Help desk managers will agree on one thing: The help desk’s highest priority is answering calls and responding to user requests for help. But if you want to pick a fight, ask a group of help desk managers what their analysts should be doing when the phones aren’t ringing.

In this week’s column, I’ll share with you an e-mail message I received from a help desk manager who has been on the job about a year and a half, and who is having trouble getting his staff to do anything except “rest” between calls. I’d like to hear what you expect from your help desk analysts when they’re not on the phones.

Is this help desk manager expecting too much?
The help desk manager who wrote this letter prefers to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him “Jammer.” Jammer works for large healthcare provider in the Midwest, and he wrote:

“I am the manager of a five-member IT support center. I’ve been in this position for a year and a half and have had a little previous experience with help desks, though I have six years of desktop and technical projects experience. I am wondering if you could give me feedback on what kind of expectations I should have for my staff when they are not on the phones helping customers.

“Our ACD reports that, during an eight hour work day, my staff averages between two and three hours on the phone each. I have assigned my staff projects to build support documentation, but they have been very resistant and tend to wait until the last minute to accomplish their tasks.

“Do other help desks find productive ways to fill their staff’s time when not on the phones? Or is the thought that they should be available to answer the phone and not be distracted by other tasks?”

Jeff’s suggestions
Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me like Jammer is making a perfectly reasonable request, and his people are acting like a bunch of whining crybabies. Anyway, I wrote back to Jammer, and here are the suggestions I made:

  • Formally schedule nonphone work. If your analysts are using the old “I can’t document because I have to watch the phones” excuse, why not do this: Schedule “no phone time” periods dedicated specifically to creating the support documentation. Maybe even set up an office somewhere out of the call center (and the noise) where analysts can get away from it all while they work on the documentation.
  • Formally schedule “fun time. Tell your analysts that it’s okay to check personal e-mail or surf for fun or even play a game, but put a limit on it, such as “No more than X hours per week, though.” After they’ve used up their quota of fun time, they have to get cracking on the other projects.
  • Seek out the technical writers in the group. People who are great analysts and loved by their customers don’t necessarily excel at creating documentation. Maybe some analysts are afraid their less-than-stellar writing abilities will be exposed and that’s why they resist. Try asking for a volunteer to be the team’s designated technical writer. If you get a volunteer, make that person the team lead for your documentation project. Then you can tell the others, “Get with so-and-so and he or she will help you get your documentation done.”
  • Make them build their skills. Is there a new desktop build in your company’s next quarter? Moving from Office-old to Office 200x? Set up a test box where analysts can go to play with the new software or hardware that they’ll have to support in the near future. In other words, encourage them to learn new products and improve their skills between calls.
  • Burn the slackers at review time. Finally, I suggested putting something in the analysts’ annual reviews about miscellaneous accomplishments or the like—something that describes the stuff they do when not on the phones. Make the analysts accountable for completing their assignments, whether that’s writing support docs, cleaning up document libraries, or creating in-house training materials. People respond better when they know they’re being graded on something.

Is it insubordination or justified pushing back?
I followed up with Jammer by telephone, and he told me he had already found a volunteer lead technical writer for his documentation project—it was the lone person who works second-shift, the person who has the fewest calls to answer on her shift. The problem was that the day-shift folks weren’t completing their assignments.

He told me that his day shift people aren’t the least bit shy about telling him, “Hey Jammer, we never had to do anything between calls before you came here, and we just don’t think we should have to start doing it now.”

Frankly, that sounds like insubordination to me, and I wondered aloud if it wasn’t time to do some housecleaning.

In my opinion, if the analysts don’t think they should be working the entire eight-hour shift (except when on the phones), maybe they’d sing a different tune if they only got paid for time spent on the phone.

What advice would you give Jammer?

To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column or to share your advice, post a comment or write to Jeff.