Absenteeism Is a Pain

FROM THE JANUARY 2019 ISSUE

Absenteeism in the Contact Center
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Absenteeism is a pain, we all know that. According to Benchmark Portal, absenteeism equates to 6.48% of all scheduled hours in a contact center. Everyone is looking for a silver bullet to stop absenteeism.

A quick Google search brings up thousands of articles with countless ideas for reducing absenteeism. Suffice it to say, there is no perfect solution. When you figure in differences in cultures, customers, contact types, B2B vs. B2C, expectations and leadership, it just gets more complicated.

Although nearly every call center will require some level of customization to address absenteeism, there are common issues and solutions that come up again and again. In this article, I outline some of the universal causes of excessive absenteeism and the solutions that often help. Not every case will fit your center, but there may be ideas here that will provide you with some relief and guidance.

Understanding Why: 7 Causes of Absenteeism

First, let’s examine some tried-and-true causes of rampant absenteeism:

  1. Low morale and employee engagement. Even if not a direct cause, low morale and engagement are often part of absenteeism and attrition problems. Understanding your employees and what makes them happy is integral to the success of any contact center. Start here and everything else may fall in place.
  2. Lack of appreciation. It’s hard to have good morale if you feel unappreciated or underappreciated. If the message you send to employees is that they’re easily replaceable or not valuable to your organization, they will find it hard to be motivated and easy to call in sick, even when they’re not.
  3. Poor leadership. Oh, we hate to think we’re the problem, but maybe we are. Too much discipline or not enough can both result in absenteeism and attrition. Gallup studies suggest that 75% of people who quit their jobs are leaving their managers rather than their companies. If you’re trying solve absenteeism, morale and attrition problems in your organization, are you looking closely enough at leadership?
  4. Personal/family issues. Things come up. Sometimes it’s an elderly parent or a child in trouble or a financial hardship. We all experience struggles at one time or another, and they can cause unexpected absenteeism. Prepare for it at an organizational level, and you will find the stress caused is greatly reduced to both you and your employee.
  5. Illness/personal wellbeing. Everyone gets sick from time to time. Your workforce management (WFM) plan should offer options for employees who are facing short-term or longer-term health challenges. Your sick leave policies may be backfiring on you if they force people to work while ill, exposing others to contagious illness or extending their own.
  6. Mental illness. Depression, anxiety and other mental challenges and illnesses are not rare, unfortunately, but they are usually manageable or treatable. Some are short term, others may be chronic conditions. Understanding how to recognize and make effective accommodations when necessary can have long-lasting positive effects.
  7. Employee conflicts. Do your employees get along? Do they like working together? Are the supervisors managing each person based on their unique abilities and personality? Or is there constant drama and accusations of favoritism and cliques? This is a huge cause of absenteeism, but one that can often be solved quickly.

Fixing Your Absenteeism

Once you understand the root cause of your absenteeism, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and create a culture of attendance. The following are several key actions you can take to reduce your absenteeism.

Hire the right agents and train them for success. Set up a custom applicant intake process. This process should identify the personalities and behaviors required for success for both your agent and supervisor population. It should include personality assessments that are benchmarked with your top performers, behavioral and functional interview questions, a realistic job preview and thorough references.

Hire the right supervisors and train them to be a resource for their team. Less than 20% of contact centers have a formal training program in place for frontline leadership. Consider sending your leaders to a frontline leadership training program. Many regional contact center associations—as well as Benchmark Portal—offer comprehensive training programs that provide a framework for coaching, mentoring, managing, metrics and overcoming challenges.

Set clear expectations. Create an absenteeism policy that clearly defines your expectations. Include the processes to follow in the event that an employee needs to miss work. Finally, enforce them consistently.

Communicate the impact of absenteeism on metrics and coworkers. When an agent misses a shift, it adds to the load on their teammates. During training, I show a graph that illustrates what happens to service levels for every missed agent. Agents don’t always see how their absence increases the workload and stress on their coworkers. Having a better understanding helps them step up to be more proactive and responsible about missing work.

Make work fun. Unhappy employees have more absenteeism, it’s that simple. A fun work environment makes people want to come to work. Why not form a committee to plan activities and incentives for employees? Building a great culture means engaging the whole employee.

Offer a wellness program. Another simple fact—healthy employees call in sick less frequently. If your company offers a wellness program (most insurance plans include them), promote it to your agents. Help them succeed by enabling wellness activities like walking clubs for breaks, stretch times throughout the day, or incentives like gym discounts.

Unlock agents from their desks. Even great agents can lose focus if they’re stuck at their desk managing a repetitive, relentless workload day after day. The pressure we feel to increase productivity rolls down to our agents, but productivity doesn’t have to mean an assembly line mentality. Look for opportunities to switch tasks occasionally, giving agents some variety (or just a break) when possible.

Reward perfect attendance. Your most competitive agents will work hard to earn perfect attendance awards. Consider offering additional PTO for every month, quarter or year of perfect attendance. Hold drawings where for every 5 scheduled days in a row of perfect attendance the agent is entered into a drawing for a coveted prize such as cash, PTO, favorite coffee for a week, best parking spot, gift cards, etc. Remember, sincere recognition can be much more meaningful than prizes.

Tie attendance to scorecard, performance reviews, raises and promotion opportunities. Top-tier agents typically strive to achieve. In addition to meeting goals and getting high scores on QA and other metrics, good attendance can be part of a good performance if you decide it should be. Lord Kelvin said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” If you want your employees to take attendance seriously, show them you take it seriously by grading them on it.

Be flexible… with good policies. This one can be tough. Good policies should be fair and consistent but should be designed with humans, not robots, in mind.

Work with Your Agents to Build Trust

The unexpected will happen. Important family events like sports tournaments and recitals, or car, weather or plumbing disasters, as well a host of other unforeseen events can result in absenteeism. For some leaders, their knee-jerk reaction is to punish an agent who makes a last-minute request. However, it’s been my experience that this is an opportunity to build trust. Do you trust your agent to be responsible, truthful and transparent? Do they trust you to have their back?

In my center, I expect my leadership team to work with an agent when they have a last-minute need. Whether they need to leave early, come in late or miss an entire shift, the leadership team should work to make it happen. For example, my WFM team is tasked with adjusting projections for adherence to schedule and flexibility. My frontline leadership is tasked with understanding which agents are flexible to modify their schedules so everyone can work when it is best for them. My teams work together to fight for our agents and their work-life balance. By building trust that goes both ways, our unexpected absenteeism has greatly reduced, as has our attrition.

What works in one center may not work in another, but people generally react best and achieve more for leadership they trust. Spend the time it takes to understand your agents’ motivations and build two-way trust with them. Then, create an absenteeism policy and program that benefits your agents, which, in turn, will always benefit your customers.

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