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Create equitable experiences to empower your employees

In our new hybrid and work-from-home work world, successful collaboration requires new tools to facilitate communication and innovation.

In association withRingCentral

Across industries and geographies, the pandemic has triggered a paradigm shift in the way companies—and their employees—conduct day-to-day business. The move to work-from-home and hybrid work models has increased the need for collaboration to facilitate communication and innovation from remote locations, and to keep teams connected and engaged when in-person meetings are difficult or impossible.

Successful collaboration requires creating an equitable experience for all team members, says Faiza Hughell, RingCentral's chief customer officer. “Participant equity is predicated on the ability to empower your employees with the tools, technologies, and programs they need to reach success, to remain productive at all times,” she explains.

And it’s more important than ever for companies to evaluate the new technologies teams are implementing to ensure they are facilitating the desired outcomes, as well as to assess a particular technology’s potential application to other areas and teams in the company. “In a sales organization, for example, certain teams may have access to certain tools that increase their productivity. Well guess what? Other teams might be able to benefit from that as well,” says Hughell. “It's important when we bring in new technologies that we negotiate our contracts such that they're flexible, so we can determine who needs the technology.”

When evaluating new technologies to drive and support distributed workforces, Hughell suggests paring up individuals, which not only helps people learn, but drives adoption of the new technology and helps the company assess whether it’s bringing the expected results. “I always tell my leaders inspect what you expect. Don't just buy a piece of technology, roll it out and expect miracles to happen,” she says. “You have to drive adoption and usage, and you might find that it was the wrong technology and it's not serving your desired outcome or purpose, at which point, make that decision as a leader to fast fail and move on.”

The most important best practice is to do what’s necessary to empower your employees to succeed. Providing libraries of bite-size instruction videos, for instance, can help team members learn specific features of new technology related to their work, without having to sit through long training sessions. Creating the atmosphere of learning and collaboration is as important to a company’s success as implementing the new technology. “At the end of the day,” says Hughell, “if you can show someone that you're going to help empower their success and help increase their productivity and reduce friction in their day-to-day operation, not many people would argue with that.”

This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with RingCentral.

Full transcript

Laurel Ruma: From MIT Technology Review, I'm Laurel Ruma and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace. Our topic today is building a culture of collaboration and innovation. Regardless of where your employees and customers are located, the pandemic has highlighted the need for all employees to collaborate, contribute, and innovate everywhere, and the same proves true for customers as more companies move to a hybrid workforce model, but the need for communication increases.

Two words for you: collaboration first.

My guest is Faiza Hughell, who is RingCentral's chief customer officer.

This episode of Business Lab is produced in association with RingCentral.

Welcome Faiza.

Faiza Hughell: Thank you so much for having me.

Laurel: As a chief customer officer at RingCentral, how do you define your role in the organization and in industry as a whole?

Faiza: I define the role of a chief customer officer as one that serves both customers and employees. It's a critical role, as I think tying the needs, the desires of the customer, to the innovation and the strategies and the go-forward plans of any organization, are critical to any company's success. All the while being mindful that every company's success is also predicated on happy, enthusiastic, eager, and hungry employees.

Laurel: I like to say technology is easy, it's people that are hard. How do people, employees, and customers alike need to change the way that they think to focus on collaborating online first? What are the benefits?

Faiza: Absolutely, great question. I've been a collaboration leader for almost 30 years, selling communication, collaboration technologies, and the one thing I found, and I think this is regardless of what role you serve in any organization or even in life for that matter, is that life is very situational. People are very situational. And it's so important, especially now in this environment, to handle things on a case-by-case situation. Someone may be dealing with a challenge because it's something that's new to them. They may be a star in other areas of their work or their business, but they might be facing a challenge that's brand new, and you really have to coach and manage to that specific situation and keep the conversation focused on the desired outcome. In doing that, your employees, your customers feel that they've been heard, they feel that they've been supported and they don't feel less than. I think that's an important thing in today's environment.

Laurel: Yeah. Especially in the context of the pandemic, we have found ourselves in these situations, whether it's a doorbell ringing or a child crying, our days are not the same as they used to be. Those hungry employees, they're excited, ready to work for the customers and have great outcomes, but it's not always so easy now.

Faiza: Yeah. In fact, I think it's a lot more difficult to access people, to access technologies, to access programs, to get people to be together. Gone are the days of just walking to Bill's office to say, "We've got an issue." Now you've got to track Bill down virtually.

Laurel: So, when we think about the move to hybrid work, and this does seem to be quite a shift in the way that companies are working now, there's a different set of challenges, especially making sure that all employees have equal access to communication and collaboration platforms. RingCentral calls this “participant equity.” Could you tell us more about this idea?

Faiza: Participant equity is really predicated on the ability to empower your employees with the tools that they need, the technologies they need, the programs that they need, to reach success, to remain productive at all times. And I'll tell you, it’s important—I’ve seen it firsthand. I'll give you an example: in a sales organization, certain teams may have access to certain tools that really increase their productivity. Well guess what? Other teams might be able to benefit from that as well. It's really important when we bring in new technologies that we negotiate our contracts such that they're flexible. So we can determine who needs the technology, who's not needing the technology.

Faiza: And we usually track that through usage at RingCentral. I can actually see who's using what, and if it's beneficial to them. I like to really dive down and swim with my fish. It's the only way to know what's happening with the current and understand how are these technologies empowering your success? How are you using them? And I like to pair those people with other people in the organization who may not be seeing that same benefit so they can get mentored and coached and hey, look, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Not all technologies are one size fits all.

Laurel: Yeah. And that's a really good way of framing it, too. It's not like everyone's looking to see what you're doing and how much time you're spending on various programs or platforms. It's really just to maximize people's effectiveness and, as you said, to improve in areas where we may not be as strong. And so having that ability to look at a platform and a number of different usage stats to bring people together certainly does not just benefit each individual, but the organization overall.

Faiza: Oh, absolutely. And I have found at times that we've deployed technologies that we've invested greatly in and only a third of the population are using it through these brown bag lunch sessions. Through partnering and pairing people up, we've gotten usage to increase and, therefore, productivity increases. And our outcome, our goals are achieved as a byproduct of that motion. So it's really important. I always tell my leaders inspect what you expect. Don't just buy a piece of technology, roll it out, and expect miracles to happen. You have to drive adoption and usage, and you might find that it was the wrong technology and it's not serving your desired outcome or purpose—at which point, make that decision as a leader to fast fail and move on.

Laurel: Oh, that's great advice there. So what are some of those best practices that teams can deploy for creating that equitable experience, whether it's a brown bag lunch or something else?

Faiza: I think in addition to sharing the best practices, it's really important that people have different modes of learning. I've got a handful of reps in my team that don't necessarily have the bandwidth or time to sit through multiple-hour, live, in-person or instructor-led sessions. Sometimes people miss those training sessions, too. So, it's so important that you manage your content. When you're rolling out some new technology, do have that live training, do record that training, and break it down into some small bite-size pieces of things you know people might struggle with the most, rather than having to go back and listen to a whole two-hour session.

Faiza: Create a library that your employees can go access, like a two-minute sound bite on something specific, a specific feature within the technology. And you'll find that people are more likely to adapt to it. It's just like customers: you sell to customers the way they want to buy, you service customers the way they need to be served. Well, that same approach has to be applied to the employee as well. You have to make sure you're creating an atmosphere where it's conducive to all styles and modes of learning and allows them to get information quickly without having to look in a million different places and invest a great deal of time.

Laurel: Yeah. And that's for on-the-spot learning and needs. How do you inspire that innovation spirit as well in these collaboration platforms?

Faiza: I think it's about storytelling. Just like when I was in sales, we would do a lot of storytelling to customers, sharing how the RingCentral platform has empowered our other customer success. Would you like to learn about doing that within your business? It's how you bring the value. You have to bring your value to your customers, and you have to bring the value to your employees as well. It's the old “what's in it for me.” And I think in today's world where people are moving so fast and there's so much opportunity at everybody's fingertips, you really have to hone in on why it matters and why should it be important and why should it be prioritized.

Faiza: At the end of the day, if you can show someone that you're going to help empower their success and help increase their productivity and reduce friction in their day-to-day operation, not many people would argue with that. And I think we forget sometimes that even as employees, there might be 10 tools you can use. Some people prefer an old-fashioned method, some people are really tech savvy and quick adopters. Again, it becomes situational. You've got to be able to manage the two different classes of individuals.

Laurel: So, when we talk about innovation with customers, do you have an example or two of how customers are working in different ways with collaboration platforms?

Faiza: Absolutely. So, I've been selling collaboration and communication for over 28 years. I have seen a lot of different ways, but most recently I launched a customer gratitude series over the Thanksgiving holiday, just an opportunity to put some spotlight on my customers and the great work they're doing. It's really amazing to see how people have pivoted to collaboration technology. We were in a customer advisory board meeting with Fire Medical, one of my customers, talking about how they were leveraging RingCentral video to help provide training for the respiratory equipment. Especially in this pandemic world, with all the people that have gotten deathly ill around us, stopping business operations for a company like that is just a disgusting thought.

Faiza: However, it was a really rewarding feeling to hear about how they were able to pivot from in-person training on their medical devices and equipment to training virtually via RingCentral video. That company did not miss a beat. They were able to move to a work-from-home environment, with zero interruption to their business, and they were able to serve their customers and get that medical equipment out and ensure their customers and end users were trained on how to use those devices. And it gives me goosebumps to think about how many lives were saved because of this company and their use of this technology. It's a humbling experience when you hear those stories.

Laurel: Yeah. And I think we, especially during the pandemic, think about the need and perhaps have always thought, well, health care and the pharmaceutical industries have been a bit behind all the fast-moving tech, and how can we move everything faster, but to be fair, this is a very high-touch industry that has protocols, needs, and regulations all in place. And to find a way to actually shift that so quickly to have everything online is actually quite an accomplishment. And although we see that as maybe an innovation that was in years in the making, they still had to do it, and as you said, pivot, and then succeed with it. So, it's not just one part of the equation; it's really all of those pieces coming together.

Faiza: Absolutely.

Laurel: So, we sort of have that internal experience with innovation and how we can help folks collaborate and communicate better inside of a company. And then we have the ability for various customer do excellent things with innovation. How does customer experience also evolve and improve with these kinds of collaboration platforms?

Faiza: That's a great question. We've been deploying a lot of things here at RingCentral to make sure that we're able to cast a wide net and meet all of our customer needs and demands, especially in the height of the pandemic, where companies were having to pivot to full work-from-home environments. You can only imagine the number of questions they had. In fact, I've been talking to a lot of customers who've recently deployed our contact center technologies, and the feedback I'm getting is how blown away they are at the benefits that they've seen from productivity gains, being able to manage with good, intelligent data and reporting, the productivity of their employees during a business day, and their takeaway is that, wow, we deployed this because of having to pivot to work from home. However, we realized now we needed this all along; these technologies are super powerful.

Faiza: So, I think collaboration comes in many forms across all of our platforms here at RingCentral. It's not just video and video collaboration. While I will say it's been so fun to take part in some of the customer and employee sessions that have taken place, to continue to keep culture and energy alive and empowering that human connection via video has been amazing. But our other technologies and the stories I hear from customers and how they're collaborating using our other technologies, such as our contact center or messaging platform, have been really refreshing as well. A lot of companies have pivoted to really an immersive experience in the full unified communications platform that RingCentral offers. In fact, I was speaking to a customer yesterday. They participated in our Small Business School Challenge. When the pandemic hit, RingCentral stood up a lot of programs to help our small and medium-size business (SMB) customers.

Faiza: 22% of SMBs had to permanently close their doors in the height of the pandemic. And we tried our very best to help empower our customers and ensure that they were able to continue business operations. One thing we did is we launched the Small Business School Challenge, where we were pairing our small business customers with MBA grads from reputable universities to help pivot their business and strategies. Catching up with one of those customers who participated in that event yesterday, he has actually instituted some permanent practice in his small business, leveraging online stores, leveraging QR codes, where people can scan a QR code to schedule a virtual meeting using RingCentral video, a meeting that would've otherwise been something that they would've walked into their storefront for. It's really, really cool to see. In fact, he's shared with me since the big hit in 2020, fast forward to now, his business has grown tremendously as a result of that.

Faiza: And I couldn't put any more emphasis on the importance of innovation. He was open-minded. He was willing to try new things. He was willing to pivot some strategies, and he's now, fast forward, operating his business in what I would consider a hybrid format. His old brick-and-mortar business practice of people coming into his storefront, married now with virtual meetings, and he's able to serve more customers as a result of it. So, his business actually grew as a result of that innovation and the leveraging of these different platforms.

Laurel: I think everyone loves hearing those types of stories of how people and companies have come through this. And I'm glad you mentioned SMB, the small and medium-size businesses, because it is one of those areas that obviously were hit very hard during the pandemic, but people tend to maybe overlook like, oh, what could you possibly be doing for innovation as a small business? But that is a very good example of something that actually happened, and the results are tangible. What other kinds of interesting and surprising pivots did you see?

Faiza: I touched on contact center earlier; that seemed to be the most popular one as I set out to reach out to and connect with customers of all sizes over the last few months. Companies like the likes of Medifast all the way through World Vision—I've done a ton of interviews. I even interviewed a customer recently whose organization puts on dog shows and taking those live, in-person dog shows and those events that people loved and looked forward to, for all those fur lovers out there, and taking that online and seeing a great deal of success. So, whether it be medical equipment, whether it be dog shows, whether it be humanitarian efforts, I've seen all different customers of RingCentral make some serious pivots over the last 12 to 24 months. And it's really, really refreshing to see the innovation that's gone on there. And just how deeply RingCentral's technology has empowered their success to do business in new ways.

Faiza: We joke here internally in my organization, "I survived a meeting that could have been a message." You have to have a balance. Certain things can't be done via instant messenger, or certain things can't be done via phone calls. Sometimes you really have to have a meeting, share screens, look at content together, and come to decisions. However, how many times have we all sat in a meeting for an hour that could have just been a quick exchange of messages? So, I really encourage people to just take a moment of pause and think about the desired outcome, the situation, what the problem is, what are you trying to tackle, and really put some thought into what flavor or mode of communication you really want to take to make sure that you can solve that problem, you can get through that collaboration effectively and move forward.

Faiza: I sit through a lot of group messages in our messaging platform, and I'm constantly finding myself having to say, "Team, this should be a meeting or a live discussion. You're not going to solve it here." And it's funny because I think over messaging, people want to do it because it's fast, and that's great, but sometimes fast isn't the right approach. You really have to put more thought into it, and that requires deeper collaboration. So, part of me really has always been in love with RingCentral because it's empowered my life as a working parent. I'm always on the go. I love the fact that I can be sitting here in a conversation like this with you today. I can flip to my mobile device, throw it on mute, if I had to, cook something for my son real quick, run back upstairs.

Faiza: I think as parents, we're all finding ourselves in these unique situations. Sometimes you're in a video meeting and it runs long. I can turn off the camera, I can flip it to my mobile device, make it to the school to pick up my son and be back home, and no one knows, and I haven't missed a beat, and I've been connected. Right now, I think the way the world is operating, we're having to stretch ourselves in ways we wouldn't have imagined otherwise. And with the right technology, with the right innovation and the right collaboration, it's possible.

Faiza: While, I'm excited about this, I do like to remind people, especially those working parents out there, don't forget to take care of you and get some self-time in there. Self-care time is so important, and you've got to balance it all some way, somehow. And it's a trying time, I think, for us also. I've been encouraging people to, while you're leveraging those collaboration and collaborative technologies, while you're driving innovation in this hybrid world, make sure that you're taking some pause and some time for self-care as well.

Laurel: Absolutely. And perhaps that would come in the form of watching a dog show. So how can emerging technologies, because as you said, we're talking about innovation and this is certainly a new technology to some folks, and other folks have been part of this world and this process for a long time, but emerging technologies like chatbots and artificial intelligence, how are those playing a role in collaboration platforms and call centers to help customers find those efficiencies, save time, and save money?

Faiza: As I move forward in 2022 for my own organization, I'm really focusing on three imperatives. I actually took this from a BCG, Boston Consulting Group, article recently about embedded structural resilience. Understanding the potential service request along two dimensions. You've got the predictability of demand, which is the volume of service requests that come into an organization, and then you've got to also manage that in conjunction with the complexity of resolution. So you have to consider business continuity, you have to consider global scale, and again, customers want to buy the way they want to buy, and they want to be served the way they need to be served. So, how do you get a preemptive and responsive model working congruently? It's interesting because as I do research on this, I found for higher complexity requests, that when they call into service organizations, 45% of call time is considered dead air; it's because it's a complex thing. Your agents are having to go find information.

Faiza: So, how do you solve for that? Well, you solve for that by arming your agents with bionic capabilities. You really have to augment with these bionic capabilities, invest deeply in their enablement, make sure that they're trained to handle complex situations. And then you leverage AI technologies, automation, and self-service technologies to really augment the less complex needs through modes of self-service. So, I've been deploying a lot of chatbots and self-service tools here at RingCentral myself. I want to put information at my customer's hands in as real time as possible. If they have a simple need, they have a simple question, I want that information at their fingertips. We live in a self-service world. Who doesn't want to just self-serve? We'd all prefer it. When you go to the movie theater nowadays, you don't wait in line to talk to the gentleman or the young lady behind the counter.

Faiza: You go to the teller and you swipe your credit card and you say, "I need four tickets to Sing 2," and you get your tickets and you enter the movie theater. It's just the world we live in. My Costco recently put in some self-service lines, and I was thrilled. I am that person who can go to Costco and buy only two things, if you can believe it, and I don't want to wait in long lines where people have those big, giant carts stacked to the top with things. I love being able to breeze through that self-service line. So, the same with technologies and technology buyers. It's all about automation through digital self-service, augmenting your team with bionic capabilities so they can really, really focus in on the more complex strategic needs of the customer. And that allows us at the end of the day, to flex our human capacity with new workforce models, and that's become even more important in today's world.

Laurel: I have a small confession here. I worked for a time in a call center, helping customers plan their European travel by train. So, I can attest to that dead air as I scrambled to look up schedules and maps and timetables for everyone to get to where they needed to go. And that opportunity for self-service is just so empowering, as you said, for the customer themselves. But it also helps the agent to know that when a call does come through, they can help in the absolute best way possible because they know this person has most likely looked at all other opportunities and they just kind of need that one-on-one help. I feel that can be a lot more satisfaction for even the people working in the call centers because you're at a higher level of service as well.

Faiza: Absolutely. I'd love to quote some stats from this article, if you don't mind.

Laurel: Sure.

Faiza: They say here that companies report by implementing these AI-driven knowledge-based tools, they've improved their first contact resolution by 5 to 7%, reduced call handling time by 20%, and reduced new hire training by 25 to 40%. And I'm seeing that myself as I'm deploying these different tools as well. It's interesting. I've deployed a lot of self-service tools, which means my less complex situations are now being handled through our knowledge base. Our customers are able to access that information themselves. So, I'm actually seeing my first call resolution not go up, but it's going down slightly, and that's actually a good thing. Some people might panic about that; I'm not. It means that the self-service tools I've implemented are working, and my team is now handling the more complex cases that require a little bit more time for resolution.

Faiza: And that's the balance that I was really trying to strike, was rather than hiring, I have a huge call center of support agents, rather than adding hundreds or thousands more agents, can I offset with some self-service tools? Put information in real time in customers’ hands and empower the 2,000-plus agents I have to just deal one on one with customers, give them the due attention they need to really solve the more complex issues. The answer is, yes, it's working brilliantly. I'm only a quarter in on this journey and I am so thrilled with the results I'm seeing early in the game. I get goosebumps thinking about what this is going to look like a year from now. I can't wait to see it come to fruition.

Laurel: Oh, that's excellent. Speaking of future looking, how are you advising customers to think about collaboration and innovation in the next couple, two or three years?

Faiza: Yeah. It's interesting; it's a great question. So, RingCentral has always been the work-from-anywhere company pre-pandemic. I myself have been a hybrid employee since 2015. Our taglines have always been work from anywhere, on any mode, in any device. I can't tell you how many meetings I've joined from mountaintops, lakeside, beachside. I'm an avid traveler. I've loved RingCentral's technology because it's empowered my personal life. But I think as we move forward, people will take some of this with them. So, it's a really important time to make sure that we continue to put the right technologies in people's hands. We continue to empower them, but also leverage it to power that human connection. It's really hard. I think we can all agree to team build, to bond, to build culture in this environment.

Faiza: We can't lose sight of that. I really encourage people to stay close to it. I recently participated in a virtual charades game with one of our teams. It was really a lot of fun. We enjoyed ourselves. It's something that even as we move forward, I've been thinking about. If tomorrow everything were to open back up and go back to in person, nothing ever was truly in person, if you think about it. You always had some remote employees. And there were always moments where somebody might be left out of something because they live in Nebraska or they live in Illinois. Now I've come to find that there's so many other things we could have been doing to include those people in these team building and culture building activities for employees. So I'd say, it's important to keep both moving forward. It's an interesting time, it really is.

Laurel: So much opportunity. Faiza, thank you so much for joining us today on the Business Lab. This has been such a great conversation.

Faiza: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Laurel: That was Faiza Hughell, the chief customer officer at RingCentral, whom I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River. That's it for this episode of Business Lab, I'm your host, Laurel Ruma, I'm the director of insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can find us in print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com. This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you'll take a moment to rate and review us, Business Lab as a production of MIT Technology Review. This episode was produced by Collective Next.

This podcast episode was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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