The old carrot-and-stick approach needs monitoring

In his off-Broadway show, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, Mike Daisey recalls his bizarre days as a call centre representative at the Seattle-based online retailer. When his manager pulled him aside to tell him that he wasn't taking enough calls, he struggled to find a solution. Eventually, it came to him. He'd hang up on customers in mid-sentence so he could quickly move on to the next caller. Sure enough, his call volume soared, he became the hero of the department, and he was quickly promoted to business development, where he spent his days honing his video-game skills.

Daisey's story was meant to evoke chuckles, but at a recent performance it also prompted several knowing looks, a likely sign that it's not too far from reality. With increasingly sophisticated monitoring tools, employers are keeping close watch on their IT and other workers to ensure efficient operations and high productivity levels. But things can also go hopelessly awry if, as Daisey illustrates, monitoring tools wind up crippling morale or driving workers to try to beat the system. Despite such pitfalls, many companies find that monitoring tools can produce valuable returns as long as they are used in conjunction with other worker performance criteria, not in isolation.

According to two surveys conducted in the first half of 2001 by The ePolicy Institute, the American Management Association and US News & World Report, 82 per cent of 1627 large employers said they monitor their workers' activities in some fashion, ranging from tracking employees' Internet usage and monitoring e-mail messages and phone calls to reviewing computer files. More than 15 per cent of respondents said they even videotape employees.

And as horror stories of workplace Internet slackers circulate through the media and software becomes more sophisticated, monitoring employee productivity isn't just reserved for helpdesk technicians or call centre employees, as it was in the past. Now it's used on employees at all levels in all departments of companies.

Xerox has been using Microsoft Office and Excel spreadsheets for four years to monitor IT projects and assess how long it takes IT staffers to complete tasks, says Carla Lorek, manager of communications and quality at Xerox's information management division. Such data helps managers pinpoint areas of improvement so that time estimates for projects come closer to the actual amount of time spent, she says.

As the practice of project portfolio management grows in popularity, project managers as well as top-level executives are starting to review details about individual IT employee activities.

But the information management group at Xerox doesn't use its system to monitor individual IT employee performance. Instead, Lorek says, the company uses employee monitoring as a project management tool to better estimate resources.

"As soon as people start to figure out they're being monitored and tracked, pretty much, you get what you ask for," Lorek says, adding that if people feel they're the victims of bean counters who ignore quality and focus solely on numbers, they'll figure out how to drive numbers up without putting effort into quality.

"Metrics are a great thing to have . . . you have to think about how they're being used," Lorek says. "People are sceptical by nature. They'll say 'Yup, I will code', but something else may give.

"Nobody gets shot for not meeting a deadline," Lorek adds. "The pressure's too high already in IT."

Wise words, according to veteran users of monitoring software. Helpdesk and call centre managers, who have been using tracking tools since the days of keystroke-monitoring attachments on electric typewriters, agree that while such tools can be helpful in improving processes, they can just as easily hamper an IT department's effectiveness by driving down morale if they're used in isolation.

"Hopefully, managers take them for what they are, which is just another tool," says a senior systems manager for an IT helpdesk in a large medical centre. "On paper, someone might look really dynamite. . . . But how satisfied was the customer?"

In addition to customer service feedback forms on the helpdesk's Web site, he uses Remedy monitoring software from Peregrine Systems and Symposium call management and tracking software from Nortel Networks to spot trends or areas where systems are lacking or not being adhered to. He then combines that data with customer feedback and comprehensive employee-performance observations.

Personal growth

The senior systems manager says he still encounters some resistance from IT helpdesk staffers, who resent being watched by management or having to worry about their numbers. One worker, for instance, has a great call-resolution rate and provides detailed, informative call reports. But his call time is higher than average, so he's concerned that will hurt his performance reviews. But the manager repeatedly assures workers that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that the ultimate goal is to balance those on the team.

Brad Barborak, a senior IT helpdesk technician at The Longaberger Co., said he finds that monitoring metrics help him do his job better. His company, a maker of hand-woven baskets with nearly 8000 employees, has been using Peregrine software to pull statistics from its helpdesk for about a year.

"It's generated some really interesting numbers for us," he says. "Just now, we're starting to get some really good trend analysis." For instance, Barborak and his team can use the data to determine whether common helpdesk calls indicate a need for more user training or if certain applications are too complex for their intended audiences.

The monitoring data also lets Barborak track the status of calls he has to forward to other layers of support so he can be sure problems get resolved. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist," he says. "I hate to see a call leave my desk."

That improves his call resolution rate, and since salaries are tied to performance, it improves his chances for getting a raise, he explains.

The Thomson Corp.'s Prometric subsidiary ties its incentive program for IT helpdesk staff to the departmental metrics it pulls from monitoring software, according to BT Bentley, director of the Baltimore-based educational testing centre's global helpdesk. When the company introduced its automated call distribution switch and reporting application from Lucent Technologies, and data collection and reporting tools from Magic Solutions, there was some resistance from employees, says Bentley. But when bonuses and recognition were tied to the system, employees warmed up to it because it gave them clear targets, he says.

Customers before call numbers

But Carolyn Healey, publisher of Supportindustry.com, an online community for service and support professionals, cautions against tying compensation to data culled from monitoring tools for fear it will create the wrong goals. If customer service representatives are told they'll get bonuses if they answer a certain number of calls, they may rush customers along. Instead, she says, rewards should be tied to customer satisfaction, which can be measured by follow-up customer surveys.

There are other pitfalls. For example, if a major incident, such as remote users being locked out of a dial-in virtual private network, caused the helpdesk to be flooded with calls, there would be no time to document conversations, says Brian Phillips, a second-level help desk technician at STI Knowledge, a helpdesk outsourcer. Once the rush was over, employees would be stuck with a stack of calls to log, which could add an extra hour or two to their shifts.

But, excluding such extreme circumstances, Phillips finds the data culled from STI's ticket-tracking software and IBM's Tivoli and Advantis systems extremely useful. It takes time to get accustomed to documenting calls, he explains, but once it becomes familiar, it's actually quicker and cleaner than taking personal notes on a call. "It just takes a little while to get used to," Phillips says.

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