Teams: A Thorny Problem in the Call Center Workplace

Most call center managers accept the merits of forming teams in the call center environment. It's hard to review an annual report without reading the word "team" in every other paragraph. Almost all corporations have T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. proudly logoed with "team so-and-so."

And what kind of ingrate would dare accept a call center award without giving credit to his call center team? Honestly, have you ever heard someone at the annual awards banquet say anything other than "I accept this award on behalf of my team. I couldn’t have done it without them." It would be un-American not to do so.

Teams can significantly improve overall performance in business and indeed at call centers. Consider the monumental study by Condly, Clark and Stolovitch at the University of Southern California. Their research revealed that teams can increase performance by twice that of individual efforts.

This conclusion cannot be ignored by business and call center managers as it clearly represents a huge potential for increased outcomes derived from team efforts.

Team Based Culture in the Call Center Environment

Call centers are particularly susceptible to encouraging the formation of workplace teams. It’s hard not to see team posters everywhere. One call center manager recently bragged to me about the 20 teams she had assembled. She said, "Everyone just loves being included in a team project." That makes sense to me. I have always liked the concept of teams in the call center workplace.

It seems self-evident that being included in a team at a call center would build morale (whatever the heck that is) and encourage low performers to strive harder to meet group goals. You know, kind of like group work restriction in reverse. So, I stipulate that everyone (including me) likes the team concept. But does liking something necessarily mean that it contributes to the achievement of organizational goals, specifically within the call center?

Experiments in Call Center Team Organization

When I was a young behavioral researcher at Texas Instruments, I conducted several workplace experiments using team goals to decrease absenteeism. I got some positive results in the short term and in the long term, employees who previously had good attendance kept doing so. The problem was that the people with historically poor attendance returned to their old habits and started missing more work than before the team program was instigated. It was a bag of mixed results.

I know now there are advantages and disadvantages to organizing teams in the call center. Before you rush to your call center and start placing people in teams, there are some problems you must be cognizant of or you will run into big trouble and be disappointed with the results.

Social Loafing and How It Will Affect Call Center Representative Performance

The first problem is the sticky issue known as social loafing. This phenomenon was reported in a study by Kit Williams and Stephen Carollo in 1995. Social loafing occurs when some team members reduce their efforts because they don't think their contributions will be noticed. Even worse, high performers who think, many times correctly, they are carrying the load for low performers become discouraged and will not produce as much.

When social loafing occurs in a call center, teams produce less than the previous collective efforts of the individuals. Equally bad, high performers will be resentful that their rewards have been compromised by their "loafing" call center team members.

The Triumph of the Individual

I learned this lesson painfully as a new professor at the University of Wyoming. I placed students into semester-long project teams to diagnose real-world business problems and write reports recommending solutions. They were told in advance the same grade would be issued to all team members. Wow, this caused a major uproar! I was told in no uncertain terms by the traditional "A" students that they were doing all the work and the other team members were getting the same grade. As one angry student said, "I want an ‘A’ in this class to increase my chances of getting into a good graduate school. It just ticks me off that I have to work twice as hard to carry the lazy ‘C’ students. It’s not fair!"

Although I still think it was a good opportunity for students to work and learn from each other, in the end I came to believe the desire of the individual to achieve and be rewarded trumped the desire to work as a team.

Competition Helps Call Center Representative Performance

A second potential problem with call center teams is that team formation usually implies competition with other teams. A study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and reported by Druckman and Bjork concludes a little competition is healthy and can spice up performance and reward programs but constant rivalry can direct employee efforts away from achievement of organizational goals towards a sub-goal of subverting other teams. Their conclusion was that a little competition in short bursts is healthy but it must be used judiciously.

All of this tells us that the issue of teams in the workplace is an enigmatic matter, a double-edged sword. There are promising advantages, but not without potential problems. If you're going to use teams in your call center, here are my recommendations. One, be certain to establish teams which reward individual call center representative’s effort as well as the achievements of the entire call center team. This procedure will help counteract negative consequences of call center social loafing. Two, teams should be established for short-term projects which benefit from group effort and thinking and then should be disbanded. Doing so will minimize the potential for counterproductive group rivalries.

I still fundamentally like the concept of teams but if I have to bet on team effort versus personal effort in a call center environment, I think I will continue to put my money on the indomitable desire of the human spirit to be recognized as an individual.

  • Condly, Steven, Clark, Richard, Stolovitch, The Effects of Incentives on Workplace Performance: A Meta-analytic Review of Research Studies, Harold, Performance Improvement Quarterly, 16(3) PP.46-63
  • Druckman, Daniel, and Robert Bjork, eds 1994 Learning, Remembering, and Believing: Enhancing Human Performance. Washington, D.C. National Academy Press
  • Williams, Kip, and Karau, Steven. 1991. "Social Loafing and Social Compensation: The Effects of Expectations of Coworker Performance." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61: 570-581