, the company could route that call to a "save" department dedicated to fielding such calls. That department should be situated in a more private location away from the potentially chaotic open space.

MAKING IT WORK

In general, companies need to design their contact center layouts to reflect the culture they'd like to achieve. If you're trying to offer a better customer experience, then you should know that having agents crammed into a stifling and uncomfortable environment makes them likelier, for example, to become ornery and testy when interacting with difficult customers, Garfinkel states.

Harold Hambrose, a partner at LiquidHub, a Philadelphia-based digital customer engagement agency, agrees. "You really want to look at the dynamics of your people and your culture and compare [them] to the physical environment that you've got or are about to install," he says.

Hambrose notes that half of LiquidHub's design team is made up of behavioral scientists who look at floor plans in conjunction with natural human tendencies and potential cultural scenarios that are bound to arise within a company. Though break areas might be installed with good intentions, they could be taken over by specific teams that might distract other people working in the area, he points out.

Whatever design or layout a company chooses, employees will need to be content within that setting. This means making sure that workers are physically comfortable: They should have chairs that can sustain them for an eight-hour workday. They should also have somewhere to store their coats, bags, and other personal items.

Oracle's Wartgow, who began his career in a large, open contact center, said one problem he encountered was keeping the work area clean. Investing in proper janitorial services can be especially important in 24-hour call centers with rotating shifts.

Similarly, high-quality, noise-drowning headphones are strongly advised--first, because they can act as a signal that an agent doesn't want to be disturbed, and second, because they can create a barrier where there is none. White noise generators are also recommended, as are noise-reducing foam sprays.

Another popular office design model is the pod or honeycomb, where groups of specialized teams are assigned to small clusters. This design is practical because it allows people working on similar tasks who often need to speak to each other to be in close proximity and able to keep their voices at a minimal volume, according to Pearce.

But no matter which type of floor plan is ultimately chosen, larger companies, particularly those with global reach, cannot simply duplicate what has worked in one geographic location and apply it to another. A call center situated in a cold and snowy climate, for example, will have to provide employees a space to store their winter coats and boots. Hambrose says this came up during a recent contact center design project for a company in Toronto.

Whether a prospective employee will mesh well with an existing office environment should be factored into the hiring process, says Raul Navarro, chief operations officer and general manager of the Americas at Acticall Sitel Group, a contact center outsourcing services provider. Overall, Navarro opposes a completely open office layout, stating that "associates should have the ability to have some level of separation."

Relatedly, the availability and allotment of natural light within an office space should be considered. There's a high correlation between happy employees and their exposure to natural light, so it might be better to have window-adjacent real estate occupied by workspaces rather than break rooms, where employees spend only a small percentage of their days.

Air levels and comfort are also important to monitor, experts agree. For instance, those sitting near the air-conditioning might be more or less comfortable or distracted. It's important to make sure it's not a nuisance. "Very often, even air-conditioning, if it's not distributed evenly, can create disturbing noise," Navarro points out.

And then there is the use of chat apps, like Slack, Jive, or Yammer. Though they can be useful collaboration platforms where agents can communicate with one another without creating a lot of office noise, it's often more efficient to simply have a quick conversation to resolve certain issues, Garfinkel says. She notes that a lot of time can end up being wasted with back-and-forth messaging.

Navarro also advocates for a contact center approach that enables employees to work from home at least some of the time once they've reached a level of proficiency.

The approach has worked for companies like JetBlue, which has 100 percent of its agents working from home. This can be beneficial, Garfinkel maintains, because people at home have direct control over factors like the temperature and where they sit. However, home-based employees must be self-motivated enough, which means that the hiring process must take this into account.

Studies show that working from home can reduce employee stress at least a portion of the time and allow workers to be more productive in a less pressured environment where they don't feel like they are being monitored all the time.

However, these at-home workers ought to be supervised by a separate person from the one who manages the on-site call center; otherwise, things can become too complex and confusing, says Garfinkel, who notes that toggling between a screen and an indoor space can be overwhelming to contact center supervisors.

CONSIDER THE LOOK AND FEEL

Another crucial element in the overall contact center design is maintaining visual elements of the corporate identity, experts agree. At one outsourced call center, the environment had very few branding markers, providing employees with little or no sense of the brand that they were representing other than what was visible on their computer screens, Hambrose recalls. "We were able to increase the energy and focus of the team by building an environment that had reminders of the brand and the sensational stuff that came with it," he says. As a result, levels of performance were raised to where they were comparable to the in-house call center.

To incentivize people to want to come into the office, companies can consider putting in fun objects like punching dummies, basketball hoops, ping-pong tables, and the like, Navarro notes. Bright colored walls can go a long way, too.

As another way to help boost employee satisfaction, companies can provide accommodations that take the individual's family needs into account, say by providing child-care facilities, according to Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting.

And lastly, it's all about location, location, location. When contact centers are housed in the same building as the rest of the company--alongside marketing and sales divisions, for instance--the company risks serious problems with employee engagement and morale when one department has better accommodations than the other. Too often, companies undervalue their service reps and make them feel dispensable (so, naturally, they're more likely to quit). Housing them in inferior work environments can also prompt other employees to think less of them, take them less seriously, or treat them with less respect. Garfinkel notes that in one call center, this resulted in the marketing department's failure to give agents information that would help them provide higher levels of service.

It's no surprise that facility design problems can be especially detrimental to employees who frequently interact with customers. Any source of employee dissatisfaction can have a tangible negative impact on staffing, given that the contact center industry is more prone to high worker turnover than many other fields. Furthermore, logic dictates that disgruntled employees will likely have poorer interactions with customers.

"The bottom line is that if you have happy employees, that tends to translate into good [customer] interactions," Navarro says.

BY OREN SMILANSKY

Associate Editor Oren Smilansky can be reached at osmilansky@infotoday.com.
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Author:Smilansky, Oren
Publication:CRM Magazine
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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