How to Keep Your Virtual Team Engaged

Do you have employees who work from home or in a remote office?

This arrangement is increasingly common in customer service. There are many benefits for employees and employers alike, such as eliminated commute times, lower office expenses, and greater flexibility.

There's also a big challenge—keeping remote employees engaged.

By engaged, I mean they understand what makes the business or team successful, and they're committed to helping achieve it. 

The challenge faced by many virtual employees is they often miss out on critical updates, or don't get to participate in "water cooler" discussions around the office where important decisions are made. And it's easy to feel left out of the natural camaraderie that develops when people work together. That office potluck is a huge bummer if you’re eating cold cereal at home while everyone else is enjoying Victor’s famous lumpia.

The good news is you can overcome this challenge with a little planning. Here are some key insights from leaders with experience managing virtual teams.

An employee chats with a coworker on a video call.

Promote Face-to-Face Contact

If feasible, promoting periodic face-to-face contact works wonders. It strengthens relationships and many people find it easier to communicate via other channels, such as email, once they’ve met someone in person.

Michael, a client experience team lead, has one remote employee. She works in the office once every two weeks. "I intentionally try to schedule these days when there will be key times for her to connect and interact with the rest of the team," says Michael. "For example, last week, she came to the office on the day of our office Thanksgiving potluck."

Jeremy, a contact center manager, cautions leaders to be respectful of remote employees' time when asking them to come into the office. "We’ve historically had a tendency to try to force them into the office when they may not want that in the name of engagement and inclusion when really, we should be figuring out how to engage and include while at home rather than forcing a drive into the office they’ve likely been avoiding. Periodically coming into the office is fine if it’s mutually agreeable vs. company-sided."

Diana, a customer support team lead, suggests focusing in-person time on relationship-building. “That actual in-person time together should also be more for bonding than getting work done, so don’t plan meetups to be packed 10 hour work days with no down time.”

Meeting in-person isn’t always feasible, but video can still bring you face-to-face with your remote team. Chelsea, a client experience leader, has weekly video calls with each person on her team.

Establish Communication Channels

Using the right communication tools is critical to keeping everyone informed.

Holly, a marketing vice president, suggests virtual teams adopt effective communication tools and establish some team norms around using them. "Slack is such a great way for a quick chat and I love Zoom for longer or more complex conversations. Being able to see someone's face makes a HUGE difference in really connecting to them as a person rather than treating them like an email address."

Michael adds some similar ideas. "Our Team uses a chat page (similar to Slack) and we keep her in the loop on as much as possible. If any key conversations have occurred at the office, I'll send her a message to fill her in. We're messaging and/or speaking with her on the phone each and every day to make sure she feels plugged in to the Team."

Mario, a support manager, echoes the importance of keeping people in the loop. He cautions managers against assuming that remote employees will proactively search for information. “You’ve gotta show them and remind them. If there’s a demo, record it.”

Crystal, a client success manager, recommends getting the right tools to make communication easier. “We’ve invested in special microphones for our stand-ups, because our remote team couldn’t hear well if someone wasn’t speaking loudly enough. Investing in that hardware shows the remote team members that we really do care about their experience.”

One word of caution here is to be mindful of timezones. "Someone working remotely doesn't always work 9-5, might be in a different time zone, or could be a night owl," says Holly. "Talk with them from the beginning about what hours they will be working. If you need them to work certain hours, mention that."

Involve Your Remote Employees

Years ago, I attended a conference for contact center professionals. There was a day of site tours, so I took advantage and visited a Starbucks contact center. 

One of the things I saw on the tour was pretty amazing. We were all given a tutorial on how to taste coffee. The mini-training showed us how different brews produce different flavors and smells.

The most impressive part was the tasting was led by a remote employee!

Keeping your virtual team involved is a key responsibility for customer service leaders. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind," definitely applies here if you let it!

Jeremy suggests planning to include your remote employees in team meetings. "If a small percentage of the workforce is remote it’s easy to forget about them while presenting. They can’t see all the content, can’t hear questions being asked, etc. Plan on how they will participate in things like breakout sessions and ice breakers."

Holly suggests being intentional about creating places for fun. "We have a few minutes at the beginning of team meetings for talking about family, travel, and just life in general. We also have a Slack channel where we share photos of our children, food we cooked, restaurants we tried, sports games we went to, and so forth. It's our water cooler."

Kev, a customer support manager, holds all team meetings via Zoom. “Even where people are co-located, they join individually on their own computer. This ensures everyone in the meeting is present in the same capacity, and prevents remote employees feeling they are second class in the meetings.”

Celebrating big events doesn’t have to happen exclusively in the office. Camille, a former client success vice president, made a practice of sending treats to people when they hit major milestones. “Remote folks seemed to appreciate receiving tangible things.”

Take Action

Ultimately, keeping your virtual team engaged comes down to good management.

  • Make sure your employees know what's expected.

  • Communicate regularly to keep them on track.

  • Provide assistance when necessary.

  • Recognize good performance to let remote employees know they're appreciated.

  • Avoid micromanagement.

That last one is important.

Nobody likes a micromanager, but a micromanager can really be annoying in a remote situation. I know a remote employee whose boss used to email her at all hours, even late at night, and expect an immediate response. It was frustratingly annoying, and her engagement suffered.

Be thoughtful about the relationships you create with your virtual team, and engaging them should become much easier.


3 Questions That Get to the Heart of Employee Engagement

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Nicky placed the couple's drink order in front of them. He was tending bar in a hotel where most of his guests are travelers, so he asked the classic icebreaker question: "What brings you into town?"

The couple was attending an event the next evening and had flown in the day before.

Nicky started chatting with them and soon learned they had no other plans. He asked a few more questions to learn about their interests and then made some suggestions for things the couple could do during the day. He even pulled out his phone and showed the couple some pictures of his favorite sights.

We’d all like to have an employee like Nicky, who goes beyond the basics and is enthusiastically bought-in to serving customers. An employee who takes pride in their job, and brings a bit of their personality to work.

So how do you do it?

Skip the 12 question surveys, year-long projects, and blue ribbon committees. Here are three questions that will quickly get to the heart of employee engagement.

A smiling hotel bartender pouring drinks.

Employee Engagement Defined

Let's start with a clear definition:

An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success.

Unpack that a bit and you'll see there are three things that need to happen if you want to engage your employees.

  1. Organizational success needs to be clearly defined.

  2. The employee needs to understand that definition.

  3. The employee needs to know how they can contribute.

Here's an example:

Donna worked in the customer service department for a medical device company. One day, she received a call from a hospital that was trying to locate a specific product for a patient that was scheduled for surgery in two days. Unfortunately, Donna didn't have that product in stock to ship out to the hospital.

Think about the difference between an engaged and disengaged employee in this situation.

A disengaged employee would be entirely transactional. They might be be polite when they say, "Sorry, we're out of stock," but that wouldn't be helpful. 

Donna was engaged. She understood her company defined success by positive patient outcomes, and not getting the right product to the hospital in time wasn't a good outcome. So she went out of her way to look for a solution and eventually found the right product at a competing hospital across town.

Three Questions to Assess Engagement

If you want engaged employees like Nicky or Donna, you'll need everyone to give consistent answers to three questions. These questions can be asked in discussions with individual employees or via open-text questions in a survey:

  1. What is our customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do you personally contribute?

The results will give you immediate clarity on what you need to do to improve employee engagement.

Question 1: What is our customer service vision? A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. There's no way you can engage employees if your company (or department or team) hasn't clearly defined success. If you do have a vision, but employees don't consistently know it, your engagement initiative should start with an awareness campaign.

Question 2: What does it mean? Understanding the vision requires more than just memorizing a statement. Employees should be able to describe its meaning in their own words, and those descriptions should be consistent from employee to employee. If not, you'll need to create a plan to help employees better understand the vision.

Question 3: How do you personally contribute? Employees can't make a commitment if they don't know how, so this last question is essential. Every employee should clearly understand how they are contributing to the big picture. Think of it as the "Why?" behind what you ask employees to do. If employees struggle with this question, you'll need to help them connect the dots between their daily work and the vision.

Bonus Tip + Resources

Most employee engagement initiatives are focused on frontline employees. I'd recommend starting by asking your executive team to answer these three questions.

Why?

It's not uncommon for companies to have disagreement at the executive level over what the customer service vision means or how employees' roles are aligned with that vision. You'll need your executives to have a clear picture of engagement if you have any hope of engaging your employees.

Here are a few additional resources:

I recently facilitated this webinar with HDI, sharing five ways to quickly boost engagement. There's some overlap with this post, plus some additional insight.

This post is drawn from The Service Culture Handbook, which is a step-by-step guide to getting your employees obsessed with customer service.


Inside Gallup's New Employee Engagement Report

Employee engagement efforts are stuck in a rut.

That's the verdict from Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace Report. The latest study pegs employee engagement at just 33 percent among American workers. 

That's not much of a bump compared to Gallup's 2013 report:

Gallup's report also noted that the best organizations have an average employee engagement rate of 70 percent! 

So what do the results tell us? And, what actionable advice can we take away from Gallup's research? You can download the full report, or you can read the highlights below.

 

Defining Engagement

You'd expect Gallup to explicitly call out a definition early in the report, but it doesn't. In fact, I couldn't find a specific definition anywhere. 

You can't improve something if you can't define it.

Imagine you wanted to be a football player because all of your friends were playing football. You spent a summer lifting weights. You practiced blocking and tackling. You threw passes and ran routes. Then, on the first day of tryouts, you arrive at the field and realize that everyone meant soccer. 

Yeah, it's like that. So here's my definition of employee engagement:

Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee deliberately contributes to organizational success.

This means companies need to do two things to engage their employees:

  1. Make sure employees understand how the organization defines success.
  2. Secure employees' commitment to help.

Gallup's report does shed some light on a few issues that can help us improve.

 

Challenge #1: Culture

Jim Clifton, Gallup's Chairman and CEO, calls out culture as a primary culprit in the report's opening statement:

The very practice of management no longer works.

One of his top recommendations is to focus employees beyond just collecting a paycheck and build a culture of purpose.

I've spent the fast few years researching organizations with highly engaged employees for my new book, The Service Culture Handbook (April 4, 2017). Every single one I looked at had a clear, customer-focused purpose statement called a Customer Service Vision.

For example, Publix is one of the top-rated supermarkets in the country. Their customer service vision?

Where Shopping is a Pleasure

Think about the simplicity of that statement. Every Publix employee knows their job is to make shopping more enjoyable for their customers.

Once every employee commits to the same purpose, a culture is born. You can use this step-by-step guide to create your own customer service vision. 

 

Challenge #2: Ineffective Management

Only 21 percent of people who responded to Gallup's engagement survey agreed that their performance is well-managed.

My research clearly shows employees have a de-motivation problem. New employees start their jobs full of hope and promise until management sucks the spirit out of them by making it difficult for them to succeed.

Here are some top management challenges according to Gallup's report:

  • Unclear or misaligned expectations
  • Ineffective or infrequent feedback
  • Unfair evaluation practices

Let's go back to the definition of employee engagement. An engaged employee is committed to organizational success.

It's awfully tough to be committed if the definition of success is a moving target, your boss isn't giving you feedback on how to achieve it, or your boss isn't evaluating your performance based on your actual achievements.

Here are some more stunning findings:

  • Only 30 percent strongly agree their manager involves them in goal setting.
  • Just 44 percent strongly agree they can link their goals to organizational goals.
  • Only 41 percent strong agree their job description matches their actual work.

 

Conclusion

It's a damning report, but employee engagement doesn't need to be a huge mystery. Great managers make sure their employees can answer three questions:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How can I personally contribute?

I'm facilitating a half-day workshop at ICMI's Contact Center Expo & Conference on May 22 where I'll share a step-by-step guide to engaging employees. You can learn more here.


How Do You Smile When You Don't Feel Happy?

It's not easy to hide your feelings.

My friend Jenny Dempsey recently wrote a personal and poignant post about this on her blog. Her beloved dog, Miso, had recently died and she was finding it difficult to hide her grief at work. 

That's exactly what her job requires her to do.

Jenny is a customer care manager at DMV.org. Her legendarily warm and bubbly customer service inspires songs from customers. That's what makes her so good at her job, where displaying warmth and friendliness towards customers is expected.

Suddenly, this was very difficult.

What Jenny found herself doing is what millions of customer service professionals do at some level each day. It's called surface acting and it's an epidemic. It causes poor customer service, decreased job satisfaction, and burnout.

Here's what you need to know and what you can do about it.

Key Terms: Surface Acting and Emotional Labor

Let's start with a couple of definitions.

Surface acting is a technique where you display an emotion that you don't actually feel. For example, here are some emotional displays typically required of customer service employees:

  • Smiling

  • Warm tone of voice

  • Positive and open body language

Those are all easy when you actually feel happy. Surface acting is when you don't feel happy but force yourself to smile anyway. This gets increasingly harder the bigger the gap between how you feel and the emotions you put on display.

The effort required to engage in surface acting is called emotional labor. The term emotional labor was first coined by Arlie Hochschild in her book, The Managed Heart. Like any type of effort, exerting too much can be exhausting.

 

What Drives Emotional Labor?

A neighbor recently complained to me about poor customer service he experienced while dining with his niece in a restaurant. His server wasn't friendly and he and his niece came to the conclusion that the server should be fired.

My neighbor can be a bit surly, so I can only imagine what a gem he must have been as a restaurant guest. It's an incredible challenge to serve someone with a smile who regarded you with such disdain that they would callously suggest you should lose your job.

Unsympathetic, demanding customers are a big drain on emotional labor, especially when people like this test our natural fight or flight instinct. I have the luxury of politely ending the conversation with my neighbor when he gets too grumpy. A restaurant server must stick with it and act happy.

Customer service employees face other challenges too. They might be grieving, like my friend Jenny, or just be having a bad day. Perhaps they dislike their co-workers, boss, or even their customers. It could be that they're tired of defending a defective product or a dumb policy.

Working conditions for customer service employees aren't always great. While intellectual and physical skills are highly valued, studies show you don't make a lot of money for being good at taking crap from other people. 

Unpredictable schedules can also make outside of work difficult. This incredible New York Times article profiled a young single mother who tried to balance school and child care while dealing with a work schedule that could change from week-to-week or even day to day. 

It's no surprise that retailers are currently under investigation by several states for requiring employees to be on-call for work without getting paid.

 

The Impact on Service

There are many ways that surface acting and emotional labor impact service. 

The obvious one is employees simply get tired. Expending too much emotional labor is one of the biggest reasons why customer service employee struggle to be friendly

Researcher Alicia Grandey at Penn State University discovered a strong link between surface acting and low job satisfaction. She also found a clear link to emotional exhaustion.

This may explain why my own study found that 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The tangible impact of all of these problems is lower customer satisfaction, lower employee engagement, and higher turnover. 

 

What Can You Do About It?

On a personal level, it's up to each employee to find his or her own happiness. One exercise you can try is called the Attitude Anchor.

For customer service managers, the solution isn't another incentive program or some other short-term fix. It's also not an annual employee engagement survey, which is usually a waste of time. Your challenge is to create a work environment where employees can actually be happy.

You need a really plan. Try creating your own road map by using this simple assessment or use the New Year as an opportunity to opt for a comprehensive, full-service version.

Above all, give your employees something to smile about.


9 Ways to Promote Your Customer Service Vision to the Team

There's a common criticism about customer service visions.

The perception is you put a lot of work into writing one. Maybe you hire some expensive consultants to run a bunch of focus groups or spend a day on it at an executive retreat. And then... 

Nothing. 

Employees forget it. Service quality remains unchanged. The vision gathers dust somewhere in an abandoned file. All that time, money, and effort wasted.

The promise of a customer service vision is still real. It's a shared definition of outstanding service. In theory, this is essential to getting everyone on the same page.

The challenge is you need a way to promote the vision to your team. Get them engaged and excited. And, keep it alive for years to come after that initial roll-out.

Here are nine ways you can do it.

 

9 Ways to Promote the Vision

 

#1 Set SMART Goals

Many customer service teams use metrics to manage their performance. You can incorporate your vision into your daily work by setting a SMART goal for at least one of your metrics. 

SMART is an acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant <----- Here's where you connect your goal to your vision.
  • Time Bound

You can use this SMART goal worksheet as a guide.

 

#2 Hire With Your Vision in Mind

It will be much easier to get your team on-board if you hire people who can naturally identify with your customer service vision.

Here's how:

  1. Create an ideal candidate profile that incorporates your vision
  2. Develop tests to see if job candidates fit the profile

This short video from Shopify is a terrific example of an ideal candidate profile.

#3 Train the Vision

Training is the perfect time to introduce or reinforce the customer service vision. It's not just customer service training. Any training is a good opportunity.

Here are some examples:

  • New hire training
  • Customer service training (of course)
  • New system training
  • Policy or procedure training
  • Product training

I once had a client who insisted on incorporating their customer service vision into anti-harassment compliance training. Their thinking was that the way co-workers treated each other was a form of customer service, and that treatment would naturally extend to the way they treated customers.

This short video explains how you can incorporate culture into your new hire training.

#4 Empower Employees Through The Vision

Your customer service vision is meaningless if employees aren't empowered to fulfill it. 

Last year, I made a list of five reasons why managers don't empower their employees. One reason was employees don't realize what they're empowered to do to help their customers.

One way to overcome this barrier is to ask employees to contribute ideas on how they can fulfill the customer service vision with their customers.

You can use this guide to learn how to empower your employees.

 

#5 Leadership Messages

Employees tend to understand something's importance by how often leaders talk about it. 

That means if you want your employees to remember the customer service vision, you need to talk about it a lot. As in, every chance you get.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities:

  • Team meetings
  • Daily huddles (stand-ups, pre-shifts, tailgates, etc.)
  • One-on-one meetings
  • Casual conversations
  • After action discussions
  • Annual performance reviews 

 

#6 Executive Messages

Customer service leaders aren't the only people who should promote the customer service vision. Executive leadership should promote the vision too.

At one company I know, the CEO kicks off quarterly all-employee meetings with a review of their customer service vision. He shares specific examples of results and behaviors that match the vision.

This helps employees understand that support for the vision goes all the way to the top.

 

#7 Create a Culture Page

Many companies create a culture page on their website to describe what it's like to work for them. It's a recruiting tool, but it's also a prime opportunity to promote your customer service vision.

JetBlue has led the airline industry on the American Customer Satisfaction Index for five straight years. Their customer service vision (also their mission) is to inspire humanity.

This is a screen shot from their culture page:

They've also created this short video that describes how they are different. Notice how their mission (a.k.a. customer service vision) plays a starring role.

#8 Involve Your Employees

A fun way to promote your customer service vision is to get your employees involved.

Here's an example from the Center for Sustainable Energy's Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. Their customer service vision is this:

Make it easy to join the clean vehicle movement.

One thing this team did to promote the vision was to ask employees to think of words that described how their co-workers supported the vision. The words were then arranged in a word cloud shaped like a car to showcase their many positive attributes:

Source: Clean Vehicle Reb

#9 Use it to Guide Decisions

There's nothing that can promote your customer service vision faster than using it to guide your decisions.

REI's amazing Opt Outside campaign is an outstanding example. In 2015, the outdoor gear retailer decided to close their stores on Black Friday. This included their online store!

The decision was a clear reflection of their customer service vision:

We inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

REI's President and CEO, Jerry Stritzke said, "Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to OptOutside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks."