Keys to Flow State (Part 2)

In Brief

In the previous article, we discussed a concept called flow state and its importance in the workplace. We explained how people who are able to reach this happy medium between their skill level performing a task and the challenge said task presents can become fully engaged, focused and present while performing their jobs.

Unfortunately, front-line employees engaging in repetitive tasks all too often end up “south of flow state” where they become bored, frustrated, and begin behaving robotically. The solution to bored, underutilized workers can be broken down into what we call The 4 Keys to Flow State.

So what are the 4 Keys to Flow State?

  1. Give a sense of control
  2. Provide clear goals and feedback
  3. Help them become immersed
  4. Create a challenge

To help explain the importance of flow state in the workplace, we’ve reached out to some of our favorite thought leaders and practitioners within the industry. These CX professionals provided some examples of what it looks like when these Keys to Flow State are used and what can go wrong when they are ignored.

We’ll take it from the top, starting with the importance of giving a sense of control to employees. If you expect workers to engage in what they are doing, they need to have a sense of responsibility and autonomy in the tasks at hand. In our search for real-life examples of this, we reached out to a good friend, Erin Van Remortel, a well-known CX thought leader and a key team member at Verizon’s Enterprise Solution Group.

We asked Erin if she had any examples of an employee’s lack of control affecting flow state and she had just the story for us. She mentioned sitting in on some calls for a banking chain that had a firm, no-exceptions rule on waiving charges after a customer accumulated a certain amount of fees in a year.

“A customer could literally explain to the agent that family is in the hospital and they had to use the credit card to pay for an emergency. No exceptions, period,” she told us.

This is a perfect example of a time when giving an employee a little control can go a long way. Erin went on to talk about how removing this element of responsibility from the agent’s job took all of the engagement out of this particular task. The employee knew that, regardless of the situation, they simply needed to repeat their usual script about the “no exceptions” policy and their task would be completed. How can you expect this employee to be engaged?

“It’s repetitive work, not challenging, doesn’t require any real thought. It was clear that the agent I sat with was not highly engaged or happy in his job, and I couldn’t blame him!”

Next, we asked Erin if she had any positive examples; times when giving employees control benefited the company. She knew exactly who to call and connected us with her colleague, Cary Cusumano, without missing a beat.

As it turns out, Cary had just the example we were looking for. He told us about a big US airline that gives its call center agents about as much control and freedom as you could ask.

“When agents take a call from a customer who’s had a flight cancelled, fees applied, etc., they’re empowered to provide travel credit or other benefits to ‘soften the blow,’” he told us.

He went on to mention that even the lowest-level agent can waive fees using their discretion, and that supervisors are authorized to credit a customer’s account, with no limit!

“Agents take initiative and are creative to do what will make the customer happy. They’re able to use their judgment, with reasonable limits… and they have a very low turnover rate.”

So what did the airline do that the bank didn’t? They didn’t make the job easier, they made it harder! Employees need to get the details, find a solution, and make judgment calls based on the situation at hand. Giving employees this sense of control keeps them engaged and using critical thinking all day long. They can’t go into a robotic state because the job simply won’t allow it.

Let’s move on to some examples for our second key to flow state: Providing a clear goal and clear feedback.

To expect top-quality performance from your employees without clear guidance would be naive. We discussed before the extreme importance of allowing for creativity and autonomy within a position. But employers must set clear objectives for their employees and provide consistent feedback on employee efforts if they expect to keep workers engaged. To learn more about what this looks like in practice, we reached out to one of our colleagues, Curtis Kopf, from Premera Blue Cross.

With the help of Customerville’s Design-driven Feedback™ platform, Curtis’ team has revolutionized the way the healthcare industry thinks about customer experience. Their CX program, Premera Listens, has set the bar high for all other providers. Their obsession with putting the customer first is part of the reason that this program has been so successful. They make sure to capture comments and quotes in what they call ‘CustomerGrams’ that are displayed on ‘Walls of Fame’ throughout the office.

“It starts with listening… We get continuous customer feedback to help us get better and to celebrate when an employee is customer-obsessed,” Curtis told us.

He discussed how the teams meet as frequently as daily to review feedback and develop action plans. Premera uses every opportunity to set goals for every customer interaction all the way up to the enterprise level.

“Providing a great customer experience is part of our mission, our purpose, and our compensation structure. Our goal is to embed the customer voice into everything we do.”

Curtis also went on to talk about the importance of CX because of the nature of the healthcare industry. The Premera team is responsible for an outstanding customer experience in what often are some of their most stressful moments.

“The big win is that the customer feels like we’re in their corner and on their side.”

In our search for examples of clear goal-setting and feedback deeper within organizations, we spoke to CX thinker Alek Oleszkiewicz for some insights into how his teams manage this at the offices of tech-giant IBM.

We asked him about the hierarchy of goal-setting at IBM and he explained that they make it a priority to let managers who work directly with employees set these objectives. This allows for consistent and frequent feedback during day-to-day operations.

Even more important to them is celebrating the victories. Because IBM is a matrix organization, they are constantly meeting, allowing them to maintain this practice of setting clear goals for employees and providing them with feedback.

“On pretty much every ‘all-hands’ call people are recognized for their achievements. Plenty of opportunities to recognize people for various things and from different aspects of their work.”

Bringing these practices into your organization’s in-office culture will have benefits not only with customer interactions but also within internal teams and projects. Employees feed off of clear direction and feedback just as much as organizations depend on the feedback of their customers.

For our third Key to Flow State, we’ll discuss one of the most important points of Mihaly Cszicsentmihaly’s research.

“It must absorb one’s attention completely.”

Getting all of someone’s focus remains one of the most important factors of flow state but may be the hardest to obtain. This is why our next Key to Flow State is ‘Help them become immersed.’

For help with this concept, we reached out to two of our favorite CX thinkers at Microsoft, Terri Kingston and Stephen Sorenson.

When asked what her teams do to keep employees immersed in the customer experience, she had just the right example.

“One practice our leadership team has started is kicking-off all meetings with a ‘customer story.’ The idea is to get everyone thinking about customers first… before the business.”

By making the customer the priority, organizations like Microsoft ensure that the focus of their employees stays centered around what is most important. When an organization takes care to stress key components of the job like this, employees become more immersed in the task at hand.

What happens when you aren’t able to have face-to-face meetings on a daily or even weekly basis? Steven brought up a great point when he mentioned that many companies need to adapt to team members working from home or other offices within the organization.

“An in-person huddle or customer story is great when people are together… but I am seeing less of that and much greater global teaming with ongoing conversations on topics, work items, and initiatives. The very way we work is truly shifting from deliverables and tasks to fluid ongoing engagement with global counterparts.”

Steven highlights how adaptability on the part of the employer is key to keeping employees immersed. We cannot expect employees working from home to interact in the same way as those working in-office. Being able to accommodate these differences can be the game-changer for employers who want to keep their employees immersed in what they do. One might even argue that with all of the technology tools we have at our disposal today, employees are able to become more immersed than ever.

This brings us to our fourth and final key to flow state: Create a challenge. When given a challenge, employees almost always rise to the occasion, and it’s through experiences like this that they are able to become fully engaged. Creating this challenge can range from re-framing the job description and goals (as discussed in our book Design-driven Feedback™), to giving employees more responsibility, to keeping employees trained on the latest in the industry.

Maintaining the difficulty of employee responsibilities won’t alone make sure that they fall into that sweet spot of flow state. To learn a little more about challenging employees in the workplace, we spoke to a friend and longtime client, Mike Olson at Trek. As President of Trek Bicycle Superstores, Mike sells more Trek bikes than anyone on the planet; they’re the #1 Trek bike retailer in the country!

When we asked him how they were able to maintain these levels of sales, his response was simple.

“It’s not too different from being fast on the bike. LOTS OF TRAINING. A typical store employee gets about 2 hours of training each week.”

Mike even has an employee whose sole responsibility is to coordinate learning within their team and make sure that everyone is up to speed on the latest tech. Given how fast bike technology evolves, the team constantly meets with specialists from top parts manufacturers and Trek factory employees. They even have a quarterly “Trek Bike Superstore Academy” that consists of two full days of training, bike building, mechanics, etc.

Consistently providing the highest level of training challenges employees on Mike’s team on a regular basis to strive for mastery in their job, allowing them to stay more engaged than ever in their work.

When we reached out to Ruth Crowley, another friend of the business and VP of Customer Experience Design at Lowe’s, she made a very important point when it comes to training employees: you must also challenge and train the emotional component of the customer experience.

At Lowe’s, Ruth makes sure that teams are not only experienced on the technical side of things, but also in the social skills needed to give customers the best experience possible. In the case of home improvement, the customer often knows more about the subject at hand than the employee.

“Customers come into stores equipped with research and information that they’ve found online. As leaders, we need to help alleviate this tension associates feel and help them succeed with a human interaction.”

Making sure that you invest in challenging employees’ social skills can be just as important to success as giving them the technical prowess required to do their job.

“At the end of the day, people want to be respected and considered as individuals. If we demonstrate to associates that they are a part of something bigger, that’s a good start.”

To ensure that employees fall into flow state, employers must continue challenging them and pushing them to grow within their position. Letting employees fall into repetitive and monotonous rhythms at their job is a recipe for disaster.

With these 4 Keys to Flow State, you should be able to start guiding employees away from the boredom of unengaging work and toward achieving flow state. Although it is not an easy task, the payoff delivered by engaged workforce will be massive in organizations of all shapes and sizes.

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