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Disrupting the Treadmill Experience

smiling workers

The hedonic treadmill is a concept in positive psychology that suggests whatever happens to us, good or bad, we tend to return to the same level of happiness we had prior to the change. When we buy something new and exciting, it only remains new and exciting for a short time before fading into business as usual. Material things, especially, don’t make lasting contributions to our happiness.

Experiences, however, have lasting contributions to our happiness. Focusing on creating and varying our experiences is beneficial to enhancing our well-being and happiness. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that 50% of our happiness is genetics, 10% is by life circumstance, and 40% is up to us.

When I took the Harley Davidson factory tour in York, Pennsylvania several years ago, the guide took us through the factory and all of the stations required to build their motorcycles. You can imagine how the heavy metal thunder of the hedonic treadmill would lead to a bad kind of burnout if you worked the same station all day – put the part on the bike, put the part on the bike, put the same damn part on the bike.

Harley Davidson has a variety of great strategies to avoid that kind of mind-numbing burnout. They crosstrain team members on a variety of stations and rotate them through different duties on the build line several times during each shift to add horsepower to their operation. They satisfy the goals of maintaining engagement, increasing bench strength and flexibility, keeping the work interesting, and disrupting the hedonic treadmill.

From time to time throughout my career in contact centers, I have heard people say they didn’t understand why frontline agents burned out – after all they are just talking on the phone. I think they should plug in with an agent, not for just a few calls as part of a site visit tour, but for a whole shift. Let the reality sink in of the repetitive nature of the work, being bound to schedule adherence, complying with stacks of policy and procedure, and interacting with grumpy customers. Get a taste of how that work can have cumulative effects, induce complacency, and strike a match to ignite the fire of burnout.

Contact center work can be awesome and fulfilling, but it is a challenge, and certainly should not be considered just talking on the phone. The concept of the hedonic treadmill can be at play and good management requires it to be addressed.

How can you disrupt the hedonic treadmill effect in the Contact Center?

  • Determine what types of phone work dovetail nicely with other types of work and allow agents to work cross-functionally. This can include things like chat, email, claims adjudication, and case processing. This will:
  • Keep the work fresh for the agents by providing a mix of tasks and breaks from the phone.
  • Provide a scheduling/service level benefit by scheduling more people on the phones during the busy phone times, and then schedule them to the other functions when the phones volume is lower. 
  • Improve your overall bench strength for surge staffing and emergencies.
  • Invite the agents to participate in other activities, such as:
  • -Curriculum development where they can partner with the learning team to share their best practices, help integrate them in the curriculum, and support efficiency and customer experience. Platform and presentation skills development where they can deliver training, present their ideas, and get visibility in meetings with leadership. This allows them to practice new skills, get in the spotlight to be noticed, and become more comfortable with these skills.

    -Platform and presentation skills development where they can deliver training, present their ideas, and get visibility in meetings with leadership. This allows them to practice new skills, get in the spotlight to be noticed, and become more comfortable with these skills.

    -Rotations through other functions in the business to both expose them to other work as potential internal career development opportunities, education on how they fit into the big picture, and as ambassadors for the contact center.

    From a metrics perspective, implementing these approaches will help improve metrics like retention, productivity, and attendance. From an agent’s perspective, they will have more opportunity to extend their longevity with the business, enhance their skills, progress their career development, and feel valued. From a cultural perspective, implementing business strategies that provide psychological support, improve well-being, and demonstrate that people care about them is good business, good management, and good medicine.