Daron Robertson is founder and CEO of BPO Service Provider Broadpath and co-founder of the virtual workplace platform Bhive.
As an innovator in remote working for more than a decade, I’ve seen the great layoffs and normalization of working from home created a perfect storm for the industry, as well as a clear impetus for empowering workers’ well-being. as expectations of frictionless service collides with the pandemic-driven reality, causing more customers to lash out inappropriately. Exceeding churn rates in many contact centers already high historical averages, increasing the pressure on both the remaining employees and the bottom line. With no ceasing in sight, it’s high time we confronted one of the biggest elephants in the room: the toll of emotional labor.
The link between natural attrition and emotional labor
Customer service reps have always been on a tightrope between improving operational efficiency and maximizing customer satisfaction. This often requires them to hide their real emotions and in fact smile on the phone – an activity psychologists call “emotional labor.” In times of upheaval, emotional labor can be especially exhausting, as the separation between felt and displayed emotions increases physiological arousal. the following discharge of energy can lead to burnout, a lower sense of job satisfaction, and less commitment to work – all precursors to attrition that can be amplified when employees work from home without the support of peers.
Fortunately, as leaders, we can offer solutions. Although employees are routinely coached to show empathy as a means of resetting the customer’s emotional state, Research suggests that the mere expectation of employees ’empathizing’ with our customers can cause stress. However, if we see empathic processes as emotional labor, we can offer employees, just like actors, opportunities to hone their craft.
Making emotional labor more sustainable
Two classic techniques to help customer service representatives better understand their responses to emotional labor are surface acting and deep acting. Superficial people tend to adjust their emotions to their prescribed role, potentially alienating themselves from their own feelings and a sense of belonging to others; deep working people, on the other hand, are more likely to change their perspective on the situation. This may mean talking to others about their distressing experience; physically “turning the switch” by smiling and taking deep breaths; reframe the situation by seeing the caller in a more sympathetic light; or emphasize the positive (“I kept my cool!”).
Even outside of customer-facing situations, deep actors tend to: build relationships with mutual benefit in mind, rather than individual gain. This in turn produces so-called ‘social capital gains’, such as increased support from colleagues or more trust in colleagues. As such, teaching deep acting as part of a larger strategy for having healthy relationships at work could help immunize against the chronic effects reported by many agents.
Adapt to remote working
Since many customer service representatives who started in brick-and-mortar centers are now working in isolation from home, it may be an important step to build on what we already know about the effects of loneliness on well-being. Loneliness is not only an obstacle to reducing the stress of emotional labor, but employees who are lonely also have significantly more stress-related absenteeism and a higher turnover intention.
So, as industry leaders, it behooves us to focus on how to promote remote work communities that boost the immunity of emotional workers exposed to hostile encounters.
On the day-to-day level, I recommend building in virtual breaks where possible so that employees can lean on colleagues for support. In addition, showing immediate empathy to employees when customers are unreasonable can prevent negative spirals.
Develop training curricula on a larger scale with the goal of improving emotional intelligence at all levels of organizational life. This is helpful because people with high emotional intelligence are adept at handling social situations, and in the process they often make people feel good not only about themselves, but also by going the extra mile at work.
We have also seen that communication technologies such as instant messaging and video conferencing, which have enabled the pandemic-induced shift to remote working, are actually facilitating the connection between employees. But we also learned from the subsequent phenomenon of Zoom fatigue that the full impact of these instruments on worker loneliness and emotional labor has yet to be played out, especially among younger workers. In response, community-building workplace platforms are being developed to better meet the diverse needs of employees.
Finally, I recommend incorporating emotional effort into performance appraisals to recognize the value of dealing with your own emotions as well as those of others. Such recognition can reset the dynamics of emotional labor in this increasingly reactive world, and restore for the person smiling on the phone the sense of genuine satisfaction in meeting the needs of our customers.
Today’s contact center is an extremely challenging environment for our employees. In our relentless pursuit of efficiency and lower costs, we have lost sight of the human connection and the emotional toll experienced every day by people in customer-facing roles. Designing and implementing practical solutions as described above will create healthier, happier and more enriching workplaces and begin to change the negative perceptions of our industry.