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In touch with absence control

first_imgBymanaging staff expectations and working closely with the local community,customer service provider Garlands has substantially reduced staff turnover andsickness absence levels.  Alex BlythreportsThebusinessFoundedin 1980 as a debt collection agency, CJ Garland & Co diversified intocustomer service in 1997. Since then the Garlands Call Centres operation hasgrown rapidly to employ 1,850 staff at its Hartlepool Marina and Middlesbroughsites, and its clients include Freeserve, Powergen and Virgin Mobile. In recentyears, however, live agent call centre operations have come under increasingpressure from overseas competitors as well as from emerging technologies suchas web and telephone-based self-service. As a result, Garlands has had littlechance to rest on its laurels. In the past two years its continuing developmenthas been demonstrated most clearly by its innovative ‘Touch’ programme.ThechallengeEffectiveHR management is critical to the success of any call centre. Recruiting,retaining and motivating good staff for a job, which by its nature can be bothtedious and stressful, is an ongoing challenge. According to a 2001 report byIncome Data Services the industry has an average staff attrition rate of 22 percent, and, according to the Call Centre Management Association a staffabsenteeism rate of 6 per cent. Garlandswas particularly concerned by absenteeism, so in 2001 it ran an anonymous staffsurvey. Chief executive Chey Garland describes the findings: “Wediscovered that many sickness days were due to non-work issues such as staffsupporting family members with problems or experiencing marriage difficulties.Having learned this, we decided to set up a scheme that would give staff theopportunity to acquire skills to help them deal with their situations or givethem access to a colleague who could point them towards professional support.”Theresulting ‘Touch’ programme has three key strands: in the community, staff workon domestic violence and drink and drug issues; in education, staff work inlocal schools as reading mentors, classroom assistants and IT trainers; and incommunications, employees run Radio GaGa, the in-house radio station that playsmusic and delivers company news. By working closely with the appropriate localagencies and support groups, Garlands has ensured that the only cost to theorganisation has been in staff time. There are now about 150 employees on thescheme and each is given between five and ten days for their chosen project.TheoutcomeThesimple result of the Touch programme is that Garlands now has an absenteeismrate of only 4 per cent (down from 6 per cent), and staff attrition hasplummeted to 5 per cent (down from 11 per cent). Given the cost of recruitingand training new staff, this alone ensures that the scheme pays for itself.Garlands has also found when analysing the performance of staff in outboundsales departments that individuals who have gone through the Touch programmehave on average seen their sales performance increase by 17 per cent. HRmanager, Simon Reay,  has six staff inhis core HR team and six in the peripheral team supporting ‘the line’. “Thissuccess can be attributed to the phenomenon of putting wise heads on youngshoulders. Due to the experiences gained on the Touch programme ourpredominantly young employees are able to relate much better to the consumermarket they serve.”Theemployee perspectiveKimSkinner, an accounts assistant who has been at Garlands for five years, agreeswith her CEO.”Whenwe were told about Touch about 18 months ago I immediately volunteered for thedomestic abuse project. I had my personal reasons for choosing that, but I wastruly amazed by what I learned from the training sessions, meetings withsupport groups and the local constabulary. It is a bigger problem than I’d everimagined and one that so few people feel comfortable discussing.”Shehas put that knowledge to good use in five one-to-one sessions with colleaguesso far, and feels that there is an all round benefit: “Sometimes nowpeople will want to come to work because they know there is someone here theycan talk to about their problems. It benefits the company as more people turnup and staff generally recognise that the company is doing a good thing. It hasalso done a lot to improve my confidence and communication skills. I woulddefinitely rather do this than have a pay rise. Money gets spent and you’venothing left to show for it, but doing something like this really makes adifference.”Learningpoints for HRAlthoughthe scheme has been successful, HR manager Reay stresses that it needs carefulmanagement. –”Don’t try to do it all yourself,” she says. “Use the availablehelp. Introduce it gradually – perhaps initially as a pilot scheme – and manageexpectations. “We were amazed by the level of interest when we set this upand we hadn’t prepared enough programmes to meet the demand. –”Finally, don’t be afraid to tackle pastoral HR issues. They may seemunconnected to work, but frequently are not, and by dealing with themeffectively you can do a lot of good both for your staff and for yourcompany,” Reay adds. 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