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Using Values as the Blueprint

July 1, 2005
by Phil Evans
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The optimal workplace is designed to emphasize and maximize the organization's mission and culture

Walking into ProtoCall's call center before its recent renovation, ones first impression might have been that it looked "homey". Our staff sat at freestanding oak desks with green-shaded bankers lamps. We liked this arrangement because people weren’t separated by square panels or cubicles. However, it was als o dark, with fluorescent lights that were never turned on. It had low ceilings and was created from several separate rooms with an occasiona l wall knocked down to connect spaces. As a visitor, you certainly wouldn't have been able to discern very much about our mission or t he quality of our work by looking at our facility.

ProtoCall is a third-party provider of behavioral health call-center services for clients of EAPs and other behavioral health programs across the country. Our 85 masters- and doctorate-level clinicians field more than 40,000 calls a month on behalf of 160 organizations, anywhere in the country, at any time, day or night. It's complex, often unpredictable, and emotionally demanding work. No wonder that after nearly 13 years, ProtoCall still has few counterparts or competitors.

By 2003, ProtoCall's growth generated the need for an expanded and updated facility. The fundamental question for management was how to create congruence between a design that addresses the practical aspects of efficient work flow and also makes a statement about organizational values. Too often, work spaces are the result of incremental decisions over time. Even when growth is well planned and efficient, too little attention often is paid to how the design of a workspace influences the values and attitudes of the people who work in them. This was our chance to address both.

Our most important step was to make the connection between facility design and the critical components of both our work flow and the values that drive our service delivery. We found three broad areas of functionality that needed to be addressed:

  • Ergonomic support for long shifts of emotionally demanding work. Our clinicians are multitasking during their calls simultaneously documenting their calls, accessing crucial procedural information, and engaging callers in the clinical assessment and intervention. Thus, our space needed to make our work easier on our eyes, bodies, and hearts.
  • Employee retention. ProtoCall's workforce is highly trained and specialized—and difficult to replace. Our learning curve is steeper than most work environments. In addition to their clinical expertise, our staff are representing our customer s on every call. In other words, we are someone else’s first impression, and that adds a big layer of complexity. So we wanted space t hat would make each of us a little more proud of what we do for our customers and callers each day.
  • Teamwork. When handling a suicidal caller, for example, a clinician may need to get a supervisor’s or colle ague’s attention, so visual access is important. During downtime, employees need to unwind and build relationships with each other. Th erefore, our facility’s ability to encourage, even force, more interaction with others was an important consideration.

We’ve increased our call center’s physical capacity by more than 50% within the same square footage. This will significantly improve our future cost structures and will be enough to justify the entire expense within a few years. But more importantly, we sent a variety of powerful messages about who we are as an organization. For example, our new open floor plan is more congruent with our desired culture of trust and openness.

No longer do our clinicians wo rk at inexpensive oak desks with keyboard trays that frequently break and can’t be adjusted. Our new, albeit much more expensive, furn iture is ergonomic, fully adjustable, and expandable, and has a 12-year, three-shift warranty. By investing in flat-screen monitors, better lighting, more ergonomic chairs and desks, and a more comfortable break room, we’re attending better to the basic needs of our employe es. These upgraded fixtures and furniture also underscore our sense of pride in the quality and professionalism that we bring to our work.
Some important lessons that we learned during this process: