promoting a culture of attendance
Illustration by Stephen Rowe

Consider for a moment how much you invest in your agents. Salary and benefit costs are obvious. But don’t forget recruiting, hiring and training. And hardware, software and support costs for desktops and phone systems. And unless you have a remote workforce, you are also paying for rent, furniture, utilities and other facility charges. And your supervisors, quality monitoring analysts and trainers exist almost exclusively to serve your agents, so those costs must be added as well.

Add it all up, and it’s a pretty big number. And like many of you, I am OK with that. They are the frontline, and they are the ones with the greatest impact on customer satisfaction. It is not an exaggeration to say they are the lifeblood of the contact center, so they certainly provide a great return on the investment. Unless, of course, they don’t show up.

How Big is the Problem?

“Showing up” has always been a soft spot regarding contact center agent performance, and many leaders are reporting that the problem is quickly spiraling out of control. It shows in disability data and in the average number of unscheduled days off. It also shows in turnover data, since attendance is one metric that most contact centers will terminate for if objectives are not met.

I do a fairly substantial amount of work building long-term staffing models, and I collect a lot of data related to what is commonly called “shrink factors.” I turn the data for all these factors into the “percentage of paid time lost” for each activity (disability, meetings, training, etc.), which is an easy way to compare data and track trends. Disability is one of the “big three” when it comes to these metrics, along with vacations and idle time (time spent waiting for calls to arrive). My data shows that absences account for nearly 7% of lost time, compared to 6.25% a decade ago. So yes, the number is big and it is growing.

Understanding the Details

So what is going on here? At 7%, that means the average agent loses 18 days per year to disability. That’s a scary number, so let’s first make sure that we understand some of the underlying facts:

  • The data includes all time lost to disability, which includes things like secondary, long-term disability and (in most cases) maternity leave.
  • 18 is an average, and is not reflective of the typical employee. Most centers have a large number of agents with 5 or fewer days of disability per year. They are offset mathematically by a few that have 60 or more days.
  • While I use the term “paid time lost,” I still count the absences if they are unpaid. It would be more accurate to call it “planned time lost,” where you plan for agents to be available 40 hours a week without regard for whether or not lost time is paid.

Maybe those clarifications make the number a bit easier to swallow—or maybe not. In any event, it is a realistic number and we need to learn how to deal with it.

Dealing With It

Causes are hard to definitively identify. Many leaders I speak with believe that the average agent today has a more “casual” attitude toward the job in total, and attendance in particular, than in the past. Whether true or not, there is little value in lamenting the good old days (remember, they didn’t seem that good when we were living through them).

Contact center leaders are practical people, and excel at defining and addressing issues. Here are a few practices to consider to deal with the issue:

Accept it. When you recognize that absence rates may be higher, you use the higher loss rate in long-term staff planning and when evaluating daily schedule exceptions, like vacation requests. This doesn’t improve the number, but it reduces the likelihood of the customer paying the price for the higher absence rates.

Rethink absence policies. An unfortunate fact buried in the data is that the highest absence rates exist in companies that have the most generous disability plans. Some companies are reconsidering these in a variety of ways, from putting a limit on the number of paid days to reserving the better disability plans for higher levels of the agent position (achieved only after a positive attendance record has been established).

Rethink the idea of full-time employment. If people really are more casual about the job and their schedules, then maybe we need to keep pace with this social change. Consider hiring people to more flexible schedules, where a certain number of hours are guaranteed and others are bid on. For example, a new-hire may be guaranteed a relatively stable schedule of at least 28 hours a week, with a chance to bid on up to 12 more per week. It won’t take long before an organization discovers those most interested in full-time work. The others can be kept on more of a flexible schedule, with perhaps less severe penalties for absences.

Consider independent contractors. More and more, contact centers are considering a workforce that utilizes some level of independent contractors to cover some of the schedules. These team members are not employees at all, and most have no regular schedule. They bid on shifts they want, allowing them to vary their work time with other activities. This tends to work best with virtual staff, since the shifts are sometimes too short to justify driving into an office.

Improve engagement. Yes, engaged employees get ill and miss work time. But they are less likely to think that having 13 episodes of “The Walking Dead” queued up constitutes a sickness that requires a day off.

Look Beyond Traditional Practices

Attendance may be a “boring” topic, but it is hard to come up with anything more central to the success of a contact center.

Yes, better attendance rates are a great goal, and there is nothing wrong with working toward them. But whatever the rate is, we need to deal with it. For many of us, that means breaking away from tradition and trying something creative. “Adapt or die” may be a good guiding mantra.