Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gather round, children

I'm going to tell a little story about teamwork, and how I once had a job which operated in an environment that completely lacked it. Chapter eleven of our textbook is about teamwork and what makes an effective team. I had a job working for a company that had never heard the word before.

I probably shouldn't say the company's name, because I'm sure my employment there included some kind of nondisclosure agreement (because they knew the environment sucked), so I'll just call it Crappy & Slappy (no, it wasn't a law firm).

Crappy & Slappy made its money through a network of summer reading programs offered all over the country. Oddly enough, the programs usually approached five or six hundred dollars, and the areas that had the programs were often the poorest in the country (backwoods Louisiana, Tennessee, northeast Texas). My job was to answer the phone calls from people from all over the country, and con them into giving me their credit information.


About 40 new hires and I all trained together doing role-playing phone calls and such. On a related note, there is something you should know: whenever you call a phone number to a corporate call center like this one, you WILL NEVER get a straight answer from anyone. It's actually their job. Literally, I sat in front of a phone and a binder filled with responses to any question a customer could ask. My job was to BS them long enough to get their information.

So, in this environment, once we all had our cubicles and binders, none of us interacted. Ever. In fact, my boss, a short tan douche named Nolan (douche) discouraged us from even being in the break room together. He said, "here we focus on sales. That's it." As it turns out, people started quitting and getting fired (myself among the latter), primarily due to the miserable soul-crushing atmosphere of a job that discouraged interaction with anyone but the telephone. In fact, part of the job was comparing yourself to everyone else in the office, using tracking software that logs each call and sale. At the end of every month, they would "respectfully let go" all people outside of the top 80% of salespeople. This system sucked, because most people who called would get agitated and defensive when we followed the script and immediately asked them for their information. You'd then get a visit from Nolan, who is somehow capable of hearing every single phone call as it happens. Constantly having that troll breathing down your neck is enough to make you insane.

Granted, it would be difficult to turn a call center into a team-oriented atmosphere, but I definitely agree with the book's assessment that teamwork is vital to any company. The environment wasn't even cooperative. They actively made a good portion of the employees feel enslaved and hopeless. It was such an ineffective atmosphere, I'm surprised Crappy & Slappy is still in business (and they are).

So this brings me to a few concepts in chapter 11 in the book that this job completely failed to understand. First, there is socio-emotional cohesiveness, which is essentially a sense of togetherness in a group that comes from emotional satisfaction. Okay, this place actively CRUSHED our emotions. I don't think I ever saw someone smile in that place. There was no sense of togetherness based on emotional satisfaction, because we weren't really allowed to interact. That led to a lot of frustration and marginalized a lot of people's work. Second, instrumental cohesiveness was nonexistent in this place. This type of cohesiveness is characterized by a sense of togetherness that comes from mutual dependency in the workplace. We could barely count on management to let us off on time. We certainly couldn't rely on anyone else. Whether or not you made the sale was often entirely beyond your control. Some people called thinking they would make a purchase, and others called to ask questions and yell at us when we went into the sales pitch.

As I said before, it's understandably hard to imagine a call center having a solely team-oriented focus, but this environment made its employees feel constantly watched (which we were), and expendable (only 10% of salesmen are allowed to make it past one sales season). They motivated employees by working termination into the very fabric of employment, and forcing you to frantically focus on your own sales. This didn't make sense. We weren't allowed to help each other, and we became more demoralized as more employees were fired for their sales numbers and other nonsense. One person was fired because their average call length was a little longer than the target time of two minutes.

To be honest, after a while, none of us even trusted the company. We all felt that we were just a means to make sales and then get rid of. We all needed money, but this was demeaning, and a lot of people opted to quit rather than remain employed there. A number of people stormed out, claiming to report the company to various agencies. Having an environment where you don't trust your employer and can't interact with other employees is actually kind a scary idea.

Needless to say, this place doesn't want teams, they just want money.

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