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High Absenteeism? Treat the Illness, Not the Symptoms

Battling high levels of absenteeism has long been a challenge in call centers, which have struggled to overcome a history of low pay, high stress and lack of appreciation for the work. Over the past decade, the call center industry has made great strides to gain visibility and increase their value within organizations, yet high absenteeism remains a top concern for managers.
Last year, a survey conducted by ICMI to identify top call center management challenges found that attendance/adherence issues topped the list, with almost half of respondents (48 percent) citing it as a major management headache. According to the survey respondents, one of the main causes of attendance problems was the difficulty of aligning inflexible work schedules with agents’ personal lives (see box below).

The Work/Personal Life Balance

While companies readily offer their agents training for job-related skills, for some employees, managing their lives away from work is the area in which they need help.

Top Causes of Absenteeism

Respondents to an ICMI survey on top management challenges cited the following most common root causes of unscheduled absences:

  • Rigid work schedules not aligned with personal issues/needs
  • Lack of buy-in and/or understanding about the importance of being at work
  • Health issues stemming from poor ergonomics
  • No consequences for not showing up
  • High stress and burnout

That’s what management at Convergys Corp. discovered. The global provider of integrated billing, employee care and customer care services took steps a few years ago to uncover the underlying causes of unscheduled absences among a group of employees who were consistently late or failed to make it to work, says Director of Operations Jeff Orwin.
"We found that the root causes [of frequent absenteeism] were often not related to work but to the lifestyle choices that they made," he says. "Many of the people who had attendance problems didn’t have a good planning process in their lives as a whole.” To fill that need, Convergys contacted local community groups and educational institutions to coordinate life skills courses for its agents, such as planning, managing time and setting priorities.
Another way to help agents better manage their lives outside of the call center is to provide them with the ability to take care of the routine events that occur in everyday life—doctors appointments, dental visits, dealing with common tasks—without losing an entire day of work. At Allstate, a recently implemented program allows its call center agents, called senior customer insurance professionals, to schedule partial time-off.
"If they have a situation where they only need a few hours off, they can schedule their time-off in smaller increments down to an hour, where in the past they may have had to take the whole day off," says Scott Christensen, operations department manager at Allstate’s Woodridge Customer Information Center in Illinois.

Getting Agents Involved in Lowering Absenteeism

Taming the Absenteeism Beast

During an interactive session at ICMI’s Knowledge Exchange in San Francisco last fall, managers offered the following ideas which they found to be successful in improving attendance.

  • Offered a buy-back program for unused sick days.
  • To resolve high absenteeism on Mondays, moved agents’ payday fromFriday to Monday. Monday attendance subsequently improved (and Friday absenteeism hasn’t been as high as Mondays were previously).
  • Brought agents into the planning process to ensure that they understand what the service level goals are and to reach them.
  • Put together an incentive program tied into calls. Agents have the opportunity to earn points, which can be redeemed for prizes or cash.
  • Provided agents with the opportunity to perform off-phone duties, but to do so, they have to show up consistsently.
  • Created a visual representation of agents’ time away from work—a color-coded, 12-month calendar illustrating their vacation time, personal days, unclaimed absences, etc.
  • Began holding pizza parties and bringing in doughnuts on Mondays instead of Fridays.
  • Put the focus on supervisors to reset agent expectations and renew their efforts in performance management. Supervisors helped agents to understand how non-performers impacted employee morale. Provided agents with spreadsheets showing scores—with names masked—to track how they perform against other agents.
  • Set clear definition of goals, and encouraged lots of interaction between managers and frontline staff.
  • Changed the schedules of those who were repeatedly late or absent.
  • Educated agents on ergomonics. Brought in office furniture supplier who conducted in house sessions to teach agents how to use their workstations, proper setup and use. Also, now offer ergonomic training as part of new-hire training.
  • Tracked absents as “instances” rather than days.
  • Required agents to personally call in and speak directly with a designated person (voicemail messages not accepted).
  • Established firm policies that dealt with problem people fairly, but without faltering.

In addition to helping agents better balance work and personal lives, many call centers have found getting the agents themselves involved in lowering absenteeism to be successful.
A good start is to provide agents with a clear understanding of the call center’s attendance policy, expectations and how they perform against those goals, says Orwin.
At Convergys, a companywide database At Convergys, a companywide database tracks agent attendance. "Our attendance policy is built into the database as a function," he explains. “It allows the agents to self-report their attendance for the past 12-month period and see how they perform against expectations. From an accountability perspective, it ensures that the team leads and frontline managers know exactly where they stand on attendance.” Team leads and supervisors can then intervene early when potential problems surface by setting action plans with individuals to improve their attendance.
In addition to providing real-time feedback on attendance, Convergys has taken steps to educate agents on the consequences that unscheduled absences have on their coworkers, the company and their own wallets. "We try to show our people why it’s important for them to be here and follow our attendance policies—what it does for the company, the importance to their team, how it affects their peers when they’re absent and the impact that absenteeism can have on their individual financial picture, as well as future job opportunities and career growth. We’ve had good results with that. People catch on quickly, and they understand how to make better choices and drive their own personal accountability and attendance. And when people see the impact that one person can have on the results of the entire group, they feel a sense of ownership, and they’re willing to buy in and help their team to achieve their goals."
Giving agents a voice in improving attendance also helps to secure centerwide buy-in for attendance policies, according to Tommi Metcalfe. Metcalfe, a national sales representative with self-storage services provider Storage USA, was one of three agents tapped for a committee tasked with researching attendance policies and incentives at other call centers. The frontline involvement "brought up morale," she says. "It let us know that [management] cared enough to let us do the research." The committee then drew in the rest of the staff by requesting the group to submit their recommendations for a fair policy and incentives.

Raise Attendance with Incentives, Recognition and Appreciation

Most call centers offer some type of incentive for perfect attendance over a specified time period (e.g., month, quarter, year). Convergys has found that tailoring the incentives for agents with good attendance records as well as those who need more short-term motivation helps to get results. For instance, for career-oriented agents with a history of consistent attendance, the organization created longer-term perfect attendance incentives (e.g., quarterly and annually). However, "we’ve also found that people who have attendance problems have a much shorter horizon that they look at," says Orwin. "In those cases, we created incentives that recognized their attendance on a weekly or monthly basis with smaller rewards and smaller recognition events, and we focused on making incremental improvements in their attendance. We’ve had very positive results from that."

One of the best attendance incentives that doesn’t cost a lot, Orwin adds, is an unpaid day off. "We’ve experimented with both paid days off and unpaid days off and found that they were equally effective at driving attendance," he says. "And from a cost perspective, an unpaid day off is certainly easier to fit into the budget."

Meals can be effective incentives, as well, says Tommi Metcalfe. Storage USA agents with perfect attendance for a month are rewarded with a group lunch or gift cards to local restaurants. Another successful attendance incentive is "funny money," she says. Agents who show up for work on time over a certain period earn a dollar of funny money. They can use the money to purchase items from a prize drawer, which includes movie tickets, candles and other small items.

Many companies have found that brown-bag lunches with management are highly valued by frontline staff as a form of recognition. Even better, though, is being served by managers. At KeyBank, agents with perfect attendance for the previous six months are invited to attend a quarterly ice cream social, says Senior Vice President Terry Koubele. The chance to have managers make sundaes and wait on them has proven to be more effective among agents than monetary incentives in improving attendance, he says.

Allstate managers also look for ways to accommodate staff during the workday. For instance, at the Woodridge Customer Information Center, which doesn’t have an onsite cafeteria and is not located close to affordable restaurants, food vendors are brought in several times a week so employees don’t have to leave the building or travel far for lunch or dinner, says Christensen.
In addition, to ease work-related stress, the center has an onsite fitness facility, which is frequently used, he says, plus a massage therapist who visits regularly.

The Supervisor-Agent Relationship Is Critical

One of the most important components in lowering absenteeism is the relationship between frontline employees and their supervisor.

Allstate concentrates on improving that connection by dedicating supervisors to specific teams, says Christensen. "They work when their teams work, and they work alongside their staff." In addition, supervisors are provided with extensive leadership training on personal interaction and communication skills.

KeyBank’s Koubele agrees that frontline supervisors are the key to lowering absenteeism. "People will call in sick because of their immediate manager. Or they feel great about their job, then they show up for work," he says. "I’ve seen a correlation between every team leader and the team’s absenteeism rate. Keeping your team leaders strong is your most effective tool in reducing absenteeism."