Curing Absenteeism
By Susan Hash

If your contact center's absenteeism is out of control and you're looking for a quick fix that will get your agents to show up for their shifts, then you're out of luck. There is no magic pill that will cure the condition overnight. High absenteeism generally is an indicator of a much larger problem that stems from disengaged agents, low motivation and poor morale. If you don't identify and address the underlying cause, then the health of your overall operation will continue to deteriorate.

Having an attendance policy that is fair and consistently applied is a good first step to minimizing pain for your staff. But how do you begin to diagnose, treat and prevent deeper problems? Making informed decisions starts with feedback from your staff.

Analyze the Workforce Culture
Your staff's cultural diversity and their attitudes toward work offer critical clues to the root causes of poor attendance. The way that people view time and work-life balance is deeply rooted in their personal value systems, which are shaped by an individual's religious beliefs, family, age, environment and education.

Conducting a workplace culture survey will help to identify the different groups that are represented in your workforce, such as nationalities, age, gender and employment status. For instance, your workplace may include single mothers who don't have as much control over their attendance, or Gen Y workers who value flex time.

Practical Pointer: Rather than relying on negative sanctions, such as threatening individuals with job loss because they are struggling to balance work and family issues, consider using positive motivators. Make it possible for an individual to be more productive by implementing a telecommuting program or offering flexible schedules.

Involve Agents in the Scheduling Process
You can significantly reduce tardiness, absenteeism and employee dissatisfaction by getting agents involved in developing new schedules, says Tiffany LaReau, a certified workforce manager at Human Numbers.

LaReau recommends forming a schedule focus team—a diverse group that includes a good representation of your center. Have the team brainstorm scheduling constraints (e.g., service goals, operating hours, team sizes and required staff by intervals, day of weeks, etc.), agent desires (e.g., daycare, school, traffic) and schedule options (consecutive days on/ off, 4x10 vs. 5x8 shifts, rotating weeks, weekend coverage, flexible or part-time shifts, etc.).

Practical Pointer: The schedule focus team should come up with a fair process for matching shifts to employees. "Team members can also serve as the Schedule Champion for their areas, a peer who agents can go to when they need to discuss schedule issues," LaReau says.

Supervisor Engagement Is Key
In centers that suffer from high absenteeism, you typically will find disengaged supervisors. Like agents, supervisors who are performing the same coaching tasks day in and day out can get into a rut. Disengaged supervisors can quickly infect a high-performing team by dispensing repetitive, mechanical feedback that makes agents feel that their efforts are not valued. Using a standardized process that requires supervisors to give feedback routinely often makes the situation worse.

Practical Pointer: Jay Blasing, managing partner for consulting firm BetterCore, LLC, suggests that managers make coaching seem less like a monotonous task by giving frontline supervisors a new goal to focus on each week. For instance, ask them to find three examples of a great call one week, or focus on customers who call with specific issues. "It gives supervisors targeted content to listen for, and they become re-engaged with their agents," he says.

Use Daily Rewards to Drive Desired Behavior
Incentives can be a valuable tool for reinforcing the right behaviors in your staff. The key to using incentives properly is to ensure continuous positive reinforcement and random intermittent reinforcement, says Snowfly Representative and Advisor Robert Cowen. Rewarding appropriate behavior on an ongoing basis makes that behavior more likely to occur in the future, and the randomness of the reward further reinforces the achievement while injecting excitement into the accomplishment. Immediacy of the reward is also key. The chance to win daily and weekly rewards has a stronger impact than attendance programs that only pay out for quarterly or annual achievements.

Practical Pointer: Cowen advises breaking down long-term goals into smaller components—or micro-goals—and reward them as they occur. For example, "rather than an award for a monthly perfect attendance, offer rewards for daily attendance and a bonus for five consecutive days of attendance," Cowen explains. "Micro-goals fulfill the needs of Gen X and Y for constant feedback, as well as prevent the erosion of hope (e.g., ‘why over-exert myself if I won't be rewarded'), which is fatal to many incentive programs."

Create Status around Top Performance
Programs that offer honor and prestige for top performance not only inspire employees to reach for higher goals, they help to create a positive workplace environment that attracts quality candidates.

At SWBC, a diversified financial services company headquartered in San Antonio, schedule performance is one component of a robust recognition program called "Top Performer," which carries a great deal of status within the company. Because of the prestige that management has built around being a top performer, it's a designation that agents active strive for. The company also has a separate recognition program that rewards agents who achieve perfect attendance with an additional bonus. Importantly, the frontline agents were the ones who defined the criteria for the program.

Practical Pointer: Getting agents involved in setting the goals for attendance and removing the obstacles is an effective way to get their ongoing buy in.

Inside View: The Beryl Companies

Frontline staff are the heart and soul of any contact center. They hold the power to make or break customer relationships, brand reputation and the bottom line. Yet, in tough times, companies often forget about their most important asset and focus on cost-cutting tactics, generally slashing headcount, training, benefits, incentives and pay. The Beryl Companies has taken a different approach. The company's Circle of Growth philosophy is simple: If you invest in your employees, they take care of your customers and the organization thrives. It seems to work. The health care call center services provider's unique corporate culture pays solid dividends—the firm's ability to engage employees has made it four to six times more profitable than its typical competitor.
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