Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The changing face of the workplace

This is my column today.

Sometime last month, I finally found the time to do something that I have wanted to do for the longest time. No, I did not see a dentist, which is the one thing that’s been on top of my “to do” list for quite sometime now. I went to visit two call centers and saw for myself the changing landscape of the workplace as exemplified in the work conditions in this so-called sunrise industry.

Just for the record, I wasn’t there for job interviews. I must admit, though, that I was sorely tempted to submit myself to the process just to find out if I would qualify as a call center employee. I am told that being a call center agent or representative has become an option for many professionals upon their retirement.

I am sure there are people out there who balk at the concept of a retirement job. It certainly is a contradiction in terms since retirement is generally seen as the end of one’s working life. The reality, however, is that many “retired” people end up finding their second wind at a new career, usually at call centers. So regardless of where one locates one’s self in this debate, I think that what is noteworthy is the fact that there are now options available for those who are inclined to spend their retirement days in pursuits more exciting than sitting idly in rocking chairs all day long.

What really made it very tempting for me was the fact that I was told the whole employment selection process could be completed in a few hours’ time. What this means is that, theoretically, one can walk in and get hired (or rejected) within a couple of hours. Now, that’s really fast when we consider that the recruitment and selection process in most companies usually takes weeks—that is, when one is lucky.

It makes sense for companies in the call center industry to bring their recruitment and selection processes up to speed because of the stiff competition for talent. Actually, it makes sense for all companies in the Philippines to put in place more proactive and faster recruitment and selection processes since the market for really qualified graduates has shrunk considerably. There are too many applicants but very few are qualified for the posts they aspire for; clearly indicative of the mismatch problem that we have in this country between what the academe produces and what industry needs. But that’s another column. Being able to hire the best person for the job has become a contest of speed, of who gets to make the first offer.

It’s a small wonder then that the call center company we visited even had a recruitment center, a one-stop shop especially created to make the company more competitive in the labor market. The recruitment center was designed to look like the lobby of a trendy hotel and an entertainment center rolled into one. It literally took our breath away (one HR director who was with us almost wept with envy when she noted just how different the setup was in her own company). The facilities were designed to be candidate-friendly and the place projected an overall impression of fun and enjoyment.

There were lounging chairs in various shades of neon, computers that allowed candidates to surf the Net, a billiards table, plasma television sets, even vending machines that dispensed softdrinks, juices, and iced tea for free. These on top of magazines and other reading materials available for applicants to browse.

In short, it was a far cry from the usual setup in traditional companies where applicants wait interminably for their tests and their interviews in lounges that look like they were designed to test one’s character and fortitude, rather than as places one can relax and be comfortable in.

Yes, I know that some companies even used to deliberately put applicants inside lounges with one-way mirrors to observe how they deal with boredom and how they interact with others as part of the screening process. There are ethical questions that have been raised in relation to this practice; fortunately, it is a practice that has already become irrelevant today in light of more reliable and valid selection tools available for HR practitioners. One wishes, of course, that job advertisements also become more relevant and attuned with the times since we know that most companies still set criteria that are clearly discriminatory and illegal.

But the landscape of the workplace is clearly changing now as companies proactively respond to the challenges of attracting and managing the new generation of workers. And the call center industry is leading the way in this regard. I am sure you have heard about the many innovative programs that call center companies have been putting in place in order to attract and retain talent.

The call center company that we visited offered their employees access to a gym, a spa, a recreation center complete with all kinds of facilities for networking and entertaining, a reflection and prayer room, a freedom room (which featured a graffiti board, a boxing bag, and things you could smash around with a bat), etc. These in addition to competitive salaries and benefits, scholarships, access to training and other personal and professional development programs.

The common misconception that people have is that all these have been put in place solely in response to work demands that are unique and exclusive to the call center industry. These include working hours that cover the graveyard shift, the pressures of cross-cultural interaction (most clients that call center agents deal with are based in the West), exposure to a wide range of emotions displayed by often irate and demanding clients, the pressure of having to meet quotas, etc.

The HR directors that we talked to during that visit admitted that these work pressures were definitely a major factor in the design and implementation of the various programs that they put in place to “make employees see work as fun and make them stay in the company longer.”

However, they also shared that an equally important factor has to do with “the kind of people that come to work for them.” More than 80 percent of those who comprise the workforce in call centers are composed of very young people who simply have different values, work ethics, motivational factors, and obviously, work behaviors. They were referring to the current generation of workers, people who are described as members of Generation Y, Generation next, or some other metaphors such as the “Ragnarok Generation.” Eventually, all companies will have to contend with this situation as members of the Baby boomers and Generation X retire.

According to the HR directors that we talked to, the profile, and correspondingly, the demands of this new generation of workers were clearly different from those of say, Generation X, or even those of Baby boomers. For example, they shared that members of the new generation of workers have shorter attention spans, are more demanding in terms of what they feel they are entitled to, require more information, set higher standards for themselves, and do not have a clear sense of loyalty. As a result, they have been forced to find new ways to respond to the challenge of how to effectively manage this new generation of workers.

There are many things that can be written about how exactly the new generation of workers are different. But as I am running out of space, that would have to be another column. What is important to highlight is that bridging and managing the differences is a far more productive preoccupation than just complaining and ranting about the problem. The call center industry, despite the odds it has to contend with, is providing best practices in this aspect. It’s time we took a look at what they are doing and learned from their experience.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You just made me realized that "ragnarok generation" are already part of the work force.

The employee management method should experience some adjustments because of this. Great insight! Thank's

J.C. Carvill
Email: support@cosmosing.com
URL: http://www.cosmosing.com/jeanclaudecarvill/index.php