For as long as I've done customer service training, clients have asked for guidance on how frontline employees can best manage their time and tasks. Never has this issue been more urgent (and confusing), however, than in the last year or so. With nearly universal adoption of technology such as Instant Messaging (IM), opt-in alerts, Twitter, and more, employees and their managers are struggling to strike the right balance between "caught up" and "caught in."
The March 2010 issue of Entrepreneur magazine has a great article titled E-mail Is Making You Stupid. The article cites various studies showing that not only are these technological "advancements" hurting productivity, but they're also increasing stress, scrambling brains, and undermining the quality of whatever work employees do manage to churn out in the midst of these distractions.
Along these same lines, IBM Business Consulting Service issued a report back in 2004 (but still relevant today) on the issue of "interruption management."
Working at a computer is now a little like playing tennis—a near constant volley of dings, beeps and pop-ups, each of which necessitates an instant decision of how best to swat it. Perhaps the aim should be to work more like a golfer who focuses, proactively moves the ball toward a goal, and seeks the absolute minimum of distractions and impediments toward that end.
While this distraction epidemic is by no means limited to customer service teams, following are some tips designed especially for contact center managers who are struggling to master "interruption management" in their workplace.
- Be clear about your policies. You can't expect employees to curb their use of gadgets until they know exactly what's expected of them. Many employees welcome some structure and guidelines (and even restrictions) regarding appropriate use of use of technology; after all, they're the ones who are falling behind in their work. If you don't yet have a policy in place with relation to IM, Twitter, Facebook, and mobile phones on the job, now's the time to establish one. (Quick, before more technological "advances" flood the market!)
- Ask each employee to carve out a period of time each day when he or she disables IM, turns off ringers, and avoids checking e-mail. Just two hours or so of this silent time can have a big impact on productivity—and on employees' sense of accomplishment in getting through tasks. If it makes sense, you can stagger the quiet periods among employees.
- Reward employees' productivity rather their ability to work long hours.
- Publicly praise those employees who are demonstrating focus, efficiency, and productivity. This will prompt their peers to strive for the same kind of attention.
- Train employees to use best practices in their e-mail communication-things like avoiding "reply to all" when it's not necessary and strategically structuring messages to be efficient for both the writer and the recipient. One such program is Impact Learning Systems' Getting to the Heart of E-mail Communication™.
- Empower employees to convey to colleagues (not customers, of course!) that they aren't always interruptible. As the IBM study I mentioned earlier states, "In the real world, people tend to gauge how interruptible someone is before interrupting them. Is their door open? Are they on the phone or meeting with someone else? Deeply concentrating on something and rapidly typing? And then there can be a subtle negotiation of the interruption. Based on what I'm doing and what the other person needs, I might decide to handle the interruption right away or defer it to later." By allowing employees to be similarly guarded in the virtual environment, you'll help them to manage distractions.