Broken windows & the future of service inside your firm

When something doesn’t work at home, you might complain on Twitter or use your smartphone to report the problem. Or you’ll search for a solution on-line and fix the problem yourself.

But what do you do at work? Probably nothing.

At most companies, it’s simply too hard to fix small things. Every department has their own portal and their own number to call. It’s not nearly convenient enough, so you just live with the problem or leave it for the next person. And dissatisfaction and disengagement multiplies.

There’s a better way. And it may be more important than you think.

The Broken Windows theory

In 1982, two sociologists wrote an article that said, in essence, small breakdowns in a society, left untended, lead to bigger breakdowns.

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.”

One of the authors subsequently worked as a consultant to the NYC Transit Authority in the late 1980s, when they started to target graffiti and minor violations. Later, he influenced the Police Department, leading to NYC’s  “zero tolerance” and “quality of life” strategies that are widely seen to have significantly reduced both petty and serious crime.

Broken windows at work

While the debate continues about causation and correlation, most people agree that the Broken Windows theory matters because social cues matter. That is, “individuals look for signals within the environment as to the social norms in the setting and...one of those signals is the area's general appearance.”

What are the equivalents of graffiti and broken windows at work?

They're the broken speakerphone and missing network adapter in the conference room. The leaking sink and mis-set clock. The empty vending machine and the dirty pantry.

It’s an endless list of little things, typically in shared spaces, that are big enough to irritate someone but not so big that they’ll do much to report it or put much effort into fixing it themselves.

Those seemingly little issues add up to a culture where it’s okay for things not to work. And quality and productivity suffer as a result.

3 ways to modernize employee service

Improving customer support is a classic use case for social tools and practices. It’s not often applied inside the firm, but it could be. Here are 3 ways to improve service for employees.

Make it easy to report issues - and for service providers to engage: instead of every department having their own way to report a problem, social platforms let anyone post a simple complaint from their iPhone, iPad, or desktop. Those same platforms make it easy for the right people to listen, engage the person complaining, and fix the problem more quickly - all in a way that everyone else can observe. (Here's a recent example from BofA's customer service on Twitter.)

Let people help themselves: the internal helpdesks at your firm - from HR to IT to facilities - are anachronisms and almost pure waste. Each one consults their own knowledge base to handle endless phone calls and emails, largely the same questions over and over. Using a single collaboration platform instead boosts self-service by providing a universal set of on-line forums. That makes it easy for anyone to search for answers, provide feedback on the results, or ask their own questions.

Let people help each other: When the problem can’t be readily solved by a forum or by a service provider, it can be usually be solved if you find the right person. Here's where on-line, role-based communities are extremely valuable. They make it easy to get your question in front of relevant people and to identify experts on specific topics.

“Doesn’t anybody care?”

We have all of this at home. (We don't call the Google helpdesk. And, increasingly, even municipal governments are adopting social tools and practices to improve service.) We can and should have better service at work, too, because it’s better for the employees and better for the firm.

Responsive service inside the firm sets cues for the rest of the organization and shapes  the culture. It says:

“We care about our workplace. We care about our employees. We care about the quality of our products and the service we provide for our customers.”