Published on July 22nd, 20090
How to avoid a 'Swine Flu epidemic' on your helpdesk
The predicted flu pandemic will impact service desk staffing levels, but IT support expert Noel Bruton says that even those unaffected might use it as an excuse to stay away. Here Bruton reveals the rules that will ensure that your staff want to come to work.
Once in a while, influenza becomes fashionable again. It’s usually around October-November though, when the weathers turned nasty, the days are wet, grey and short, summer holidays are miles of memories behind and Christmas is miles of slog to go.
This year’s different. Now there are new ways of marketing flu. Just like they start telling us about Christmas four months before it happens, now they’re telling us about flu four months before going to get it. A BBC News Channel interviewee offered a recommendation for if you think you’ve got swine flu “ call the government helpline, don’t visit the doctor and stay off work for seven days. That may be a relief to some but – let’s be honest – a licence to others. In the view of this writer, clumsy advice like that is going to endorse absenteeism on a massive scale. Being cynical, I would suspect there is likely to be a correlation between the workplaces worst impacted and those that aren’t that pleasant a place to be anyway. If people don’t like or can’t cope with their jobs, are they more likely to get ill?
So how will the actual virus affect your team? At least you’ve got notice and some time to plan the rota for the apparently inevitable absences. But there is another, perhaps less comfortable way you can view the situation, and it is this: given your helpdesk, is it the sort of place where people buzz with health and drive, or is it more the sort of place that some people might be tempted to pull a sickie from? Is it NASA mission control July 1969 or Tom Hanks’s office in ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’? If more toward the latter than the former, then thankfully, you’ve still got the time to do something about that too.
Here are the Rules:
Rule One. The workplace has to be worth coming to. Home life is fun, free, friendly, flexible and interior decoration. Office life is tight clothes, harsh lighting, power politics and ID cards. For the sake of the human spirit, it has to be more than that. Work is a noble pursuit that should bring out the best in people, their ingenuity, inquisitiveness, energy, invention, organisation and co-operation, all the motivators that made humans the leading race on the planet. Anybody who works for you should feel every day that they have achieved something, so they arrive for their shifts looking forward to that feeling. If tomorrow won’t matter because it will look just like today and every other day since I-don’t-know-when, then perhaps there’s no point in coming in tomorrow. Pass me that pack of paracetamol, I feel a bit under the weather.
Rule Two. The routine work should be easy. If the best human attributes are the route to motivation, you don’t want to waste all that capability just dealing with the mundane. If it takes all their ingenuity to cope with poor quality tools, broken processes, disproportionate numbers of exceptions, personality clashes and self-serving bureaucracy, then there will be less of it left to produce excellence. So deal with all the impediments. Organise them out of the way. Let your staff breeze through all that. A word of caution though, as C. Northcote Parkinson pointed out, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” It’s an oversimplification, but it is broadly true, and it brings me to:
Rule Three. Make sure they know how much work is enough. We’re in a recession. If they’re not busy, they might be seen as dispensable or even Redundant (there, I’ve gone and said the ‘R’ word). So they want to be busy and seen to be so. But being busy is not necessarily the same as being productive. Without some kind of indicator of what actually constitutes success here, you’ll get activity, but maybe not results. But without results, they’ll start to spot that they’re not achieving despite being busy and – guess what? They’ll claim they have too much work to do, and round we go. So define what matters. Measure it. Point out that it is important, to encourage them to do it, indeed to have done it. And, crucially: make it known that it is all right for them to have finished their work for today. Yes. Finished. Without being fired for it.
Rule Four. Have something for them to do when they’ve finished their work. In many offices there is an innate fear of finishing their work (see Rule Three). But organisationally, the only reason that should ever arise is because the meaning of ‘work’ has become distorted. Two factors that define how much things matter are their ‘importance’ and ‘urgency’. Each of these can be high or low, giving four permutations. Let’s dismiss two of them now by saying that at work, we only do stuff that’s important: i.e. worth doing. So now it’s only a question of the relative urgency of important stuff. So the routine work, being the reason we’re here, is all done quickly. Right, that gets the ‘urgency’ bit out of the way, and what’s more, now the pressure is off, so the atmosphere becomes relaxed. And now we’re left with the non-urgent, but still important stuff. The planned, medium-term projects, the challenges to their other skills, the self-improvement, the process redesigns, the fun, that once completed, was really worth doing. This is what they do when they’ve finished their ‘work’ for today. And so they go home, feeling they’ve achieved even more today then they thought they would. Which brings me to Rule 1.
I find that people who enjoy their work are much less likely to take days away from it, don’t you? If you need a hand putting these ideas in place on your helpdesk, see my website.
Like the ideas outlined by Bruton but need assistance implementing them? Noel Bruton is a UK-based IT support management consultant and trainer, who for eighteen years has been showing helpdesk and support managers and staff around the world how to improve their services and job satisfaction. He is the author of the bestselling “How To Manage the IT Helpdesk” and “Managing the IT Services Process”. See more about his work or contact him at here.