Should agents be allowed to eat at their desks?
The great call centre food debate
The question of whether or not agents are allowed to eat at their desks can be quite a battleground for some call centres. Matthew Brown looks at the arguments for both sides of the debate.
Working in a call centre can be stressful, boring and tiring. An agent three hours in to an eight-hour shift on the phones might fancy a little snack to pick them up until lunchtime. Perhaps a chocolate bar, or some crisps, or a fizzy drink. Most call centres now have vending machines for this very reason. But there’s a problem. It isn’t break time for that agent yet, so they take their snack back to their desk.
Chocolate crumbs get rubbed into desk surfaces very easily. Tiny pieces of crisp break off and fall into keyboards. Grease clogs up headsets. A fizzy drink, spilt in the wrong place, could destroy a piece of equipment, or at least make it very sticky.
So, should food and drink be restricted to break-out areas and canteens? Or should agents be trusted to eat at their desks?
“We have a blanket policy – no food at desks,” said Gemma Layton, Account Manager at RSVP, in London. There are several reasons for this blanket ban.
“Part of it is practicality, because some of our agents are on auto-answer and some are on predictive diallers, and obviously if someone calls in and you’ve got a mouth full of crisps, it’s not so great.”
The customer service relationship is already fraught with the potential for misunderstanding without an agent struggling to speak properly while they hastily chew food. It’s very impolite, for starters. But avoiding unprofessionalism isn’t the only reason for a no food at desks policy.
“Part of it is also hygiene, because we have a shared-desk policy and apart from managers everyone moves around on a daily basis, pretty much. It’s much easier to keep everything clean and hygienic if people aren’t having food at their desks,” said Layton.
Food is restricted to the call centre’s break areas and two kitchens. Drinks, on the other hand, are allowed at agents’ desks.
“Agents can drink at their desks. Obviously it’s important to stay hydrated when you’re talking all day.”
Both hot and cold drinks are permitted, and agents can get free hot drinks from a vending machine or kettles in the kitchens.
The importance of hydration is recognised across the industry, and most if not all call centres allow water and other liquids to be consumed at desks. Sometimes this is with the stipulation that agents use only non-spill cups or sports-style bottles. Cups and bottles are sometimes provided to staff by the call centre.
Other call centres go for a compromise.
“Our policy is that snack food – crisps but not nuts, for example – is allowed at the desk but no hot food or meals,” said Paul Miller, Associate Director of Prolog.
This policy allows agents the freedom to snack if they feel hungry, while avoiding the worst excesses of some of the horror stories about call centre food. When Call Centre Helper last covered this subject three years ago, lots of readers complained about agents in their call centres who had brought in curry, fish and chips, fried chicken and a whole menu of other messy foods to eat at their desks.
Hot food, especially fast food, can leave a nasty smell that lingers in the office. It is sensible to provide a kitchen area or canteen for main meals to be prepared and eaten.
A contentious issue
Food in the call centre can be a flashpoint between employers and employees because it cuts right to the heart of individual freedom. Imposing extensive rules as to what staff can and can’t eat at their desks may become confusing. It may also bring up all kinds of trivial but awkward debates about what is allowed and what is not.
For example, a call centre could ban hot food and then object to an agent bringing in leftover pizza which they intended to eat cold. Rather than get into a pointless debate about what was permitted and what wasn’t, it’d perhaps be better to ban food at desks altogether. If agents are to be allowed to eat at desks, it is essential to keep the policy simple and clear.
“Food is one of those emotive areas in the contact centre,” said Paul Miller.
“Break times are important, as agents need to be able to get what they want quickly so they can adhere to their working schedules.”
For many call centres, finding a balance that keeps everyone happy takes up more time than it should.
How to formulate an effective food policy
Paul Miller of Prolog advises managers to consider five key factors when putting together a food policy for a call centre. The five factors are as follows:
1. Environmental – smells, treatment of waste, cleaning/washing of any pots.
2. Logistical – are the resources in place to support any policy? Does the call centre have a suitable number of microwaves, refrigerators, sinks, kettles, and a comfortable dining area?
3. Financial – any policy can have an impact on the viability of subsidised canteens and vending machine contracts.
4. Quality aspects – some foods will impact on the agents’ abilities to communicate effectively over the telephone. Agents need to be ready and coherent for the next call. Equally, we should encourage but not dictate healthy but interesting food for our employees.
5. What do the agents want? This is by far the most important because all the other aspects should be driven by this. For example, if you have vending machines that no one uses you need to understand why – are they serving the wrong type of food at the wrong price? Is there a problem with allergies or use-by dates? Do agents want to eat at their desks because there isn’t a suitable alternative?
What is the policy in your contact centre? Does it work well?
Are your agents allowed to eat at their desks, or not? Share your thoughts and comments below.