In 2009, the Australian call centre industry employed more than 250,000 people. While some Australian companies have closed or downsized their onshore operations, many Australian call centres continue to thrive, but staff turnover in the industry remains a challenge. At around 16 percent per year, staff resignations in Australian call centres are lower than their American counterparts, but retention and quality recruitment are still a big issue for call centre managers. So how can a leadership theory from the 1940s help ease the problem?
The principles of Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who died in 1970, but his leadership theories remain an important part of leadership culture today. Maslow's theory looks at the different things that motivate people's lives. When applied to a work environment, the model gives employers key areas to focus on when considering how best to retain workers.
The original model works in five stages, starting from the basic needs everyone has to survive, moving up to more complex psychological needs that lead to true personal fulfilment. The five stages of the hierarchy are:
Biological and physiological needs, which include air, food, drink and shelter.
Safety needs, such as security, order and law.
Belongingness and love needs.
Esteem needs, which include achievement, status and reputation.
Self-actualisation needs, resulting in personal growth and fulfilment.
Over time, psychologists have adapted the model to further explore some of these needs. In the 1970s, experts adapted the model to include seven stages, while the model grew to eight stages in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the principles of the model are the same, regardless of many stages you decide to consider.
Using the model in the workplace
Interpreted literally, you may think that only some of the needs in the model apply in the workplace. For example, it's not always immediately obvious how you can influence biological or safety needs in a literal sense. However, the model's value comes when you consider the concept more holistically.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs shows you that your workers' needs are varied and complex, and you can influence their motivation in different ways. By working from the first stage through to the fifth, you can examine every part of the workplace, identifying opportunities to improve and create a better working environment.
What's more, the model shows you how to prioritise your efforts. For example, biological and physiological needs are only the first stage in the hierarchy. As such, you should consider these needs as 'essential' requirements that everyone should expect. To get the real value from your workers, you should focus your efforts on the later stages of the model, where you can see that your efforts will result in more sustained self-esteem and satisfaction.
Maslow and call centres
Abraham Maslow would probably have mixed feelings about call centres. He would probably argue that the buildings and facilities in a call centre can give a good sense of security and order, but many of the later stages in the hierarchy are less evident in these working environments. As such, the model gives you rich pickings when considering how to create the best place to work.
Of course, you shouldn't ignore the basic stages. Make sure your call centre is a comfortable place to work. Install good air conditioning, and set up a coffee shop that serves a good range of food and drink in a comfortable, quiet place to relax. However, don't work on the basis that this will keep everyone happy because Maslow's model shows that you need to work harder to keep your employees.
You can create a sense of belonging in your call centre. Strong team working environments and skilled managers will make sure your workers feel as though they are part of something worthwhile. Make sure everyone has regular development reviews, and work hard to create a strong team culture where people enjoy working together. Investigate high levels of unplanned absence, as these can often point to specific problems with certain teams.
Achievement and responsibility are the second-highest need in Maslow's model, so it's important to create clear, achievable career paths in your call centre. Promote from within and put your talented people on fast-track development plans that give them 'real' targets to work towards. Invest in recognition and awards for great performance, and engage your workers in some of the big decisions. For example, if you want to change the way the system directs calls, talk to your agents about their opinions before you make a final decision.
Personal growth and fulfilment sit at the top of the hierarchy. If your workers enjoy their jobs and feel that they add value, they probably won't want to look elsewhere for work. As such, it's vital that call centre managers focus on more than just pay rates and shift patterns. For many people, these things sit in the bottom two stages of the pyramid. To tackle your recruitment targets, you'll need to focus your attention on the top stages of the model.
For more tips on retaining employees, consider talking to a management training professional from a company like Ferrier Hodgson.