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Invest In Your Employees and They Will Invest In You

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Image: Andrii Dragan - Alamy Stock Photo
The contact center AI platform Balto recently published Contact Center Attrition: What Agents Want in 2022, a report that surveyed over 2,000 contact center employees to learn what they need to feel fulfilled and successful in their roles. Out of the 2,062 respondents, 1,342 were front-line employees who spent a large portion of their day initiating or receiving calls, and the rest of the participants held leadership positions.
 
No Jitter recently interviewed Lior Torenberg, Senior Creative Solutions Manager and lead at Balto’s research and data analysis arm, the Conversation Excellence Lab, to discuss insights from industry verticals regarding agent happiness and how contact centers can keep employee engagement steady while better-addressing retention issues. Torenberg also discussed sociocultural factors that may lead women and men in the U.S. to value different things in their careers, plus advice for contact centers dealing with employee resistance to returning to the office.
 
Responses have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
 
According to the agent attrition report, industry-wise, the average enjoyment for frontline employees is fairly high for real estate and facilities employees, especially compared to frontline employees in retail or healthcare. Why are these employees more satisfied? What insights from these industry verticals did Balto take away for overall agent happiness?
 
LT: Industry-wise, the average job enjoyment for agents in our research was highest in professional services and IT and lowest in insurance and collections. As you mentioned, enjoyment was also high for real estate and facilities employees and lower for retail and healthcare.
 
Why is this? There are many levers at play here: pay, tenure, motivation to join the industry, whether the employee works in-person vs. virtually, and more.
 
For example, those in professional services, real estate, and IT were some of the most satisfied with their salaries and reported higher pay satisfaction on average than collections and insurance. Pay satisfaction and job satisfaction were correlated—the number one thing agents reported would keep them at their job was higher pay.
 
As for one’s motivation to join the industry in the first place, those that responded that they “wanted to join a growing industry” or “saw a lot of opportunities for career advancement” had the highest job satisfaction. Those in retail, for example, reported that they “needed a job fast” most often—the lowest paying motivation. It follows that industries that pay less have less motivated, satisfied employees overall.
 
There’s also the nature of the work at hand and the amount of agency (power) that representatives have in the industry. Collections and healthcare are examples of industries with a high focus on compliance and repetitive call structures. Meanwhile, professional services and real estate have more variability and freedom within their call flows. In our forthcoming report on script adherence at the end of June, we share a lot of data about how the freedom to improvise on a call lends itself to job satisfaction.
 
The report logged a dip in employee engagement after employees had been on the job for a year. How can contact centers keep employee engagement or “enjoyment” steady?
 
LT: What we take from this is—in the first six months on the job, employees are still learning the ropes, and this onboarding period comes with built-in novelty and excitement that lend themselves to job satisfaction. But after this initial excitement and learning period wears off, agents spend some time in an in-between period: they have learned their jobs, but they are not experts yet; they have a handle on some things, but they’re not completely in their groove yet.
 
How do you keep agents engaged at the one-two-year mark? Consider putting in place professional development, involving agents in script writing, and putting out regular surveys to gauge employee satisfaction and ask employees how they’re feeling about their work.
 
The good news is that once an agent has gotten past the two-year mark, satisfaction jumps back up to new employee levels. At this point, the agent has gotten into the flow of their work. They know what’s expected of them; they’ve internalized their script—and their job satisfaction reflects that.
 
To keep agent engagement and enjoyment steady throughout their tenure, try building out what an agent lifecycle looks like in your organization. Lay out each year in an agent’s tenure along with its distinct struggles and benefits: What do agents want when they’ve been at a company for five years? What is really bugging them in year two? Use this exercise to think through targeted intervention programs, like asking tenured agents to coach new agents and highlighting professional development opportunities at the one-to-two-year mark.
 
How can call centers better address retention issues?
 
LT: There is no grand secret to addressing retention issues. When asked what would make someone stay in their job over the next five years, the answer: overwhelmingly pay.
 
Other factors were mentioned, such as coworkers or management, promotions, and job flexibility. People as a whole [group] want security, respect, and a sense of belongingness—these basic needs are the same for agents.
 
For example, those who worked hourly made up 83% of those who saw themselves in another job or industry altogether in five years—only 17% of those respondents were salaried. Benefits, in this case, the stability of a full-time job and the associated insurance, have an outsized effect on agent tenure.
 
Interestingly, those who saw themselves at the same job in five years also had the highest levels of education on average. This [data] points to the impact of professional development and other educational programs: the more you invest in your employees, the more they’ll invest in you.
 
The report says women were more motivated by job flexibility, while more men said they would stay at their current job if they received a promotion. Why do you think we see such disparate results by gender?
 
LT: It’s difficult to speak for all the sociocultural factors that may lead women and men in the U.S. to value different things in their careers. Here at the Conversation Excellence Lab, we can provide hypotheses, but we aim to present the data and let it paint a picture on its own.
 
For example, women and men scored very similarly on job satisfaction (5.52 and 5.60 out of 7, respectively) and pay satisfaction (5.1 and 5.5 out of 7, respectively) even though women made less than men by a significant amount. Women earn 82% of what men earn in the contact center even after controlling for position, industry, education, or age, but they are just as happy with their pay.
 
How do we explain this? It may be the case that the pay gap is invisible in the contact centers and women are not always aware of what their male counterparts are earning, or that some of the women in our research had left the workforce to start a family, and their pay was affected in the long term by this absence. The difference could also represent different pay expectations overall.
 
Let’s return to motivation: Both men and women were primarily motivated to stay in their jobs by pay, but more women were motivated by their fellow coworkers and managers and job flexibility. Meanwhile, men were more motivated by job security and the prospect of a promotion. The two motivators at play here can break into belongingness and wellbeing (women) versus career attainment (men). These differences are not biological or innate—but again—a reflection of the sociocultural context within which this research took place.
 
Blue-Sky Time: Offices are reopening, but employees are refusing to return, even when offered incentives like new technology or in-office food and beverage perks. What advice do you have for contact centers battling employee resistance to returning to the office, specifically around the work preferences of employees that don’t align with company expectations?
 
LT: First and foremost, we must revisit company expectations. For better or worse, the state of work today changed during the pandemic—employees have different expectations, and employers should too. That’s not to say employers should give up on bringing employees back to the office. There are many benefits to congregating together: knowledge sharing, informal communication, better relationship building, and more.
 
Rather—employers should understand that some flexibility is necessary to keep employees happy. Consider limiting how many days a week you require employees to come in and making those days as pleasant as possible with activities like free lunch, team bonding, and other in-person perks.
 
It’s also worth a deep dive into your agent demographics to understand differences in needs by age group. For example, in our research, Balto found that those aged 55+ were most motivated by job flexibility. They may be in a life stage where they value their time at home with family over the inconvenience of a commute. Those aged 18-24 wanted that same flexibility as well. This generation may have entered the workforce during the pandemic and have set their norms accordingly.
 
Our upcoming research shows that remote work correlates with higher productivity and job satisfaction—take advantage of that.
 
While not all industries or job functions can work remotely, many employees [see remote work] as a vital benefit. If an agent has dependents or responsibilities that require their attention at home, a flexible workplace can make all the difference between attrition and retention.

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