Although there is some difference of opinion about exactly what the term “work-life balance” means, Dolly Parton, in her classic comedy “9 to 5,” gave a great definition of what it is not:
Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
Dolly and her costars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin experienced stress on the job, which carried over into their personal lives. Occupations that are rife with stress, tight supervision, demands to reach or exceed performance standards, and unpredictable schedules are prone to create work-life imbalances. According to academic research, 25% of employees experience high levels of conflict between work and family, and 60% incur some level of conflict.
Work-life Balance in the Contact Center
Employment as a contact center agent has a lot to offer. Agents have access to state-of-the-art technology. They can work with peers who share the same demographics and interests, which leads to a spirit of camaraderie. In modern contact centers, the culture is customer-centric. This appeals to workers who enjoy communicating with others and strive to deliver superior customer care. Compensation is competitive with other positions that do not require university degrees, and employers may offer generous benefits. Most importantly for many, work hours are sometimes flexible and it may even be possible to work from home.
That’s the good news. The flip side is that the job can be highly stressful. Agents expect to feel the brunt of angry callers at least twice a day. Their work is tightly monitored and measured against metrics. Facilities are often cramped and noisy. Most problematic, in terms of achieving a favorable work-life balance, is uncertainty of work hours. Turnover and absenteeism are generally higher than other occupations, which leads to frantic rescheduling as supervisors juggle schedules to maintain service levels. Many contact centers are open 24/7, which means employees may be required to work evening hours and weekends. According to ICMI, 87% of contact center leaders acknowledge that agents experience moderate to elevated stress levels during the workday, and this is an important cause of resignations.
Contact center workers are disproportionately female. Women incur more work-life imbalances than men because, in addition to serving their employer, they often carry primary responsibility for child care, elder care and household management.
United States Vs. Europe
European nations have long been strongly committed to work-life balance. A modest but illustrative example is a French law that allows employees to disconnect from work email when they are not in the office. Moreover, the mindset is to build flexibility into work schedules and encourage (sometimes require) employees to take vacations. Three weeks of vacation is typical for a new employee, and it can grow to as much as 10 weeks for experienced employees. Generally, vacation time cannot be carried over to the next year. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans left a record 662 million vacation days unused in 2016.
In many European countries, both parents receive generous paid time off for newborns or adoptions. In Finland, for instance, new mothers are entitled to up to three years’ worth of paid leave. Norwegian mothers get up to 91 weeks. In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act has a provision giving eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for new child.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the five countries with the best work-life balance in 2017 were:
The United States lags, but the legislative trend is favorable. Some states have laws that require employers to provide employees with firm schedules several weeks in advance. Paid family leave for mothers and fathers is at least a consideration in Congress. At the state or municipality level, the minimum wage is trending sharply upward, which should reflect on higher wages for contact center agents.
What Contact Centers Do to Improve Work-life Balance
Driven largely by the needs and expectations of today’s millennial workforce, companies are rethinking their cultures and employee relations. The millennial workforce now exceeds 70 million and will soon outnumber boomers as the largest population cohort.
Millennials have very different ideas about work than their boomer parents and grandparents. For most of them, work-life balance is not just desirable, but essential. They have many interests and tend to view their jobs as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. They are not careerists although they are hard-working.
To attract and retain millennial workers and employees of all ages, contact centers should consider the following:
- Incorporate employee preferences when building schedules.
- Support contract workers (gig economy) through flexible scheduling and remote access to software.
- Communicate through familiar channels such as text, chat and social media.
- Strive for a collegial, family-like environment.
- Encourage and enable personalization options for self-development.
- Accommodate reasonable requests for time off.
- Encourage innovation and problem-solving through collaboration.
- Launch a user community exclusively for contact center employees.
What the Vendor Community Is Doing to Improve Work-life Balance
- Offering automation option for quality monitoring software—to reduce stress.
- Integrating WFM software with mobile devices so employees can remotely request time off, execute shift swaps, access schedules, and exchange text messages with supervisors and peers.
- Providing the capability to alert interested employees of opportunities for overtime, shift swaps or time off. Employees can respond directly from their PCs or mobile devices.
- Introducing user interfaces that incorporate design elements of familiar smartphones.
- Providing agent portals that allow for personalization.
- Providing integrated learning and coaching solutions.
- Revising scheduling and forecasting algorithms to consider employee preferences for work-life balance.
The concept of work-life balance has long been a foundational principle governing the employer-employee relationship in Europe. The concept is gaining traction in North America as labor shortages allow workers to be more selective about the companies for whom they choose to work.
Work-life balance is not equally dividing time spent at work with time devoted to personal pursuits, nor is it a commitment for employers to accommodate the personal scheduling needs of each employee. It is a shrewd business practice that produces motivated and productive employees.