Forget Wimbledon and Ascot. The World Cup is the biggest sports fixture this year, and with it comes the nightmare of dealing with absenteeism in the call centre. As Adrian Garton reveals, however, you don’t have to give your staff a red card – or even a yellow one – so long as you manage the process effectively.
When the sun is shining and the World Cup is on, pulling a sickie doesn’t seem to be a big deal for a call centre agent. However, the cost of absenteeism to the contact centre industry is significant – and probably one of the biggest issues up there with agent churn. This year’s annual “Contact Centre Benchmarking Report” by Merchants showed absenteeism figures to be up on last year from 8% to 11%. And when we consider that 3% is a manageable figure but anything over 5% loses a call centre money, these are frightening figures.
The reasons behind such high levels of absenteeism do not stem from an unusually sickly workforce, but from lack of motivation and a somewhat blase attitude to the importance of attendance in the call centre. Unsurprisingly, then, when a contact centre employee wakes up and makes that split second decision on whether he or she will go in to work that day, it is the job of the effective manager to ensure that the answer is ‘yes’ as often as possible.
Don’t ever mention plasma screens again
With the World Cup now nearly at a close, I can offer a few insights in to the perils of absenteeism and some practical solutions we have used to encourage attendance. For example, I always hear
|Steps to help you tackle absence
the age-old plasma-screen-in-the-call-centre solution whenever there is a big sporting event on. Expecting a member of staff to carry out their job while watching a football match on a plasma screen is a ridiculous notion, yet time and time again it is mentioned. Just imagine how a customer would feel if they called up as the penalty shoot out was taking place.
During this year’s World Cup, creative planning by managers has kept absence low in Merchants’ call centres. By embracing the tournament within the workplace and coming up with creative staffing solutions, we have managed to avoid the expected levels of absenteeism and have increased employees’ engagement with their work. Below are some of the solutions we have employed.
Staff teams in the contact centres have adopted countries and decked out their work areas in the team colours. The decorations stay up for as long as the team remains in the competition and the winning team are rewarded with a team meal out.
Using this approach, the workplace has some connection to the outside world for employees. It also brings a little variety in to the working day. At that split second when the employee wakes up and decides whether or not to go in to work, this may just tip the balance.
In most contact centres there will be a group of people who are dying to watch the World Cup – so much so they will call in sick in order to watch it. There will also be a group of people who could not care less what David Beckham is up to on the pitch.
We have been successful in the simple yet effective rescheduling of rotas so that those who want to watch the match are scheduled to be off, and those who don’t can cover the phones. Genius.
Being flexible with leave
Forward planning is the key. As a manager it is better to have six people on pre-arranged holiday than six unexpected absences during the England game. Forewarned is forearmed. If you have notice of absences, you can schedule more people to cover.
Absence management plans
With the best will in the world, absenteeism still occurs. When I am training call centre team managers, I suggest the use of a simple four-step procedure to manage absenteeism and increase staff engagement with the role:
Stage one: make personal contact with the individual
I always advise managers to speak directly to their employees when they call in sick, rather than take a message. Between 20% and 30% of absenteeism can be killed off by this call alone. The reality is that many employees suffer from manageable symptoms or symptoms that have passed. You may also be able to tell if they are in the car on the way to Alton Towers. Just talking to your employee can help tackle sickness. This requires no medical training, just a little common sense.
One of the most effective phrases for tackling absenteeism is very simply: “Call me back at lunchtime and let me know how you are feeling.”
I always recommended speaking to absent employees twice during their shift. Make sure you have a contact telephone number for them at home or, at the very least, a database of mobile phone contact numbers. If your employee forgets to call you back, then you can make sure that the vital second conversation still happens.
Believe it or not, one third of people will come in for the second half of their shift. This will significantly increase your attendance rates.
By making that second call, managers are resetting the boundaries of absenteeism and reinforcing the importance of attendance. Plus, it is also fairly tricky to find a quiet corner of a theme park to call your manager and give a convincing performance for the second time in a day.
Stage two: Return-to-work interview
The crucial word here is interview. A return to work form lacks the personal touch of the interview. Sit down with your employee to devise a strategy to help them deal with problems and avoid further absence. Imaginative return-to-work forms are easy to fill in, but there are only so many times that an employee can sit in front of you and tell another creative lie before you identify their sporadic short-term absences as a problem.
To the genuinely unwell, this is compassionate management. However, to the Alton Towers-goer it will be an altogether more awkward experience. At this point, it is also worth highlighting to an employee the financial implications of absence and the importance of the employee in the success and profitability of the contact centre.
Stage three: Contact a doctor
At Merchants, where there is evidence of an ongoing unresolved medical complaint we take professional medical advice on the situation. We make sure that all staff contracts authorise us to investigate their medical conditions. We also place this up-front in our contracts, which makes it an even easier step to take.
Rather than contacting a doctor, which tends to be lengthy, costly and unfruitful, we have entered in to a contract with a professional occupational health specialist who assesses the situation and offers solutions to both the employee and employer. The occupational health specialist provides practical solutions to increase attendance. Long-term complaints that warrant specialist intervention include Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Back and neck problems are also common complaints.
We have found that reducing working hours from, say, 40 to 30 hours can increase attendance levels for those with high levels of absenteeism and allow a manager to plan resources more effectively. It is better to have 100% attendance over 30 hours than 80% over 40 hours. We are also able to make reasonable adjustments on medical grounds, such as shift changes or specialist office equipment.
Stage four: Formal action
If stages one to three fail to address the problem, I always urge managers to progress to more formal disciplinary measures. This is the point at which you must step back from compassion management and assess the real impact of absenteeism on the success and profitability of the contact centre.
Through a counselling meeting the employee will be asked to set short-term easy-to-manage objectives. One such example may be to come in to work every day for two weeks. You must also set realistic penalties, with failure to achieve targets resulting in a verbal warning, written warning and ultimately dismissal.
Last of all, you must stick to your guns and carry out the disciplinary action – even if this means making yourself unpopular in the workplace.
Adrian Garton is group HR manager for the outsourcer Merchants