Data mining for absence reduction

Posted on 2 Jul 2012 by The Manufacturer

Neville Henderson, senior consultant at Pasfield Curran, the consulting arm of Crown Computing, explores how mining workforce data can help reduce absence rates.

Neville Henderson, Senior Consultant, Pasfield Curran, Crown Computing

Over half of the manufacturing companies surveyed in the latest CIPD Absence Management Survey (56%) have introduced or revised their attendance monitoring procedures over the past year. This underscores the growing importance of absence management within the sector, which is, at least in part, a reflection of the protracted economic recession.

In better days, absenteeism may not have been a major concern compared with other priorities. Yet, continued pressure on companies to reduce costs and raise productivity has driven home the need to oust what is arguably a culture of ‘getting away with it’.

Workforce management systems have an important role to play in this context – not only as a way of monitoring and addressing absences but also as a source of strategic information that may benefit the organisation as a whole.  

Say good-bye to spreadsheets

Manufacturing companies have been using automated systems at the front-line for processes such as clocking on and off for many years.  However, even large organisations often still rely on simple spreadsheets for reporting and analysing workforce dynamics such as absence patterns. The depth of information that can be recorded in this way and the level of analysis that can be performed is very limited. 

Compared to non-automated approaches, workforce management systems enable much more detailed information to be recorded about employee attendance and activities.

Cumulated attendance data can then be analysed to identify underlying trends. Unusual patterns can be flagged up to managers automatically so that they can be investigated further – whether it is the football supporter who regularly takes ‘sickies’ on match days, or the worker who falls ill after large amounts of overtime. 

Quite often, we find that the sheer presence of an automated system actively discourages unjustified absences as well as time abuse – such as arriving late and leaving early, or rounding up timesheets. What is more, the holistic perspective workforce systems provide can help address some of the very sources of high absence levels and other inefficiencies, such as high occurrence of overtime or long-term use of agency workers.

Right people, right place, right time

 With greater visibility of people’s movements and workloads, it becomes easier to create more effective schedules and rosters that maximise every employee’s available time. Companies often find that simple adjustments like changing shift patterns or introducing more flexible working arrangements can help cut down dramatically on absences.

At Wall’s ice cream factory in Gloucester, with nearly 500 staff, introducing a workforce management system enabled the factory to deploy people much more cost-effectively.  Employees’ working time is now automatically allocated to a pre-scheduled task set. Managers can review labour costs at activity, production line, or factory level. Last-minute changes can be made easily, for instance to cope with absences or to switch staff around to meet varying production demands.

Workforce data can also help provide a more accurate prediction of the time and resource needed to perform future tasks, by enabling manufacturers to analyse demand patterns and match workers and working time to these requirements. A common way of implementing such an approach is through annualised hours schemes. Such approaches ensure that the right number of people with the right skills are at work when they are needed, while giving employees greater flexibility and therefore eliminating sources of absenteeism such as having to skip work to attend to family matters.  

The advantages of taking a much more structured approach to workforce planning are self-evident. For example, at a pet food manufacturer, implementing automated workforce management in conjunction with annualised hours led to a productivity increase of 15%, significant labour cost savings, reduced stockholding, as well as virtually eliminating the need for agency staff.  

Moving on from absences

The same analytical and planning capabilities can also make a difference to covering absences and dealing with the return-to-work business process.

As the Wall’s example shows, when a worker goes off ill, the drill-down view of the organisation that workforce management systems offer can help re-distribute workloads at short notice, with minimal impact on production schedules.

During the time the employee is off, HR practitioners can use the system to set various triggers and reminders to ensure that legal processes and deadlines can be met without leaving anything to chance.

More importantly, when the person is deemed fit to return to work but may be unable to perform all or part of their previous role, workforce data can be used to identify suitable work and establish rosters that enable the recovering employee to contribute to the business in whatever capacity they are able.

Not just an employer advantage

It is easy to see the advantages of mining workforce data for employers when it comes to reining in absenteeism and optimising working processes. However, it is important to stress that this is not just a one-way street. The use of a workforce management system can also make a notable impact on the workforce itself by addressing some of the common ‘bug bears’ workers have: being asked to work overtime at the drop of a hat, discord over holiday allocation, not being able to accommodate family commitments – all of which are known causes of absenteeism that can easily be avoided.

Neville Henderson is speaking at TM’s Flex for the Future conference on Thursday July 5.

This event gives updates on workforce regulation and insight into best practice for gaining workforce flexibility.

Industry presentations will come from Aimia Foods, BAE Systems and Vernagroup among others wile Tony Burke, assistant general secretary at Unite the Union will deliver the closing keynote address.