How To Motivate Workers: Don't Watch `Em

Electronic eavesdropping is a tempting tool for boosting office productivity. Airlines, insurers, and telecommunications companies, among others, often clock every second that workers spend on computers or on the phone with customers. From a handful a decade ago, the number of monitored employees has reached 10 million, says the federal Office of Technology Assessment.

But now, the search for quality is abridging this trend. Federal Express, Bell Canada, USAA, and Northwest Airlines, among other major employers, are finding that too much speed spoils service.

HANDLE TIME. They have begun to stress quality over quantity, or to end monitoring entirely. The result seems to be happier customers and employees. Proponents also say that a focus on quality does as much as monitoring to keep productivity high and rising. "A lot of people ask, which do you want, quality or quantity?" says Rebecca Olson, head of customer service for Federal Express Corp.'s southern region. "We found that you can have both, though it took a while to sink in."

FedEx was among the first to see this. In 1984, it was worried about United Parcel Service Inc.'s move into overnight deliveries. Management realized that it could save money by slicing just one second off the average time its 2,500 customer-service agents spent on each call. So, FedEx began to monitor the average "handle" time per call--and made beating the clock 50% of an agent's performance review.

Two years later, the strategy came home to roost. Employees griped that limiting each call to 140 seconds created too much stress--and made them cut off customers before questions were answered. "The management was sending out mixed messages," says Paula Biffle, who has worked as an agent in FedEx's Memphis office since 1983. "We became confused about what they wanted."

A new system cleared that up. Today, a supervisor listens in on a random call twice a year. Afterward, the discussion with the agent focuses on quality: The length of calls isn't mentioned. Both employees and executives say that service has improved--without hurting speed. The average call even dropped to 135 seconds, although that has crept up in recent years as the company added new services.

Other companies are following FedEx's lead. In 1989, Bell Canada, concerned about quality and union unhappiness over monitoring, ran a six-month experiment. Ontario operators were monitored as a group, instead of individually, on how fast they handled calls. Management also stopped disciplining workers whose average handle time rose above the standard 23 seconds. Now, "if we see a problem with the group average, we ask employees if they know the cause and work with them to get it back down," says Carol M. Stephenson, Bell Canada's head of operator services in Ontario.

The test was a success. Productivity stayed up. Nearly 70% of the 2,400 operators involved said their service improved, and 75% liked their job more. All 5,000 Bell Canada operators work this way now--thanks to a company that saw waste in too much haste.

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