Avoiding helper burnout

Any new project seems to take a very large time commitment from a small group of people to get it off the ground and Live Chat has been no different. We’ve had some unique challenges in that we’ve been in demand since we opened, rather than seeing our user base grow as we do. This has left us trying to grow our community of helpers as fast as possible while still trying to support as many users as possible. Finding a balance between making things comfortable for helpers while still being accessible to users has been an interesting process.

At first we focused very hard on the user, taking as many chats as possible, being open a wide range of hours so that everyone had a chance to get chat support. This worked when we first opened, when we were new, and everyone was home for the holidays with some time to lend a hand. As people went back to school, or realized real time support wasn’t for them, we were left with a handful of brave souls trying to help just as many users in just as many hours.

People stopped having fun.

This is obviously a problem. For a volunteer community to thrive, helping has to feel good. Not only that, but the quality of support the user receives declines incredibly when they’re being helped by someone who’s worried about developing a RSI. As counter-intuitive as it was at first, I realized we needed to improve the support we give our users by scaling back.

The first change we instituted was the change in hours. We focused less on trying to be accessible at different times, and focused on simply being accessible. Later shifts make it easier for students and people with day jobs to turn up. Shorter shifts make it easier for one or two people, like our room monitors, to stick around for the whole thing. It also makes it easier to remember when our official hours are as they are consistent rather than alternating based on the day.

A big change that’s made a world of difference though, has been playing around with the max number of chats any helper can have at once. At first we agreed to set it high so that people could decide for themselves how many chats they could handle. This proved to be overwhelming to new helpers. Even for veterans it was hard to ignore new chat requests and we ended up spreading ourselves too thin. We tried setting the limit to 5 chats as that would let us take most of the chats in queue, but even I found that impossible to keep up with. Finally, after a fair bit of argument that it’s better for the user if we take fewer chats at once and let some people wait a little longer in the queue, we’ve set the max to 4.

What a difference that one chat makes! Now, with only 2 or 3 helpers on a full shift is easy to do, and our wait times have hardly been affected (which are still 30 seconds or less, I might add. Quite ridiculous for a volunteer community so small, way to go guys!). It’s also easy to limit yourself to fewer chats. Currently the software counts a chat as open as long as the helper still has it open, so if you can only handle 2 at once, leave 2 finished chats open. People have stopped saying they’ll come on only if we really need them.

We’re having fun again.

Coming up we’re looking for a good way to sign up for shifts so our helpers can tell when they’re most needed and when they don’t have to feel guilty for having drinks with friends, or sleeping (*cough*Cww*cough*). Calendaring software seems like the right answer but actually has many drawbacks for our use. Ideally I can specify the shifts, as well as how many helpers and room monitors we want to have during that time, and then helpers can highlight chunks of time and sign up. It should all be web based, and hopefully free! If you know of something that sounds like it would work, please let me know!

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