Counter-Intuitive Thinking About Absenteeism and Turnover

Tripp Babbitt

As I read through my Google search on absenteeism and turnover, I read the usual solutions to these problems. Most are related to some carrot and stick approach to get call center representatives to enjoy their job. But the focus is all in the wrong place.

While organizations have been working the "Pavlovian" and "behavioralist" style of management with emphasis on the call center representative, a different approach to absenteeism and turnover is being overlooked. People are not animals; they have the enduring ability to reason. An approach exists that requires a little more thought and shtick than the well-worn path seen with extrinsic motivation.

Dispelling the Myths of Turnover

W. Edwards Deming was once asked what should be done about "dead wood" in an organization. His response, "Did you hire the wrong people or just kill’em?" This implied that we have systemic failures to look at instead of blaming the worker. In this case, the system of hiring someone right for the job (wrong people) or work that is so poorly designed that even a good person would fail (kill them).

Before we move on, let us dispel the myth that there is good turnover . . . there is no good turnover. Turnover is expensive. Think of all the training you invested and the cost of hiring someone new. Also, there is no guarantee that the next person will be better than the last one.

The problem with turnover and absenteeism is more about the role being important. If a call center representative believes that the job they hold in the call center is important, the employee will come to work at the call center. If not, the call center representative will leave or be absent. But there is more to this than telling the employee that his job is important to the call center performance; there is the design and management of the call center work too.

Reducing Call Center Turnover Through the Design and Management of Work

Think of the way most call center work is managed: top-down and decision-making separated from the work. Add the functional separation of the work and we have a full-fledged dysfunctional organization. This style of call center management is old, inefficient and ineffective. We call it command and control.

We are all familiar with this style where the workers are accountable for the work they do, but not the decisions about the work they do. Those are made by call center managers who often don’t understand the work. Instead important decisions about the work come from reports or anecdotal evidence.

The functional separation of work leads to specialists and the functional breakdown of the work. People wind up with call center jobs designed to increase call center productivity and reduce call center costs through "dumbing down" the work with technology, scripts and written procedures. The result is workers who check their brains at the door.

The Origin of Management Thinking

This thinking came from two sources Frederick Winslow Taylor and A.P. Sloan. Taylor was responsible for scientific management theory that led to the functional separation of work. A.P. Sloan coined the phrase "management by the numbers" and it was Sloan who felt it was wrong for managers to know details of the work. The thinking of these men helped to form modern perceptions of the relationship between worker and manager.

Most organizations still manage this way today. The worker has been rendered irrelevant to the point technology and accounting (supporting roles) carry more weight than the worker.

These organizations are missing the knowledge of the work that Dr. Deming in Japan and the Japanese Industrial Miracle. He proved that this "management by the numbers" thinking was flawed and that a fearful and irrelevant worker was going to be a problem for any company competing on a global scale.

What Does the Call Center Do Now?

The decision-making must be put back with the work. Doing so makes the worker relevant again. As stated earlier, a call center worker with a job that is important . . . will come to work.

Further, a functional work design that buries the end-to-end delivery of customer service into pieces is ineffective. Front, middle and back call center office designs give the call center representative no idea of what the real customer wants or needs. They don’t see the end-to-end call center system and drive costs up through hand-offs, queuing and other forms of waste and sub-optimization. The work is boring, stressful and irrelevant and must be redesigned against customer demand.

The redesign of this call center work starts with customer purpose and then deriving customer measures from this purpose. With knowledge of customer purpose and measures the call center representative can be allowed to experiment with method to innovate rendering the work as exciting and important.

Giving a call center representative work that is challenging, exciting and important not only reduces turnover and absenteeism, but gives an organization a new source of ideas for innovation and profit. This is a far better approach than the dated thinking of Taylor and Sloan.