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Two Letters, an Uncommon Space & the Ripple Effect

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

How a modest suggestion to express yourself changed someone’s life

Photo By seregam, Courtesy of Canva

She loitered by my office, holding a white envelope with large, ornate cursive handwriting exposed just outside of her index fingers. I was coming back from a late lunch in the basement cafeteria. Janice had been with us for nearly eight months. She held the envelope neck high, clutching it with both hands.

I could see her casually talking to my assistant, Rachel, who was seated around ten feet from my office. After climbing the stairs to the 6th floor, I entered the space slightly out of breath, walked past the refreshment station, quiet room and elevator bank on my way to the office. Our newly renovated space, occupying two floors in downtown Indianapolis on Meridian Street, still featured that new car smell.

As I approached my office, a glass wrapped, aquarium like space, she smiled modestly. “Hi, Janice, how are you?” I said. “What can I do for you?”

Janice said, almost too quietly, “I wanted to tell you a story. Do you have a moment?” She seemed earnest and talked in tones appropriate for Sunday service.

We walked into my office, which was intentionally placed in the middle of the floor amidst all the action. As a leadership team, my peers and I had debated how to situate our offices to underscore the values we placed as a management group. Instead of placing the space in a corner, away from our teams, as many leaders were, we decided to put ourselves in the middle of the space, symbolically and tangibly transparent and accessible.

My office sometimes felt almost too transparent. Ensconced in glass walls, I was on display.

“I just wanted to tell you about my mom.”

I was intrigued. Not a typical request.

“This is very emotional. It’s harder to say than I thought.” That’s all right, take your time, I said.

“Do you remember when you suggested we write letters to a loved one? Well, I decided to write to my mom.” She looked me in the eyes, her eyes pooling and reflecting the soft white light of the ceiling fixtures.

The service center in Indianapolis sported nearly three hundred people spread out across the top two floors of the downtown location. We had spent nearly $3M dollars renovating the space. Our primary intention centered on fostering an open, creative, transparent and associate friendly atmosphere.

We had bold colors, new features, abundant training space, game rooms, quiet rooms, refreshment stations and even a lactation room connected to the women’s bathrooms.

A wide array of eye catching eclectic modern and pop art hung along the walls and alleyways of the center from collections across the company, but mostly from our home office in Seattle. The space cultivated a cool, inviting vibe that hit you immediately upon entering the space. I was proud of what we had created, even though I had only played a miniscule role in the process as the Site Leader.

The bright colors alone contrasted dramatically with the battleship grey in the rest of the building. At the time, right on the dot of the turn of the century, we thought we were creating something special. Indeed, we wanted to construct an antidote to the prison ship mentality prevalent in many Service or Contact centers. No boiler room mentality.

Our plan contemplated beating back the joke you would have to wear a catheter at your desk because of the strict requirements of the job.

We measured occupancy and call handling rates we thought would create mental space and manageable workloads. We were going to be a friendlier form of high efficiency! Still, there remained a natural tension between running an efficient and cost-effective operation while maintaining our humanity.

While we had made great strides and developed some core competencies in running these operations, we were still learning. Still, I’m sure it was not a theme park atmosphere for everyone. Part of that effort could be seen in the way we trained our teams. We had constructed an elaborate sequence of training tracks that took our people through varying skill sets. One position would require up to six weeks of training and the center housed at least three core positions from claims intake and handling to billing and endorsement processing. We wanted to add value to the positions over time and create mobility and versatility.

In the last class of the training segments I would address each group and talk about something personal. I would ask them to write a letter to a loved one, maybe someone they had not contacted in a long time. It could be a parent, spouse, sibling, child, friend. Just take a moment and write the letter.

I would give them time to do it. No one forced them to do it; but I would give them time at the end of class so that the moment could be seized. If they did not want to do it, their call.

I started each session by showing the class a Lou Holtz video, circa his time as the Head Football Coach at Notre Dame, where he talks about three rules he had for his teams. He would pose the rules as questions: do you care, are you committed, and can I trust you? I will not go into detail here about the content of the video. But that context gave me the opportunity to suggest writing the letter.

I had been hosting the sessions for over a year when Janice arrived in front of my office.

“I want to thank you.” She offered, serious and glancing around, eyes glistening.

“Oh….why?” I asked and then said, “I appreciate that.”

“My mom just passed away.” She mentioned it with natural sadness, but even toned.

“I’m so sorry, “ I was slightly confused by the connection.

Janice told me that she had not spoken with her mother for several years when she decided to write the letter. She simply wanted me to be aware of the ripple effect of the modest suggestion. Her mother had become ill, terminally.

But Janice was not aware of her condition until she decided to express her feelings in writing. The gesture created an opening to reconnect with her mother, just in time. Janice took the opportunity to nurse her throughout the process, spend time with her at the hospital during treatments, remain at her bedside while in hospice until the very end.

“I know this is crazy. But I thought you would appreciate this.” As she spoke, she gathered the envelope close to her body, fingers interlocked across the envelope fabric, the cursive script still catching my eye. From a few steps away, the envelope appeared aged and creased, like a weathered face.

“This is the letter she sent me after I wrote to her. In it she expresses to me what had been unsaid for many years. She told me how much she loved me. It was amazing.” Janice paused, straining against a sudden surge of unexpected emotion. She looked away briefly, I could hear the catch in her voice. I told her to take her time. We were fine.

Janice squeezed the envelope and its heavy contents just a little more tightly.

“I just wanted you to know. I had thought about it for a long time. I knew I needed to talk to her. I just, you know.” Her voice trailed off, she felt awkwardly now.

I opened my arms and we briefly hugged. I told her how grateful I was that she told me about the experience. How sorry I was for her loss. I did not deserve any credit. I was so happy she told me. It made me feel great that she shared it with me.

We worked in an enormous space. The teams operated over varying shifts, seven days a week and the center covered nearly fifteen hours at a stretch. I did not know everyone by name and certainly did not easily make connections with each person in the center. I wish I had done a better job in that regard.

However, this one moment reminded me of the power of the simplest of suggestions.

As she left my office, I looked across the expanse of low-rise cubicles seemingly unending to the corners of the floor. The acoustics and white noise hid the din of voices, clattering keyboards, conversations benign and tense. I watched as our people walked briskly along the office boulevards to and from the quiet rooms and refreshment stations, headsets still affixed to their heads, wires dangling untethered to their phone jacks, swaying back and forth.

I’d like to say I had an epiphany in that moment, one dramatized by the ceiling fixtures shedding ambient soft light everywhere around me.

Momentarily, I felt a deep tug of emotion, gratitude and humility. I felt humbled.

I went back to work just a little happier and content. The rest of the day, I nursed the pervasive buoyancy of the interaction. I told my wife the story when I returned home. She gave me a hug and held onto me just a beat longer than usual.

And now, twenty years later, I have released the story to anyone, even just one person, who might benefit from a modest suggestion.

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