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A Solution to Contact Center Attendance Problems

Attendance issues are one of the most common challenges contact center leaders face. Poor attendance often leads to higher attrition, which makes it very difficult to run daily operations, meet service level goals, and serve customers. And unfortunately, sometimes team members with otherwise strong performance have to be fired due to poor attendance. What can we do differently to prevent this from happening? First, let's level-set and figure why it's such a struggle.

Empty desk

It's not just a contact center problem.

Why is attendance such a challenge in the contact center industry? Are we the only ones plagued with unplanned absences and tardiness?! While the attendance problem can feel unique to contact centers, other sectors are significantly challenged by absenteeism and tardiness, too. For example, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that "Healthcare support occupations," "Federal government occupations," and "State government occupations" have among the worst absenteeism! We're not alone, but here are three reasons why absenteeism is particularly tricky to manage in contact centers:

1.    Less flexibility than other jobs

Compared to other industries, or even other areas of the company, it's important to remember that the contact center is likely much less flexible. Someone from Marketing or IT, for example, may be able to take a personal day on a whim or work from home while they care for a sick child. That's not how things work in the contact center. Our customers don't wait for us to return and our team can't choose when and where they work.

2.    The candidate pool is unique

It's also important to acknowledge that the candidates who are seeking out "entry level" agent positions may have less stable home situations, financial stability, access to transportation, or reliable daycare. Less security at home can often impact work performance, including attendance.

3.    Low unemployment

Another factor worth mentioning is a strong economy and low unemployment rate. Plentiful jobs and competitive wages can impact the stability of your candidate pool. And having other options means current team members may miss work in pursuit of another position.  Staffing models that include temporary or contractor staff will be especially volatile as these candidates will likely seek out permanent employment options.

The Problem with Most Attendance Policies

In my experience, two specific challenges are quite common in contact centers:

1.    Losing well trained and highly-skilled team members due to attendance issues

2.    Team members feeling "stuck" with a poor attendance record, and therefore giving up

In my opinion, the standard approach to managing attendance issues is partly to blame. Many contact center attendance policies look similar. Each attendance "occurrence" is tracked and totaled. A set number of absences and tardiness is defined as an acceptable number, and after a certain amount of time--often 12 months--each occurrence is removed from the total. As long as the total remains in the acceptable range, no problem. Employees with absences above that acceptable range enter a disciplinary process which looks something like this:

  • X occurrences results in a verbal warning
  • Followed by a written warning
  • Followed by a final warning
  • Followed by termination

If a team member hits the "verbal warning" phase, their trajectory doesn't look great. There is a strong chance they will spend much of their tenure trying to avoid further disciplinary action. It's common that folks bounce back and forth around the acceptable number of occurrences once they've surpassed it. What's worse, if they racked up their occurrences in a short amount of time, the likelihood of them sticking around can be quite low. Without making excuses, I think we can acknowledge that a bad attendance record in a short period can create a situation that feels hopeless. It's "just a matter of time" until life happens and they lose their job.

What can we do to help?

The Solution

This may sound radical, but to be clear, I'm not suggesting that we "reward bad behavior" or "delay the inevitable." Instead, the solution I'll outline here is intended to give team members an opportunity to work their way out of attendance issues before they become "hopeless." It's an effort to encourage good habits before disciplinary action is needed, and to reward employees for hitting some short-term goals. It's an attempt at blending accountability and compassion.

Here's how the approach works.

It all begins before the point of a verbal warning. The idea is to prevent the employee from entering the disciplinary process and getting stuck in the perpetual loop. When the employee hits the occurrence before a verbal warning, they enter level 1 of the program.

Level 1 of the program is a four-week challenge. If the employee makes it four weeks with perfect attendance - no unplanned absences or tardiness - they will have their most recent occurrence removed. If they have any unplanned attendance issues during this four-week period, the first level of the program ends. At that point, they receive a verbal warning, as they normally would have, and enter the next level of the program. Whether or not they "pass" level one, they will move on to level two.

Level 2 of the program is a five-week challenge. If they go five additional weeks with perfect attendance - no unplanned absences or tardiness - they will have their most recent occurrence removed. Again, if they have any unplanned attendance issues during this period the 2nd level of the program ends, the disciplinary process continues, and they move onto level 3. Again, whether or not they "pass" level 2 they will move onto the next, and last, level of the program.

Level 3 of the program is a six-week challenge. If they go six additional weeks with perfect attendance - no unplanned absences or tardiness - they will have their most recent occurrence removed. Again, if they have any unplanned attendance issues during this period, the last phase of the program ends, and they continue in the disciplinary process based on their occurrence count.

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The Result

In the end, you have an opportunity to influence behavior change in your team members through positive recognition and compassion. You can reduce the "churn" and exhaustion in the hire, train, repeat process. You can intervene before an employee gets too far down a bad path, yet still hold them accountable for their work. You'll also get extended periods of reliability, and can help the agent avoid entering the disciplinary process by achieving even one or two levels of the program. And if they don't "pass" the challenges, you're no worse off than you otherwise would have been.

Maybe this will be a solution to your attendance problem? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Contact center attendance issues