Answers: Duvet days

Filed under - Call Centre Management

Question: Do duvet days work?

We’re having a problem with absence in our contact centre. It’s not long-term sickness that’s the issue – rather people who call in sick for the day an hour or half an hour before their shift is due to start.This is a fairly new thing for us; we’ve only seen a marked difference in the last three or four months. But when we’ve done the totting up, we can see things are getting worse month on month.

We were thinking about introducing some kind of incentive to nip the problem in the bud. And duvet days seem like a good way forward. Do other call centres run duvet days? And do they actually help manage absence?

A thumbnail image of Mike Purvis

Answer 1: Courtesy of Mike Purvis, managing director at the outsourcer Transcom UK.

To be frank, Transcom’s call centre managers have not yet experienced the types of problems that might lead them to initiate duvet days. Most of our call centre staff are located in near-shore locations such as the Baltic region, and sickness rates are quite low while the motivation to develop a career is high.

Having said that, we do of course see the attractiveness of this kind of initiative and recognise that at some point even the most motivated of staff might feel like a day off. However, we believe that it is not a solution that leads to long-term benefit and staff motivation. Rather, we believe this is achieved by empowering and educating our team by giving them the tools to achieve career growth. Moreover, we have seen that this approach works.

At each of our call centres, we have implemented a personal development plan for each of our operators. Developed from feedback from Transcom agents and the latest HR literature, this scheme is based around the four principles of recognition, reward, development, and job enrichment.

When a new operator is hired by Transcom, they work with a manager to set goals that they hope to reach within one year. If the operator achieves these objectives, they are rewarded with a promotion to senior customer services representative and various other benefits to recognise their achievement.

With this promotion come additional benefits. Senior agents are given first opportunity to choose which shifts they wish to work and when they want to take holidays. They are able to use company telephone lines and office equipment for personal use. They are put on the highest salary level for their position in the company, and offered the opportunity to gain additional experience by substituting for team leaders in their absence.

Perhaps the most unique incentives in this scheme are loyalty points, which are issued every month and can be saved and redeemed for things like t-shirts and caps all the way up to paid training courses in subjects helpful for an individual’s career advancement. Participating in an English or management programme, for instance, usually takes about nine months of loyalty points.

Fostering an environment where our team feels motivated to achieve additional benefits to enhance their careers has proven benefits to company productivity.

Agents like the fact they can choose incentives that match their life and career goals. It also engages them and makes them feel part of the team. They can monitor the progress that they have made since they started working at Transcom, and they can gain invaluable leadership experience as new recruits turn to them for mentoring advice and leadership direction.

These programmes and conditions have worked well for Transcom’s managers to keep staff motivated by encouraging active engagement with our business offerings instead of days away to hide under the covers. Therefore it is this type of programme we’d advocate following rather than pursuing the duvet day line.

A thumbnail image of Gary Sutton

Answer 2: Courtesy of Gary Sutton, operations director at the outsourcer Message Pad.

While duvet days sound like a great idea at first, we soon discovered that not everyone holds the same opinion; arguments for and against ranged from “impossible to manage” to “great, how many do we get?”

In a 24/7 call centre environment, where staffing levels are managed to meet expected activity, we rely on agent numbers to meet service level agreements and volume. There’s a very real risk that we could leave ourselves understaffed if, for example, a handful of the shift called in on the same day claiming one of their duvet days. That’s where it gets complicated and starts to pose real control issues for the resource planning team.

Unless restrictions or rules are implemented to prevent unforeseen ‘mass absenteeism’, we leave ourselves wide open to a Monday morning duvet epidemic. But, of course, imposing restrictions defeats the whole purpose.

Having dipped our toes in the water of this particularly agent-friendly initiative, we’re not convinced an operation such as Message Pad can benefit from a policy which, at best, offers staff greater flexibility but, at worse, is open to abuse. It can put a huge amount of extra pressure and stress on the staff who are left to work while their colleagues claim a day off – resulting in a never-ending spiral of “I need a day off to rest” claims.

We have realised that, rather than implement trendy policies such as duvet days, more important is achieving the right working atmosphere in the first place. We want to cultivate a flexible, dynamic workplace where staff are aware of their roles and responsibilities and are happy and motivated to work hard and achieve their objectives. We like to treat our staff with respect and, in return, we see that they actively take this responsibility on for themselves.

So, we try and adopt policies (in our recruitment, induction, monitoring, coaching, incentives and rewards) that engender a positive working and team atmosphere. Getting all these policies aligned takes some work, but the end results offer everybody far greater rewards overall. That way, scheduled days off and holidays are treasured even more.

A thumbnail image of Jo Thompson

Answer 3: Courtesy of Jo Thomson, managing director at training and change management business The Procter Consultancy.

You’re absolutely right to nip this problem in the bud, however we believe there are more effective ways of handling growing absence than running a duvet day scheme.

The reason? Running duvet days is an entirely reactive approach. It accepts the status quo and is limited to managing effects. Any doctor will tell you it’s much more productive to diagnose what’s going on before rushing to treat the symptoms.

So, what would we advise? We have three steps for you that will help.

Firstly you need to face facts. Something has changed in your business over the past four months. People have stopped caring to such an extent they think it’s acceptable not to turn up. In our experience factors that cause disengagement are complex and varied, however it’s worth thinking about the following:

  • Declining first line management performance
  • Changes in call volumes / call types
  • Shifts in work- life balance – earlier starts / later finishes
  • Reduced learning and development opportunities
  • Working environment
  • Pay and conditions
  • Level of autonomy / responsibility
  • Clarity of role / job description

The list goes on, however the key question to ask is: how do people feel about life in your call centre?

If you don’t know, ask. Chat in the canteen, the corridor or on the bus home. If you feel the need to formalise things by running focus groups then do so. The important thing is to get an honest picture of what is going on.

The second step is using the information you gain. Involve your people and design solutions everyone has a stake in. The reason for this inclusive approach is two-fold – finding a solution naturally while also re-engaging your people with the business.

This can also lead to ideas that wouldn’t necessarily come to light through a more top-down approach. For example, having talked to its advisors a contact centre we know reduced lateness and absence by aligning its shifts to local bus timetables. Your challenge could be as straightforward as that.

Finally, if you’re still keen on an incentive scheme, then think about what message you want to send. Is an extra day under the duvet really that positive? Alternative ideas include an extra holiday for team members marking their anniversary in the business or a day off covered by management doing the job to say thank you. Both are great for building loyalty and rewarding excellence.

So, in summary, doing some research and finding an inclusive solution will have the best impact. Shift the focus from managing symptoms to diagnosing the causes of absence. Then work with your people to overcome them. We’re confident you’ll find a more positive and productive answer than extra time in bed.

The following comments have been posted relating to this article:

Sorry guys but I think your looking at this the wrong way, and in fact the average person who works in a call centre will find your replies condescending.

From the start, the very question posed implies that people who take days of sick are fraudulent, while it may be the case that some are taking the just using sickness as an excuse; by and large people take sick days because they feel sick.

Your first concern therefore should be first that these people, and that they are able to recover. This will work both for their benefit and that of the company, as working through sickness can case long term health problems, and lead to further long term sickness.

It is remarkable that an article in this same issue of CallCentre helper points out that staff turnover rates are around 25%.
Little wonder if these attitudes as expressed above are commonplace.

Giving your employees a “duvet day” shows respect for your staff, that they are human and helps reduce the feeling that they are trapped by their jobs. This increases respect for their employer and reduces feelings of anxiety. Making staff feel they are valued and respected increases the quality of service provided and encourages good well being all round.

Many of us have suffered from poor service in call centres and I wonder how much of this is poor attitudes from the employers to there staff, casing them stress and anxiety, this then being reflected in their attitudes toward the customer? (posted by Peter Hume)

Answer 4: Courtesy of Nik Kellingley.

Interesting to see that no-one went for a balanced approach to this issue.

It always bothers me that we don’t see both sides of the coin and adapt accordingly.

The last respondent was correct in that things are obviously seriously wrong within the environment to lead to such a change over the last 4 months.

However a truly empowered workforce that is encourage to work as a team and valued for their ideas can manage duvet days perfectly well without major drops in service and to suggest otherwise is pretty typical of British management culture that treats everyone with suspicion and contempt as they “can’t be trusted”.

I think duvet days are a good reactive measure, and a sensible policy that requires 24 hours notice for a duvet day (to enable cover to be found) may be a quick fix that be combined by a longer term program to fix the underlying issues.

Asking is a good start, but listening is more important still, separating management out from the process in a large part is important (to reduce message dilution you need to find out why from the horses mouth – do not rely on line managers to find out for you and temper the message to distract from their own failings). Then act upon the feedback – don’t pretend that you already address the issues raised, if you did there wouldn’t be an issue.

And keep the process going – it’s not a one off exercise, the more you involve people in their environment and the more you give them a chance to input and more importantly to effect change in their work, the more happy they are likely to be.

We can’t change the nature of call centre work, it will always be repetitive and somewhat monotonous, what we can do is move away from the authorative “sweat shop” approach and let people influence the things that matter to them.

Answer 5: Courtesy of Rob Jones 

I agree with last two comments. We introduced guaranteed snail days 1 per month for each staff which reduced very high sickness levels but then they were capped and so sickness levels increased again. Yes the nature of call centre work is very controlling/restrictive and small things become amplified to the agent. Consider the hotdesker in a cubicle who has no feeling of worth, they may be in a team but that’s just a word they don’t actually talk to team mates its call call call, It’s a disciplinary offence for that or this. Some sites forbid leaving site even in a break just to exercise especially in some government departments. The controlling nature of some flawed IT software & unfreindly systems coupled with targets/scripted mandatory text/few vdu breaks Customer abuse/ will take its toll which translates to some of the highest sicknes/ turnover rates in any occupation costing the country many millions.

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 28th Aug 2007 - Last modified: 6th Feb 2019
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1 Comment
  • I think giving 24 hours notice prior to taking a duvet day somewhat defeats the purpose. A duvet day is taken at short notice, i.e. before setting off for work when one feels for whatever reason that work just cannot be faced that day, so instead of phoning in sick a duvet day is taken.

    Roger Cann 25 Nov at 10:10