46 tips for managing absence
One of the last taboos in call centres is the problem of absenteeism. This can run as high as 15% or more on a Monday morning. It is so sensitive that one call centre manager called it the “A Word”.
So with Monday being officially the ‘most depressing day of the year’, we asked for your advice on dealing with staff absence.
We seem to have hit a bit of a raw nerve and have had 46 tips provided.
1. A clear attendance policy
Having a clear attendance policy that is communicated to all staff is key; employees need to understand what is expected of them and what is considered to be acceptable. Having absence procedures in place should ensure that all employees know exactly when they should call in to report their absence and who to. There should be a high level of consistency in the way that the business deals with unacceptable absences.
2. Return to work interviews
Conducting return-to-work interviews can be particularly helpful in ascertaining the reasons behind an absence and assessing whether they are genuine. It is also important for the company to continually look for ways to keep staff engaged. Overall if strong procedures are in place and are adhered to, they can help reduce absence across the business.
Geoff Sims, Managing Director of Hays Contact Centres
3. Flexible scheduling
Flexible scheduling can reduce absenteeism if handled correctly. Some employees are forced into absenteeism situations for reasons that are beyond their control. Allow employees the opportunity to choose custom-designed schedules that better match their personal needs and help them to maintain predictable work patterns.
4. Good documentation
For employees with chronic or habitual late arrivals or absenteeism, a good occurrence programme is essential. Documentation is key, and the rules should be applied evenly across the entire population of contact centre agents.
5. Incentive programmes should be tied to attendance
Let’s say you have two employees with nearly identical sales achievements for the month. Both are in line to receive cash bonuses. Is it appropriate for one employee with an abysmal attendance record to receive the same bonus as the employee that has a stellar attendance record? No. Both employees were present during core selling hours, but only one employee was conscientious enough to arrive at work on time and help their team.
6. Tie promotions to attendance
In that spirit, tie promotions to attendance as well. Nothing deflates a team faster than seeing a co-worker promoted into a leadership position where they will be required to enforce attendance policies that they themselves could not adhere to before they were promoted.
7. Is your attendance policy too strict?
You need just a little wiggle room to allow for some unanticipated absences (i.e. build in an exception for snow storms, traffic accidents tying up major highways, or commuter trains being delayed). The key here is to make sure these events are verifiable and they impact a broad population of agents.
8. Shift swaps
Allowing for shift swaps (i.e. trading shifts) can also reduce absenteeism. Some centres maintain a shift-swap board where agents post days they need off and their schedule, and other agents may volunteer to trade days off or shift start times, etc. Larger contact centres may automate this process using their scheduling software.
9. Tie absenteeism to agent engagement survey results
There are agents that are habitual offenders, and agents who will show up every day without fail. But there is a larger population of your employees that fall somewhere between these two groups, and for them their working environment can be a tipping point in your battle to improve attendance. Survey your agents, and ask them what would contribute to a happier workplace and encourage attendance. You may see responses that indicate you need to make their break areas more attractive, or they may want to personalise their cubicles. In extreme cases, you may see agents that want new parking arrangements, or perhaps you can arrange local daycare discounts for working parents.
10. Increased absenteeism on Mondays, Fridays and weekends
Most contact centres that track attendance data notice increased absenteeism on Mondays, Fridays and weekends. If attendance is tied to your centre’s financial results, think about offering an incentive plan that includes perfect attendance as one of the key targets. You may want to look at an annual recognition bonus for those who have perfect attendance over all four quarters.
11. The employee is in charge of their destiny
I would suggest reading the book, Discipline Without Punishment. This features partners in accountability.
Basically, the employee is in charge of their destiny.
For example, Employee A has only 48 hours of sick time or 6 occurrences. Employee A has used up all 48 hours and is on their 7th occurrence. At first, Employee A has an undocumented discussion with their manager just stating the facts and letting it be known that if they call out again, then there will be an “action plan” discussion.
If the same employee calls out for the 8th time, then upon their return, the manager has a discussion that is documented where the employee must create an action plan to take care of their problem of calling off from work.
Responsibility is thrown back on the employee. Together, the employee and the manager craft a plan to get the employee back on track. The employee signs the document and it is placed in their file. If the employee violates the action plan, then they have another documented discussion and are given an ultimatum of whether or not they should be employed with the company.
The employee is given a 24-hour period to decide. If the employee decides to remain with the company, then they must recommit to the action plan. The manager then explains that any more infractions will result in termination. While this is a lengthy process, it results in far less employee turnover.
Susan Leighton, Project Analyst II at CitiFinancial
12. Tie attendance via pay for performance
By doing this you will help curb absence and set the tone for the suggestions above.
This has worked out nicely for me in five countries. Setting this expectation up front will not only filter out those who are in it for their hourly pay as well as curb the Monday/Friday/weekend/holiday call outs.
13. Perfect attendance = free day off
I supervised a dysfunctional team which enjoyed burning up their sick leave. I created an incentive programme giving them one free vacation day every six months if they did not call in sick. Of course visits to the doctor would not count against them. It worked! I gave out more vacation days for perfect attendance than any other manager. I even allowed for planned vacation without affecting their score if they really needed a break.
Pizza is also a good team-building experience.
Arnold Talbott Latin America Operations & Project Manager at AT&T
14. You need flexibility (and the patience of a saint)
I have not found a single solution that meets all needs. I have run large contact centres in B2C environments as well as smaller, highly specialised/technical help desks in B2B environments and the solutions are often as varied as the individuals they work for.
I find that the best plans are those that are flexible (as well as my own ability to be flexible in identifying and changing a plan that doesn’t work). The patience of a saint is quite handy as well!
Denise Fitzgerald VP, Customer Support at nGenera CIM
15. The worker base is relatively young
I agree with most of the suggestions listed above. Action plans, follow-up sessions with the employee, perfect attendance programmes… all have worked for me at one time or another. I have also found taking a survey of the team’s skills to be important as well.
The worker base in call centres is relatively young. In some cases, these individuals are looking at getting through the door in hopes of obtaining another position that could expand their skills and interests. Unfortunately, they have yet to understand that attendance will affect their ability to move within the organisation or even receive opportunities to take on new projects. In team meetings, I clearly communicate the attendance guidelines and explain how attendance plays in promotion opportunities or new projects.
16. Find the root cause
For those who continue to abuse the attendance programme, I try to find the root cause and if able, will try to provide a more flexible schedule arrangement. Otherwise, with an action plan in place, I will continue to let the employee know where their attendance stands and the next step in the discipline process to avoid any surprises. As far as incentives go, it may work if you are looking at various ways of awarding “perfect attendance” but you run the risk of higher cost to the organisation and state limitations (depending on where you are operating the call centre). In the end, I believe an employer that offers sick days in today’s environment is already providing an incentive to an employee.
17. Look at the current scheduling guidelines
If Mondays are presenting a problem, look at the current scheduling to see if maybe it is too strict, or allow the employees to schedule for vacation if they haven’t taken off on the previous six Mondays.
Melisa Ervin, Master Coach at 21st Century Insurance
18. Hiring the wrong agents
Hiring the wrong call centre agent is the root cause of many call centre performance issues – including absenteeism. It’s a significant drain on your budget and bottom line, on customer satisfaction ratings and sales results.
Call centre agent pre-employment screening software can screen out job candidates who will burn out fast because they aren’t suited for the work – and identifies the people with the personality/job-fit, soft skills, motivation, and work ethic to be top call centre agents.
David Filwood, Principal Consultant, TeleSoft Systems
19. Peer pressure drives individual accountability
I found an interesting principle that has really turned things around, I raised the bar.
Working small teams, driving individual accountability, and insisting that agents meet a higher standard in personal appearance, personal integrity, personal actions, with the group deciding adherence has made all the difference. This uses peer pressure positively, drives individual accountability, and hones the team atmosphere that is so crucial in call centre work.
Proper incentives like pizza parties, ice cream sundaes, team dress-down days, etc… all provide the impetus for striving a little more. Stretched over six months or so, the improvements are barely noticeable on the individual level and many don’t even realise they are changing until the changes have already been accomplished.
Dave Salisbury, MBA-GM & HRM
20. No Show, Call In policies
I have implemented or enforced No Show, Call In policies in call centres I have worked in. The process is a little dragged out but the decrease in turnover and increased retention as well as morale helps out the centre overall. The key is really consistency. If the process is not fair across the board and there is no real follow-up auditing the process. It won’t work.
Having a good working environment, allowing centre employees to take ownership in their roles and using metrics that include attendance to review individual performance is, of course, key. Employees who understand their incentives, bonus, raises and promotions will be tied to this metric as well.
21. The number 1 priority is engagement
We built and communicated a Vision for our organisation and our No. 1 priority is enagagement. We clearly communicated that absenteeism was a sign of poor engagement or we had very sick people (both a problem). I also let them know that I look at our absenteeism evey day to ensure we do not have the above problems.
I also task the leaders with managing this metric and it is part of their variable compensation. What we have seen are employee engagement scores in the +80% for the last four quarters and a reduction in absenteeism of 30% YOY.
David Bradshaw, Vice President, Sales and Service at ING DIRECT
22. Get rid of our old ideas
Absenteeism, along with agent churn, is an ongoing theme in every call centre. I think that as leaders we need to get rid of our old ideas of what worked for us and look at what will drive or motivate the current generation of agents to come to work.
Today’s generation of agents are fiercely loyal so leverage that. Get that personal commitment to you as an individual, not their manager.
When you’re 24 and living at home money isn’t always a big incentive, but time off is.
Social relationships are very important to this generation, so lack of flexibility in schedules will often causes absence; so add some flexibility.
23. Let agents come up with their own schedules
Let agents come up with their own schedules that fit into the needs of the centre. If it works, what does it matter if it adds complexity to the resource team or to their supervisor, aren’t they there to support the agent, not the other way around?
Lets face it, it’s a tough job that most of us wouldn’t do again, even at our management salaries. So put yourself in their shoes, what would it take for you to do that job again?
Michael Lloyd, Senior Manager, National Quality Operations at Rogers Communications Inc.
24. Link absenteeism to lack of rewards or promotions
Anyone who exceeds the agreed number of tardies or absences will not be eligible for growth in the company. Link missed punches to the build-up of an occurrence (such as one missed punch = 1/3 occurrence or whatever you wish the guidelines to be) to stop the manipulation of not clocking in to prevent being late.
25. Suspend an employee without pay, before termination
Once an employee is late a specified number of times, and has gone through the step-by-step write-up process to the brink of self destruction, suspend the employee without pay before you terminate. If you want to get their attention quickly if discussions do not work, then take their pay away for a few days as an alternative to termination. If that doesn’t do it, then you’re dealing with someone who just doesn’t care.
When the employee returns to be introduced to their new 90-day probationary period set up these guidelines:
- Any tardy within the 90 days = termination
- Completion of the 90-day probation period will be considered a success as long as the employee does not show a pattern of going tardy again within 30 days after the end of the probation. Another tardy within that grace period shows that the employee is habitual and begins the 90-day probation over again. This will send a strong message that manipulation will not be tolerated. And, let’s face it, not many problem employees are going to last through 90 to 120 days of “No Tolerance”. If they do, then coach to that if you see them getting a little loose later on and discuss that you both know they can do this.
26. Watch out for the “I don’t care” generation
If that too likely fails because of the “I don’t care” generation flaws of the younger folks, terminate them and promote hiring for the older worker. Promote hiring seniors who need a good job or adults who know the importance of integrity and responsibility. Let the wild hairs job hop through the fast food chains until they too realise they can’t afford anything nice as they get older.
It will be a long time before there is another “Greatest Generation” present.
Larry Cook, National Accounts Coordinator at Siemens
27. Focus on staff well-being but only when you have established the real resons for absence
UK employers spend around £750m a year on conventional wellbeing interventions to try and help tackle absence. This is before you include any costs of training, job design or operational re-structure. The business case behind much of this expenditure and the return on investment is highly debatable.
Don’t waste time and money on absence initiatives until you have assessed and measured employee wellbeing properly. Only then will you be able to manage absence within your control successfully.
John Picken of www.shandwell.com
28. Train line managers
If a line manager is able to understand more about the absence and the needs of the employee they will be able to facilitate a quicker return to work.
29. Be flexible
Businesses that acknowledge that their employees have varying needs and often require a degree of flexibility to help them balance their work and home lives will be rewarded with responsible employees who will go the extra mile.
30. Communicate regularly
It is crucial to maintain contact with employees whilst they are absent from work.
We ensure that every recognition or reward scheme includes qualifying criteria of satisfactory levels of attendance before a reward is issued. Helen Roberts, KCOM’s HR Director said: “People joining our business have a very clear understanding from day one about what is a satisfactory level of attendance and how unacceptable levels of absence can negatively impact their reward and recognition.” The bonus policy allows the business the discretion to make a reduction to an employee’s bonus payment if their absence has reached unacceptable levels. Helen continues: “Our people feel this is a fair process as it recognises those people who come to work every day and provide cover for those people who regularly take time off. We have seen an improvement in absence levels since the policy was introduced and everyone understands what this means to them and how they can influence this.”
Helen Roberts, HR Director, KCOM
32. Include attendance as part of the advisor’s KPIs
We’ve included attendance as part of the representatives KPIs. We use the monthly KPIs and the scores earned to determine everyone’s ranking for shift bids. Each of the KPIs has different weighting and attendance has one of the highest (40%) because it’s one over which the employee has a great amount of control.
33. Bring in shift bidding
We shift bid every quarter so our reps know that they have the opportunity to move into a more desirable shift simply by performing well.
This has worked tremendously well for us.
When I took over the contact centre three years ago we were struggling with churn of close to 200% and chronic absenteeism. In 2008 we reduced our churn to a miraculous 2% and had no churn in 2009. We have also reduced our attendance occurrences to a very negligible amount. There were no unplanned absences for the entirety of 2009 and only 15 tardies for the entire year.
Sheron D. Copeland, Director, Care Center – Americas Region
34. Bring in a sense of accountability
When I took over my last position I requested the files of the team only to find out that the company had team members with over 40 attendance events and no action. The team was basically a good team but had no sense of accountability.
To address the issue I started re-writing job descriptions and adding working with the team to build up responsibilities and accountability. In the process we added attendance to KPIs and included a weekly team performance communication. A simple email with the totals call, abandon rate and service level of the week including the attendance events.
So the team had first-hand knowledge that when the attendance was down the service level was lower and so on. In addition we included progress reports and, yes, we placed some agents on probation and some as a result of not following up with their commitment upon the individual progress cards.
35. Include team games
As a complement, we included team games where KPIs were the guide to a Home Run or a bingo game in which anyone with less than perfect attendance was out of the contest for the payroll period.
After a few months and two separations the behaviour started to change up to the point that at the time of the yearly evaluations 85% of the team showed absence below the maximum allowed by the employee handbook.
Gustavo Arias, Call Center Operations
36. Find the root of the problem
Are the calls they are taking “fair”. Sometimes agents are placed into a toxic environment. This can be caused by poor management and not pushing back on the department or even executive team that is asking for the impossible. This is delicate, but executives respond quickly to cost of training and quality issues, so focus on these instead of individuals.
Then there is the flaky employee that is just messed up. A few of these and you’re surrounded by comedians who “take over” the environment in gang-like behaviour. The only way to weed these out is to get a good handle on the dress code, train against harassment of all types, and put back positive rewards.
I know these are polar opposites and there is a wide spread in between. You could also try outsourcing a portion of the work and comparing the stats in a board for all to see. Outsourcing will help you see lots of aspects of your team that you might not see because you’re too close.
37. Value long time service
We have an awards ceremony for 10 years (diamond earrings or a fine watch) and on a real fine day a trip around the world for 2 (20 years of service).
Stephen Shooster, Call Center Technology Specialist
38. Tie the salary to attendance
Hiring the right folks in the first place, motivating and leading them and taking care of them, tying the salary to attendance, creating a flexible work schedule environment and then managing them out if all possible attempts don’t work (like ‘action plans’, etc.) will create the right environment for improved employee attendance. Reward good attendance, motivate employees so they want to come to work and, as a last resort, fire those who don’t fix their issues is the key.
39. Use tokens for “five days in a row” attendance
The bottom line that we have found to improve attendance immediately at our clients is to give tokens for daily attendance and extra tokens for “five days in a row” attendance. Note the difference between M-F extra tokens and “five days in a row.” It is critical to award tokens for all desired activities as soon as the activity is completed. The number of tokens depends upon the budget.
The tokens are used to play brief games that generate a random (but controlled) number of points. The points are then used to “buy” prizes such as time off, money onto a debit card or anything (tangible or intangible) that the client wishes.
There are a few key factors involved here. The first is “continuous positive reinforcement” and is a great way to change behaviours in conjunction with receiving the tokens and the ability to redeem points for prizes immediately. Another factor is “random intermittent reinforcement” and is an equally powerful motivator. Finally “choice of reward” is key because an undesired prize has no value.
As a rule of thumb, spending about two hours worth of labour per month on incentives and programme management will improve KPIs by at least 20% almost immediately.
These methods are nothing more than what we’ve all observed at contact centres that run reward contests with tickets put into a bowl and draw for prizes. The problem is that many companies look at incentive/reward programmes as short-term fixes rather than on-going and don’t regularly monitor the ROI. The result is that KPIs revert to prior levels once the programme concludes.
Robert Cowen, Representative at Snowfly
40. Weight attendance on the scorecard
In one of my previous centres, we not only linked absence to performance and made it a key performance indicator, we weighted it appropriately to indicate how important good attendance was to us.
We had a complete balanced scorecard that included productivity, quality/accuracy and professionalism metrics, and the chief metric for professionalism was attendance. This included on-time log-in/log-out for shift, timely return from break and lunch, and full absences.
Everything was included on a per-instance basis, and each instance was awarded a point value, with an 8-hour or longer absence in a day having the highest number of points (2.0), and a small point value assigned to a tardy instance of 10 minutes or less (.25 pts).
Agents were allowed a rolling 90-day “balance” of three points total. Any greater than that was a call to action for their supervisor, starting with a documented discussion during their monthly scorecard.
If the balance continued to rise or did not decrease over the next 30 days, a performance improvement plan (PIP) was developed. If, during the PIP term of 90 days, an agent was absent or tardy for anything other than a legitimate FMLA instance, the agent could be terminated. Supervisors were also made accountable for delivering these discussions and PIPs in a timely manner by means of a measurement (% complete) on their monthly scorecard. I developed the reporting for this, and tracked it from implementation to finish.
We sustained a 20 per cent decrease in overall absenteeism in a six-month time frame without increasing our attrition.
This plan was paired with both monetary and non-monetary rewards for perfect attendance, attendance that “met” the target, and “most improved” attendance on each supervisor team.
41. Build flexibility into the workforce management system
I do agree, however, that some schedule flexibility is warranted in a call centre. In the centres where I was the WFM (Workforce Management), agents were required to be available to work during a minimum 10-hour time frame daily, 6 days per week in a 24/7 centre, or 5 days a week in a regular Mon-Fri centre. Within the limits of business need, agents could choose the 10-hour time frame during which they were available, and they could request a change to that time frame no more often than every six months.
We re-scheduled every two weeks, and agents had approximately ten days’ warning of their upcoming schedule. Shift swaps or ‘giveaways’ were allowed between any two team members with like skills, so long as no overtime was incurred by the agent taking on the shift. Swaps could be executed with a minimum of two business days’ notice. In an emergency, one business day was allowed. That helps a lot!
Marla Goldman, Project Manager & Call Center Industry Pro
42. Share the statistics
To help reduce many problems in one particular call centre we posted all agent stats that had exceeded threshold levels next to the exit door of the call centre and in any break room areas.
This way, the agents can review each others’ stats and see where they rank. Be careful as to which stats you use, pick solid indicators – Hold times, Talk time, Days off, Days missed due to illness, etc. as the agents will start judging themselves and start some improvement. As for all adherence problems, the management team must stand together.
43. Duvet Days
The so-called duvet day is an innovative way to tackle the problem of staff absence.
Duvet Days are defined as a day’s leave from work which can be taken at short notice without explanation.
They are a great perk of any job – especially for a younger workforce who may be prone to a mid-week drink! They can also help offset an oncoming cough or cold with a day’s rest.
These days aren’t taken in addition to contractual holiday, but instead are deducted from the annual quota. The only difference is the amount of notice the employee has to give.
Workers in the UK take 180 million sick days each year. An estimated 27 million of these believed to be unwarranted and bogus, according to the most recent survey CBI/ Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey. Unplanned absence remains a huge problem in call centres.
Contact centres that employ high numbers of young people or parents may find that duvet days improve morale, as staff no longer have to worry about dishonestly phoning in sick to deal with a childcare crisis or a hangover. Duvet days also benefit employees with specific healthcare needs.
A Department of Work and Pensions study published in 2008 recommended that duvet days could help people with mental health issues to stay in employment. Other employers have adapted the best parts of the idea into flexible working or attendance-incentive schemes. In doing that, contact centres achieve a balance between resource planning and staff satisfaction. Staff can also achieve that all important work-life balance – and choose exactly when they want to stay under the duvet all day.
Megan Jones, Call Centre Helper