Receivable/Accounts - Information for Credit and Collection Issues

Monday, April 15, 2013

Escape From Cubicle Hell

I had a client come to our office the other day, and ask "where are the cubicles?"  Which is not the first time I have been asked this, nor the last time I would engage in a rant against the cubicle environment for call centres, and collection agencies in particular.  It's unfortunate that the outside perception of a call center has a preconceived image of staff huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, droning on the phone in a sea of headsets.  I think that a business environment like a call centre or collection agency that uses a cube farm template is harming their most important component -- the people who work in them.

The Rise and Fall of the Cube Farm

The original design for office cubicles is generally attributed to Robert Probst of Herman Miller, an office equipment manufacturer and the design that he suggested for Intel took off in 1967. The design was referred to as an Action Office design.

What's really interesting is that the cubicle was originally intended to level the playing field for employees, and move all levels of staff to an equalized environment.  However, Intel, who were one of the front-runners of the cubicle movement, has cut back on their cubicle wall heights and increased open office space to entice younger and more progressive staff in recent years.

Now companies like VALVe are espousing communal work spaces, and returning to what existed before the cubicle ... desks or workstations in open areas.  Take a look at some of their office space here:

So if cubicles are on the decline in more progressive environments, why hasn't the call centre industry gotten the memo?

Call Centres and Noise Flow

When a person is speaking, their voice flows from their mouth in a cone-like emanation.  If the sound from their mouth hits a surface, it either bounces or is absorbed, depending on the material.  When you put a lot of people in one room and have them constantly speaking, such as a call centre environment, a lot of noise is flowing, bouncing off walls, and being heard by others.  I believe many business owners and call centre architects tend to lose track of this "noise space", in a desperate desire to cram as many bodies into one space as possible.  Sound can bounce around cubicles and travel up to the ceiling.  Staff members pointed directly at each other , or seated too close to each other, can have sound interfere with their co-workers ability to function.

It's not about people-space, it's about noise-space.  A room or office or call centre can only accommodate so much noise before the people inside it are overwhelmed, distracted, or stressed from ambient noise from their co-workers.  The answer isn't fancy noise-cancelling headsets, special ceiling tiles made of noise-absorbing material, or playing muzak in the background, it's about spending at most a few hundred dollars per staff member per year to give them a floor print with sufficient space to allow them to do their job well.  This might mean having a larger workspace, multiple floors, or even more than one office location.

In an area of critical mass of staff members, the cost of the office space is dwarfed by the cost of your manpower -- why would you not invest a marginal amount to building a better environment?  Small concessions to minimize ambient noise, increase comfort of the team, and create a positive work space are all within a company's grasp.  This goes a long way to the productivity of your staff, which will pay for the marginal increases to overhead, and then some.

I'm not the only one thinking this.  There's an interesting paper that I came across evaluating cubicles vs. open office space at Honda, and it addressed, noise, stress, and illness in that environment:

Environmental Issues Specific to Collection Agencies

Collections is a weird, weird world with its own idiosyncrasies.  A lot of our business is based on presentation of services, the mentality and work ethic of our staff, and the quality of human services.

I would think, if you are creating an environment where you are empowering your staff to operate in a position of authority when dealing with consumers and companies owing money, you would support that environment with furnishings that reinforce, not detract, from that staff member's authority and power.  Also, if  you want a collaborate environment, walls isolate management and co-workers from each other, stifling teamwork and the organic exchange of ideas. 

I would also think, for a positive work environment, you would not want to build a floor plan that reinforces stiff hierarchies amongst staff members, cut off employees with half-walls to allow aberrant behaviour, or reduce the concept of productivity to a KPI spreadsheet at the end of each day.

Our industry, at its heart, is the act of one human being interacting with another, to arrange the exchange of money.  We should certainly not lose sight of that when we work alongside our teammates and co-workers, as our personal interactions make a stronger company.


So, if you are ready to employ millenials, increase productivity, and embrace the 21st century, take Intel's example, and tear down those cubicles!  Your improvement in productivity will pay back the remodelling costs and then some.

If you have any questions about the management of noise levels, call centre environments, or the impact of environment on a collection team, I'm more than happy to talk about it.  Give me a call at my office, at 226-946-1730.

Blair DeMarco-Wettlaufer
Kingston Data and Credit
Cambridge, Ontario

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