Members disagree on managing time between help desk calls

When a new help desk manager asked for suggestions on how to manage his team, TechRepublic members weren't shy about responding. But not everyone agreed on what to do.

When TechRepublic member Jammer sought advice on how to manage his help desk, other TechRepublic members responded in more than 170 posts with advice that was sometimes sage and sometimes salty, and not everyone agreed on the best course of action.

Here's the issue raised in a recent column: Should help desk analysts be allowed to do whatever they want to do when they're not answering calls and documenting outcomes, or should they have to complete other tasks as assigned?

The Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) showed Jammer's analysts spent an average of two to three hours per day actually on the phone. Jammer asked his team to perform other duties between calls, such as create documentation. That's something the analysts hadn't been asked to do before—they were accustomed to playing games, reading, or doing whatever they wanted to do. Let's just say they showed little to no enthusiasm about completing those new tasks.

The nuts and bolts
As many of the posts by TechRepublic members indicate, the whole subject of how to manage help desk analysts between calls struck quite a nerve. There were a few interesting trends, however:
  • Clean house. Many TechRepublic members advocated getting rid of the slackers and hiring people who'll do the assigned work.
  • You're overstaffed. If the analysts are averaging only two to three hours per day on the phone, many members thought Jammer should consider the possibility that the department has more analysts than it needs. Not a pleasant thought for the team members, of course.
  • Change the job description. Many members questioned whether the performance expectations had been adequately documented for the analysts, and they suggested that Jammer update the job descriptions immediately.

I had suggested that Jammer try scheduling time for the analysts to be officially off the phones and working on the "other" projects. That way, they couldn't claim that working the phones was preventing them from completing the other assignments.

What should Jammer do? Here are some of the more compelling answers offered up by your fellow TechRepublic members.

Hire a new crew
TechRepublic member srichard13 had this advice for Jammer: "If they [the analysts] don't want to work, just hire someone else. TechRepublic member melekali agreed and said that Jammer should remind his staff that there are plenty of people in the IT world looking for work.

Member slutzl doesn't like the idea of help desk analysts playing games between calls and wrote: "My advice to any help desk associate, make good use of your spare time, because if you get laid off because your skills did not stay current, you will have plenty of time to play games during your period of unemployment."

The carrot and the stick
Help desk manager aglover has walked in Jammer's shoes. "Having just done battle with this 'beast' myself, the advice Jammer was given is very good. I managed a six-person desk that was combined with another five-person help desk to create a SPOC (single point of contact). The second help desk was not managed effectively, and I received a lot of push back when I started instituting the 'reforms.' I even had a few of my old [techs] wanting to regress into the behavior.

"I personally showed each person their job description and informed them they would be reviewed based on their compliance with the description. Our company also has a very robust corrective action policy, and for a few I didn't have to wait until their review to start working. After a couple were placed on probation and one terminated, the rest very quickly saw the light."

"Sometimes a 'carrot' works just fine," aglover wrote, "but sometimes the 'stick' is needed."

The analyst's point of view
TerryK doesn't think help desk analysts should do more than work the phones, writing: "Have we forgotten why we're here? I'm amazed. Not one of the replies I've read so far has looked at this from the company side of things. Ever drive past a car dealership and see a bunch of salesmen standing out in front? Ever walk into a restaurant and see a table that wasn't bussed? Maybe we could have the salesmen changing tires when they're not selling cars, or the cook bussing tables when he's not cooking.

"The job site was described as a help desk, not a technical writing department. Is there value added to the company to have these people working between calls, or is Jammer just trying to keep everyone busy with make-work or even projects that are not value added for the company?"

Other managers had different expectations from their teams, caring only that the analysts get to the phones on time. The Gnome wrote: "I am a help desk manager. During downtime, if the techs surf the Web, [play] Quake, do personal e-mail, etc., that's fine by me. But when the phone rings, they had better be able to do their jobs."

Never enough time to please your customers
Many help desk analysts and managers see downtime as precious commodity. Some TechRepublic members posted questions to the effect of, "Downtime? What downtime? We have a constant backlog of calls!"

PaulTiffany contends there is no such thing as idle time for great desk analysts. He wrote: "There is no idle time for customer advocates. Of course, if they're technicians or analysts, they may find that there are periods with nothing to do. However, we do not hire help desk people who have idle time. We hire them because they are valuable facilitators of productivity enhancement and strong advocates for the customers they serve. They should be customer advocates as long as they draw pay. Then, they never have enough time to please their customers."

Rotate the on-phone, off-phone schedule
For those shops where the call volume waxes and wanes, however, I suggested that Jammer schedule a certain amount of time off the phones. TechRepublic member melekali agreed and wrote: "I would set up specific times for duties other than waiting on the phone to ring. I would assign specific people specific tasks and create an equitable, rotating schedule.

"This way," melekali continued, "you avoid the high-pressure, call-center burnout, and you challenge your employees to do more than just sit on their brains waiting for the phone to ring. You get the things done…and your employees feel valued that you are assigning them this important work."

On behalf of Jammer, thanks to everyone who posted their opinions. I know he appreciated the outpouring of support from the TechRepublic community.

How busy do your help desk analysts stay?
To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column, post a comment or drop us a note.


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