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Am I Getting The Most Out Of My Employees?

A CCW Digital Analysis

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Matt Wujciak


In 2012, Ryan W. Buell, UPS Foundation Associate Professor of Service Management at the Harvard Business School and some colleagues ran an experiment in the Annenberg Hall dining facility at Harvard, which serves more than 3,000 meals every day. 

Annenberg was built in the late 1800s at a time when it was considered ill-mannered for diners to be able to see the work taking place in the kitchen. So the chefs can’t see the customers, and the customers can’t see the chefs. The point of the experiment was to see the effect of operational transparency (in this case, the chefs and customers being able to see each other) had on productivity. 

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When they used iPads that allowed chefs to see their customers, customer satisfaction with the food rose 14%. When they turned on the iPads so the customers could see the chefs too, satisfaction went up 22%. And the chefs worked 19% faster

What's driving employee motivation?

What does Buell’s study teach us? 

I focused on the CSAT side of this experiment in a previous article. (Operational transparency is undoubtedly a viable tactic in increasing customer experience. When customers saw the chefs cooking their food, they perceived that more effort went into serving them, they appreciated the effort, and they valued the service more).

But I also want to shed light on the employee side of this experiment, and what it says about the behavioral economics of today’s workforce. 

The 19% increase in the chef’s productivity brings up an interesting psychological discussion on a shift in what drives today’s employees (or in this particular case study, the chefs). As automation continues to dominate operations behind the vast majority of customer experiences, both customers and employees desire some form of human contact throughout the process.

Just as we’ve evolved to responsible consumerism and authenticity, today’s employees want to see value behind their work, which ultimately drives performance. 

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When the chefs could see their customers—the people who were benefiting from their efforts—the work they were doing seemed more appreciated and impactful, making them more satisfied with their jobs and more willing to work as a team, manage time and resources more effectively, and exert a greater deal of sheer effort to enhance the dining experience for their customers. 

IBM's top skills in demand

Not only that. The change in today’s employees’ interests and motivational factors (combined with readily available automation and technology) is affecting what employers are seeking. 

IBM’s latest study of 4,500 business leaders recently revealed three top skills areas CEOs now want: innovation and creativity, time management and resilience, and communication and teamwork. 

Interestingly, all three of these are not technical “hard” skills, like data literacy. While such hard skills are still in high demand, automation is able to complement these competencies more efficiently. Instead, IBM’s top three skills are soft skills that involve human contact and emotional intelligence. 

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In other words, today’s employers want those chefs who are willing to figure out how to increase productivity because they’re seeing the human waiting on the other end of the line.  

According to HR Executive, here’s why: 

“These fundamental business skills are the human gold left over once we’ve found operational efficiencies through intelligent automation [and AI] of process-heavy jobs.”

Moving forward

As Shep Hyken, Customer Experience WSJ/NYT bestselling author and CEO of Shepard's Presentations recently told us:

"AI will continue to make customer support better, but not just from interacting with customers. AI will be used to help agents [and other employees] deliver a better experience that is personalized and relevant to the customer."

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The question going forward is how can we utilize and record accurate inventory of employee soft skills to work with automation (i.e. emotional intelligence) and productivity driving factors (i.e. operational efficiency and psychological motivation)? And more importantly, how can we marry the two?