For more than 20 years, Lori Peters, a director for inbound sales at Comcast, worked out of the company’s call center along Route 14 in New Castle, Del. On the highway, it was a sea of cubicles on a sea of asphalt. The windows were few and small.

Then she and about 800 other Comcast call center workers moved into a new space nine miles away in Newark, Del. And Peters, a 34-year veteran of the company, was floored. The quiet rooms. The huddle spaces. The green walls. The fish pond out back with a fire pit.

She says she’s noticed a difference in her teams, too. They are happier.

But will it make a difference for customers?

The three-floor, 150,000-square-foot space is part of the company’s $1 billion program to improve its customer service operations — maligned for everything from pushing sales to allowing a toxic work environment for women, and ranked in the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index, among large cable TV companies, 57 out of 100, behind AT&T and Verizon. While Comcast’s effort, which added more U.S. call centers and thousands of customer service reps and technicians overall, didn’t increase the Delaware workforce, the company did double down on worker experience.

As Jim Samaha, who oversees Comcast operations in Philly, New Jersey, and Delaware, put it this month at the ribbon cutting: What better way to improve customer experience than to start with employee experience?

Mario Bermadez of Wilmington prefers to stand as he works with customers at his console of screens.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
Mario Bermadez of Wilmington prefers to stand as he works with customers at his console of screens.

It’s become something of a refrain, at least in the white-collar world, as studies have linked worker happiness with productivity. For a certain class of workers in the tech and finance industry, those perks can seem abundant: unlimited paid time off and breast milk shipping, for instance. In the low-wage service sector, though, perks are fewer. And call centers, typically, are no exception. Breaks for service workers at call center giant Convergys, which has in the past overseen Comcast customer service, are timed to the second. Workers may not have paid sick leave unless they’re employed in states and cities that mandate it.

Comcast's new call center in Newark, Del., has a gym full of Peloton bikes, a game room with Playstations and a golf simulator, and a pond and fire pit out back.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
Comcast's new call center in Newark, Del., has a gym full of Peloton bikes, a game room with Playstations and a golf simulator, and a pond and fire pit out back.

Comcast, for its part, offers 12 weeks’ paid parental leave, a 401(k) match of up to 6%, and free Comcast service to all its full-time employees, including the Delaware center employees, who make at least $15 an hour, a Comcast spokesperson said. The extension of those benefits to its service workers is a phenomenon that MIT Sloan School of Management professor Zeynep Ton dubbed the “the good jobs strategy" in her 2014 book of the same name. That’s been a successful way for many companies to fight employee turnover, she has written.

Design can make a difference, as well. Other call centers that have redesigned their workplaces have found it’s worth it: In an analysis by design company Haworth of two call centers — a cubicle-heavy, more traditional space, and a modern one with colorful desks and ergonomic chairs such as Comcast’s new spot — workers in the modern space bested their cubicled counterparts in such call-center metrics as “first call resolution,” or when call center reps solve a customer’s problem in one call.

Lori Peters, a director of inbound sales, said the new Comcast call center in Newark, Del., is a big upgrade from the two older Delaware call centers, which were right on Route 14 and lacked any green space.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
Lori Peters, a director of inbound sales, said the new Comcast call center in Newark, Del., is a big upgrade from the two older Delaware call centers, which were right on Route 14 and lacked any green space.

The company said it spent millions on gutting and renovating the building at the Christiana Corporate Center, but wouldn’t provide specifics. One detail: It bought a slew of Peloton bikes — which retail for $1,995 — for its gym.

The limits of workplace design

A nice office can go only so far if there are fundamental problems with the job, said Ton, the Good Jobs Strategy author.

“If customers are yelling at the reps every day because the system is not well-designed, or the reps can’t make decisions, or the systems they use are slow or not working well, Ping-Pong and pool tables are not going to make much of a difference," Ton said.

Many studies have linked anxiety and depression to call-center work and its emotional labor — the emphasis on empathizing with irate customers and never losing your patience when you’re the recipient of verbal abuse. Researchers have suggested that emotional competency and emotional intelligence training could improve these jobs.

Sareeta Amrute, an anthropologist at research institute Data and Society who studies the intersection of power, tech, and labor, also warned that workplaces use modern design “as a cover” for not improving the actual job. In call centers, she said, there are less visible workplace design choices that communicate how little power workers may have on the job: Their calls are monitored, their keyboard strokes tracked.

In the American Customer Satisfaction Index, cable TV service providers as a group ranked at the bottom of all industries tracked: Between April 2018 and March, the industry scored 62 out of 100.

In the meantime, Comcast says it will assess the impact of the new Delaware location’s design through the Net Promoter Score system, which measures customer and employee satisfaction. A company spokesperson declined to share specific goals.