Ergonomics is the art and science of matching the task (responding to calls) and the tools (the workstation) to fit the needs of the worker. Done right, it can help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and reduce eye strain.
Done even better, ergonomics can improve call quality by controlling noise, reducing stress and even, without stretching the claim too much, improve productivity.
Back in 1998 Dr. Leonard B. Kruk, president of Office Visions Consulting said "High-tech offices, such as call centers, are often characterized as 'high stress.' This type of environment often leads to high employee turnover when ergonomics are ignored. A constructive solution to minimize workplace stress and its costly results is to pay attention to those conditions that have a negative impact on a worker's well-being."
According to Dr. Kruk, appropriate interventions include products designed around correct biomechanics, "provide for adjustable lighting on source documents and supplement the HVAC system. The result will not only be happier, healthier workers, but also higher productivity."
Not much has changed in the intervening seven years. Call centers are still frequently characterized as tedious, stressful and boring places to work, and ergonomics can still make a difference in employees' attitudes and job performance.
Over the years, a great many studies have demonstrated the positive benefits of ergonomics programs among telemarketers:
In a focused study of telemarketing service representatives at a California cable TV company, merely improving the positions of their workstation keyboards and monitors resulted in nearly 10 percent more calls handled each day.
A study at Aetna Life & Casualty Co. showed that ergonomic furnishings purchases of about $500,000 were more than offset by a $620,000 increase in measured productivity. And at a different insurance company, due to seating and workstation improvements, a 10 to 15 percent increase in telephone transactions per hour was realized.
At yet another insurance company, new ergonomic furnishings were credited with reducing absenteeism from 4.4 percent to 1.6 percent. Perhaps even more striking, nearly three-quarters of the company's customers felt they were receiving improved service.
And a major European telephone company reports that the introduction of an ergonomics program cut operator turnover rates from 35 percent to just 2 percent per year, vastly reducing their recruiting and training costs.
Call centers have job-specific ergonomic requirements that traditional office furniture is not designed to handle, as well as different people -- in multi-shift call centers, workstations are shared. If a workstation has a 100pound woman sitting in it in the morning and a 180-pound man at night, it needs to be adjustable so both can work comfortably.
An early study of call center ergonomics found that about 80 percent of computer stations are set up incorrectly to accommodate each employee's body. Typically, chairs, keyboards and VDT screens are not set up properly. When any of three items are at the wrong height or angle, they can cause muscle tension that can lead to chronic pain. The study suggested injuries would be reduced with ergonomic equipment that includes proper seating and keyboards and employees taking periodic "microbreaks."
Call center workstations -- especially when they are shared by workers on various shifts -- should have adjustable keyboards, work surfaces, mouse pads and monitor heights. Noise (didn't think of that as an ergonomic issue, did you?) can be reduced when work stations have acoustical panels, acoustically treated walls and carpeted floors.
At minimum, ergonomic chairs should offer adjustability including a seat height adjustment and a back adjustment. Other options include lumbar support and added adjustability.
Don't forget training -- A study by State Farm Insurance Company once demonstrated that a good, adjustable ergonomic chair can increase productivity of a VDT operator by 40 to 80 percent. However, a study at a large Canadian firm found that only five percent of the adjustable furniture had ever been adjusted, mainly because only 12 percent of the workers even knew it was adjustable.
Leaving aside physical benefits, at the minimum soliciting employee opinion in the matter causes morale to go up because management is communicating that their opinions matter.
David Sims is contributing editor for TMCnet. For more articles by David Sims, please visit: