This article has been written by guest authors and BT researchers, Dr Tanya Alcock and Dr Jon Malpass, with support from SOAS University of London's Dr Ben Hardy. It features behavioural research currently being undertaken at BT's Research and Innovation centre.
January may be over but the post-Christmas doldrums continue to loom large. Debt and bad weather, coupled with post-holiday apathy and broken New Year's resolutions, mean low morale is an ongoing issue for many of us. Nowhere does this manifest itself greater than within the beating heart of so many organisations: the contact centre.
Morale in the workplace matters. How people feel about their job affects the work they do. A workforce with high morale does more than simply work harder and faster; they are creative, collaborative and innovative. Their enthusiasm is infectious, helping win over customers and buoying colleagues.
But high morale is not only good for the organisation. It turns out morale has a strong emotional element, which promotes a positive working environment and improves an individual’s wellbeing. And in a customer-facing role, there is a direct impact on the person on the end of the line. It’s no surprise that high morale is good for us all.
Unpicking the dimensions of morale
We drew on over a decade of rigorous research done across a variety of industries – including contact centres – to answer the simple question: ‘what is morale?’ This research tells us morale is an emotional state that has three components or dimensions (see figure 1).
The value dimension: People want to do work which is worthwhile and meaningful. They want to add value to their organisation and feel valued by the organisation in return. People want to be recognised for their labours and feel that their efforts are appreciated, even if they are simply doing their job. This seems obvious, but time and again during our research we found that this simply does not happen enough.
The future dimension: Employees need to have a clear view of the future and a strong sense of progress towards that future. A sense that tomorrow is going to be better than today is crucial. People are able to tolerate far greater adversity if they can see that a situation is going to improve. Conversely, if people have no hope for the future, then morale will fall. It’s important to also understand that a lack of information about the future creates information voids. These are bad news. As Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the author of Parkinson’s Law, states: “The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.”
The interpersonal dimension: The relationships we have with our fellow workers plays a significant role in morale. Relationships are the ‘social glue’ that underpin the previous two dimensions. We lean heavily on our colleagues and friends for support and information. Support helps buffer bad news but can also amplify it. The impact of interpersonal relations seems most noticeable if those relations are particularly good, or particularly bad. The main role of this dimension when relations are neutral is to support the value and future/goal dimensions.
Morale breeds morale
Individuals with high morale look at life through a positive lens. This sets up a positive feedback loop that boosts their morale levels further. The same is true for low morale. Individuals in a low state of morale will view their environment in a more pessimistic light, leading to further falls in morale.
Morale is also contagious. Morale levels are transmitted through words, deeds and body language. People are influenced by the ‘atmosphere’ of the environment in which they find themselves. The customer at the end of the line, or over email and live chat, is ultimately affected by employee morale.
So what can be done to improve morale?
- Recognise Value: The value dimension can be improved by praising and recognising employees for their efforts. That said, saying ‘thank you’ is simply not enough. Praise should be specific and contextual; thanking the specific person for the specific thing that they did that they did and linking it to the overall objectives of the group.
- Articulate a clear future vision and strategic direction: A clear vision needs to be articulated but simply knowing where you’re going is not enough. People need to know how they are progressing. A clear line of sight between today and the end goal is essential. Sharing this information prevents information voids. This stops people being distracted and demoralised by rumour and false information.
- Emphasise the importance of relationships: Developing bonds between employees is critical to building morale - via improved team working, mentoring or buddying. Team building events can really help with group cohesion. Catching up for a January coffee might look like unproductive time, but it is a good way of building social glue by sharing tales of Christmas triumphs or disasters.
The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.
Improving performance and customer satisfaction
Morale tangibly affects the performance of customer-facing operations.
Firstly, high morale improves customer service. It may seem a clichéd statement but our research in contact centres clearly demonstrates this. High morale individuals are more cheerful and willing to help customers and, when carrying out more demanding tasks, are more resilient to the eccentricities (!) of customer demands.
Next, high morale individuals will put in more effort and willingly go the extra mile for both customers and colleagues. Conversely, low morale individuals will, at best, do what is required and no more (and sometimes considerably less).
Finally, individuals with high morale will collaborate and communicate more effectively, sharing knowledge and fostering better team relations. Customer queries are routed, worked on and solved quickly and more efficiently.
One thing is clear, high morale isn’t a natural state. It takes time and effort and is a key element of providing excellent customer service. Morale needs constant positive pressure all year round to ensure it remains high. Just as a dog is for life, and not just for Christmas, morale is for all year round, and not just for January.
To download the award winning Chartered Management Institute ‘Morale Matters’ paper by Dr Ben Hardy, Dr Tanya Alcock & Dr Jon Malpass go to: http://www.managers.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/cmi-press-releases/morale-matters-for-uk-managers