Driving a Culture of Empathy and Knowledge in a Crisis

Last verified Sep 30, 2021

We’ve all acknowledged that we won’t be returning to “normal” in many aspects of our society, but we’re still figuring out what this adjusted normalcy of the future should look like. Case in point, in a recent podcast discussion, tech journalist Kara Swisher and investor Mark Cuban philosophized about what “America 2.0” could look like on the other side of the global pandemic, knowing that conceptions of “America 2.0” vary. Most American (if not worldwide) institutions must look different moving forward. When it comes to the institution of work, some of the questions are; What can we do to facilitate the necessary reboot of work and work-life for ourselves and our customers? And, what are the specific challenges that customer support reps face in a remote organization?

This reevaluation (some might say reckoning) of how we think about work and productivity will not only have a long term impact on revenue, but on employee mental health and overall job satisfaction as well. In a CNN interview, Scott Galloway, a professor of Marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, referred to the pandemic as an “accelerant for change, not a change agent.” 

Just because we spend more hours working when we’re remote (with our computer on our laps in a dark room as the day turns to night without our noticing) doesn’t mean we’re having a proportional impact on business outcomes or that we’re recognized for and satisfied by our work. The cult of productivity is fueled by a scarcity mentality. 

And there’s a further issue with how fully distributed workforces (ourselves and our customers) are shaking out: We’re isolated by the lack of knowledge (or the perceived lack of knowledge) we need to do our jobs, while simultaneously being overwhelmed by the number of knowledge inputs. When we can’t turn to a colleague or poll the room for a quick answer, we ask multiple channels (chat, text, email, video) at different times. At Guru, for example, Slack usage increased by 40% since becoming fully remote. 


The unique challenges of a remote support org

This kind of overwork that stems from isolation and fuels burnout poses a unique challenge for support orgs. Support reps are the beating heart of any company: the empathetic, customer-facing people who are responsible for building lifelong customers, even in the wake of so much confusion.

Generally, customers aren’t contacting support because they’re thrilled — these are high stress interactions. In a non-remote setting, a rep can take a break, chat with some friends, and blow off some steam. That’s not always as easy to do when working from home. As mentioned above, lately, people tend to just… keep working until burnout or exhaustion sets in. And when you consider the metrics reps are judged by (low hold times, fast resolutions, great NPS scores), it’s easy to see how mental fatigue and frustration can have a serious impact on a rep’s performance.

If a support rep can’t find the answer they’re looking for, not only will it take longer for them to answer a question (whether pinging colleagues in Slack or searching through a wiki or a FAQ), they’ll burn through the customer’s patience, all while driving down their overall metrics. At that point, they’ll have a lower capacity for empathy with the next customer, creating a negative feedback loop.

By actively encouraging the documentation of tactical (as well as explicit) knowledge, you’re not only cutting through the noise of Slack, you’re creating a culture where you’re supporting the needs of that support rep, setting him to help customers have great experiences. So how can you do that? With a knowledge-driven company culture.

Define knowledge-driven culture in your organization

According to Guru’s report on The Knowledge-Driven Culture Opportunity, 94% of companies with self-described knowledge-driven cultures achieved or exceeded their 2019 growth expectations. Guru defines a knowledge-driven culture as one that encodes the creation and maintenance of knowledge into its values and behaviors in a way that supports continuous improvement and learning, along with supportive notions of people, processes, and measurements.

Due to that emphasis on continuous improvement and learning, knowledge-driven cultures are better equipped to navigate major social changes, including ones that have sudden impacts on business and business culture. So rather than hoarding and guarding institutional knowledge, or punishing failures instead of learning from them, pivot to prioritizing openness, sharing, and collective education.

How to create a knowledge-driven culture

  • Establish a single source of truth for company knowledge. There should be one trusted place where your employees can find up-to-date information on everything from your latest sales deck to your company’s anti-racist and social justice action efforts. 

  • Optimize your company’s knowledge for those who consume it, not the people who write it. At Guru, we aim to write for what we call the “knowledge consumer.” This person is the one who needs to understand the answer to a specific question, so it should be documented with them in mind, laying things out in explicit terms without using niche jargon. Ideally, the information should be concise and structured in such a way that it does not require interrupting the person who wrote it for clarification. This will enable knowledge consumers to more effectively support their customers.

  • Establish a democratic feedback loop. Once the knowledge consumer finds what they need, is there a sophisticated way in which that consumer can contribute to and improve what she’s found? Rather than asking a question in a one-off email or chat thread, establish a loop in which that question can be answered transparently, by the right person (who might not be the one who’s asked), and be made broadly useful.

  • Empower Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and designate Directly Responsible Individuals (DRIs). Without explicit accountability around knowledge ownership, it will be difficult to sustainably keep knowledge up to date.


Establish a communication philosophy 

In addition to the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented, you’ve probably also recently become acutely aware of the concept of “asynchronous communication.” According to Darren Murph, Head of Remote at Gitlab:

“Being fully committed to asynchronous communication can improve morale and wellbeing…This not only improves documentation, but it relieves everyone of the burdens associated with needing to be at work at the same time.” 

As Guru plans to reopen offices, it’s important to equip our hybrid (WFH and in-office) workforce with best practices and governance around tools and communication.

Establishing guidance on tools and communication

Audit your tools by surveying your team.

  • What tools are your teams using and for what purpose? You can survey company-wide, but also intra-team. 

  • Are you getting the most out of the functionality of the tools in your tech stack? If you bought a SaaS tool, you probably have a customer success manager (CSM) that can help you dig into this. ,,

Agree upon, document, and socialize “how and when to use this tool” guidance. For example, Guru is standardized on 15Five for our pulse checks and performance review cycle. 

Iterate and be flexible. It’s OK not to get everything right all at once — and something that works at the beginning may not as time goes on. Be open and willing to update your guidance.

Consider time management and productivity

During her recent Remoticon session, Dana Tessier, Director of Knowledge Management at Shopify, asked a simple yet striking question: Do you have enough time to ingest the knowledge you need to know to do your job?

With meetings stacked back-to-back across multiple time zones, and with “Zoom-ed Out” being a new phrase, many of us would answer no. Do we have access to knowledge or information available where we’re working so that searching for an answer doesn’t interrupt your flow state? Well, hopefully, but most likely not.

Organizational time management tips for remote and hybrid teams

Optimize video and (eventually) in-person meetings for a flow state.

  • Audit your meetings and replace them with videos (with tools like Loom) and documentation (we use Guru at Guru). Looms are also an effective way to quickly communicate and share updates with customers. 

  • Cut hour-long virtual meetings in half. Schedule 30-minute meetings for 20-25 minutes instead to allow for the meeting to run long and for participants to get some water. 

Create a master meeting schedule to optimize for “focus time.” Focus time is a chunk of time — ideally at least two hours long — where each individual has no meetings. Leadership and management need to commit that during these hours, they will not schedule team meetings, standups, etc. You can also use a calendar assistant tool like Clockwise

Ask your team how and when they best work. For example, one might work best in the early morning and late at night and would be open to receiving communication during those hours. 

Leaning into cultural and organizational change

You can and should work to create a knowledge-driven culture while working remotely and communicating asynchronously. Your company culture is already in flux, so use this opportunity to create urgency around the broader initiative. This behavior change should start at the leadership level and will take time. You should empower employees at all levels to give feedback, but it’s essential for managers to model behaviors to make them sticky

As some may plan to return to the office this year while others will understandably choose to wait, it’s imperative to experiment with a knowledge-driven culture for the health and wellbeing of all of your employees — but especially those in customer-facing roles. We’re not just working from home. We’re working from home at a critical moment in American history, one that calls for knowledge, community, and action as we collectively work towards “America 2.0.”