Definitions and Decisions for Scheduling Success
By Penny Reynolds
Workforce schedulers have a very difficult job. First, there are many people in the center who have a stake in the process, and it’s often the scheduler’s job to juggle all these requests and priorities. It’s also difficult from a sheer numbers perspective, with so many different possibilities and combinations of schedule options to be assembled to maximize coverage while minimizing cost. This article will address some of the challenges of scheduling, including what call center stakeholder perspectives need to be considered, and then how to define the building blocks of scheduling to get the right combinations in place.
Not only are there countless possibilities for scheduling options, but juggling these and deciding on the right combination is very challenging because of all the people involved who have a stake in the process. The scheduling process is a difficult one because there are so many different people to keep happy. Let’s explore some of the various perspectives to keep in mind when creating schedules.
Customers. What customers want out of the scheduling process is good service. They want plenty of staff in place so that when they call, there is little to no wait time. They also want sufficient people with the right skill to handle their calls so that the call gets resolved in the first contact with no transfers or second contact needed. They also like to call at all times of day, so scheduling may be necessary outside the standard workday in case they decide to call during the night or on weekends.Senior Executives. The executive team is certainly looking out for customers too, wanting a good level of service and happy customers. However, this group is also very concerned about budget and the bottom line costs. From their perspective, it’s important to make scheduling as efficient as possible in order to maximize utilization of the very expensive personnel resource.
Frontline Staff. Contact center agents have personal needs that will need to be addressed during the scheduling process. Many will want to work the same schedule each week with same start times each day in order to make transportation and childcare arrangements. Most want a schedule that accommodates their personal needs for a work/life balance, and many would also like to have the same break times and lunches as their friends. They will also be concerned about how much work comes their way throughout their shifts. While they don’t want to sit idle, it will be a problem if occupancy is too high and there are too many calls to handle during some periods of the day.
Supervisors/Team Leaders. This group has a stake in the process and they usually want their team members’ schedules to mirror their own so there is overlap. Ideally, they would like team schedules with group start times that allow team meetings. And they would also like plenty of time built into the schedules to allow for off-phone time for coaching and training – some scheduled and some impromptu time off the phones.
HR Department. While not doing the work each day, the HR Department certainly has some wishes about the scheduling process too. It’s much easier for them to recruit new employees if they can guarantee a specific schedule, rather than one that is likely to change week to week or month to month. The HR Department will also be a fan of more standard schedules where no potential labor disputes are likely to happen. Happier staff mean fewer headaches and less work for this group.
Union. If your frontline staff are unionized, there will be a whole additional list of demands and rules to consider in the scheduling process. Collective work agreements generally define the scheduling rules such as time off between shifts/tours and rotation of weekends. Compliance with these rules is required to avoid unhappy associates and grievances.
Regulators. For some centers, particularly in the utility environment, there are laws and regulations about speed of answer, percent of calls answered in the same state as originated, limited busy signals, and rates of abandonment. There may be significant penalties for failure to comply with these rules.
Workforce Schedulers. The workforce team also has a stake in the process. The more often schedule bids are done, the more work for this group. The more rules and constraints, the harder it is to manipulate schedules to accommodate all the above perspectives. It’s a tough job!
Creating an optimal set of workforce schedules is difficult given the many different perspectives that need to be considered. Many of these stakeholder perspectives are often in conflict. For example, it may be difficult to balance senior management’s desire for high resource utilization with frontline staff’s need for lower occupancy and a more reasonable workload throughout the day. No matter what the conflict of these goals and perspectives, it is the job of the workforce scheduler to consider all these perspectives in the scheduling process.
The biggest decision to make is which scheduling philosophy to follow. For many centers, customer needs come first and schedules are created with speed of service goals as the primary drivers. For other centers, the focus is on employee satisfaction and retention, so schedule preferences are honored as much as possible and workload distributed with fairness to the staff in mind. Union agreements may be a major factor in these centers. For other centers, cost is the major driver. Schedules are created to cover call workload, but in the most efficient way possible, not giving as much thought to employee needs and wants. Minimization of financial penalties from regulators may figure in to this thinking as well.
Scheduling must consider all of these perspectives. However, it can be highly beneficial to have a discussion with senior management and come to agreement about the priorities within these conflicting expectations. For example, in a choice between meeting staff expectations for schedule options and delivering a consistent speed of answer, which is more important to the company overall? Finding the balance between agent satisfaction (and turnover), customer satisfaction (and retention) and cost (budget constraints) is very difficult, especially when the priorities tend to shift over time.
After the stakeholder requirements have been prioritized and an overall scheduling philosophy in place, it’s important to answer these guiding questions:
- What is the coverage objective?
- What are the absolute rules and constraints?
- What is the schedule horizon?
One of the critical decisions that must be made in creating workforce schedules is whether or not enough schedules will be defined to cover the work demand of every single half-hour of the day, or whether some half-hours will have to be understaffed. For example, in the shrinkage example with the peak load in the half-hour needing 23 base staff and 34 staff available for scheduling, how many would really be put in place?
If the call center chooses to have schedules that cover this peak half-hour, then the periods immediately prior to and after the peak will probably be over-scheduled by several people since it is difficult to have people available to work just one half-hour.
Scheduling so that every single half-hour of the day is covered is called full coverage. But implementing schedules that meet peak demands will most likely result in periods (particularly immediately before and after) that will be overstaffed as a result. The downside of this approach is obvious – the call center will spend needless dollars for overstaffing and end up paying for staff when they’re not needed to handle calls.
On the other hand, there are some benefits to the full coverage approach. Scheduling to meet peaks ensures service goals will be met or exceeded every half-hour. This approach provides some room for error if the forecast is off slightly, and can provide some availability windows for staff to accomplish other work, such as paperwork or administrative tasks that may have backed up over the day.
A balance of overstaffing and understaffing is perhaps a more realistic approach and scheduling so that every half-hour is within a certain percentage of variation. In this case, the schedules tend to staff to the average requirement, not the peak. However, this can deliver inconsistent service to callers. The primary benefit is that it minimizes the labor cost.
When an outsourcing partner handles part of the load, the balanced staffing approach for the in-house staff may also be the most effective design. This sends the peak load during busy hours to the outsource partner. In addition, the partner may be the only staff during some low volume periods such as overnight so that the in-house staff does not have to cover these unattractive shifts. However, some partner arrangements send a guaranteed load of calls to the partner, leaving the peaks and valleys to be handled by in-house associates. It is important to know what the current agreement requires when scheduling in these environments.
Once the general scheduling philosophy and coverage objectives have been identified, it is time to define the scheduling rules that must be followed. These can be general principles of scheduling or those rules that must be followed as dictated by the HR Department or union rules. These rules can also be employee preferences that the center has agreed to follow or simply “we’ve always done it this way.” It is important to note, however, that every rule or constraint that is in place creates a limitation for optimizing the schedule plan.
Here are just a few of some common call center scheduling rules that can impede schedule efficiency:
- One definition of lunch break
- Same length of shift each day
- Same start time each day of week
- Breaks at same time each day of week
- Same length of time between breaks
- Two days off in a row
Again, just be aware that for every rule or constraint that is in place, schedule efficiency suffers.
Here are just a few options to the scheduling rules that can improve schedule efficiency.
- Instead of having only one lunch option that is 30 minutes long, consider other options like 45 minute or 60 minute lunches. Some staff will prefer a short lunch with an earlier departure time, while some will welcome a longer option.
- Instead of having the same length of shift each day such as five 8-hour shifts, consider different shift lengths on different days. If more calls arrive on Monday, have longer shifts on Monday and then a shorter shift on a less busy day.
- Instead of having breaks at the same time each day, position the breaks to follow the pattern of calls for the day.
- Instead of having two days off in a row, consider split days off. It may provide better coverage and provide an option that some of the staff would prefer.
These are just a few examples of common rules that are in place in call centers that should be reconsidered.
Another consideration in the scheduling process is how often to create staff schedules. Some centers do this quite often to incorporate changing workload demands, while others have very long periods between scheduling changes.
Creating a new set of schedules every week or two is referred to as a short schedule horizon. The primary benefit of creating schedules often is the improved fit of schedules to meet changing workload forecasts week to week. The drawback to this frequent scheduling, however, is the disruption that frequent schedule changes may cause to the staff, particularly if the schedules change dramatically from one week to the next. A short schedule horizon also means more work for the workforce planning team in terms of schedule creation and implementation. The time and effort needed to do the shift bids more often can be offset by less change during the week or day.
Other centers create schedules and leave them in place for a while – perhaps 3 or 6 months but some as long as a year or more. The benefits of this long schedule horizon are minimal disruption to staff and less work for the scheduling specialist. But schedule efficiency may suffer as a result, particularly if call volumes or patterns are shifting. The only real options are overtime and time-off since start and stop times are typically set for the entire period even through changes of season and daylight saving time changes.
The approach used by many call centers is actually a mix of the two. A base set of fixed schedules is created and generally filled by the permanent longer-term staff. Then, the fluctuations from week to week can be addressed by a smaller sub-set of schedules that change as needed to meet workload demands. These schedules are generally assigned to newer full-time and part-time staff. Another option is to replace any lost personnel who had fixed schedules with new employees who have more flexible schedules.
In some cases, the new hire schedule may be more attractive to some existing personnel than the one she is working. This can be resolved in a “mini-bid” in which existing personnel can change to the newly offered schedule and free theirs up for the associates further down the ranking list and what is left over goes to the new hire class.
There is one more critical decision to make in the development of an overall scheduling strategy, and this decision involves who will do what workforce management task in a multi-site contact center operation.
If each site handles a different call type and there is no sharing between the sites, each can be forecast and scheduled independently, and this is true of any specific call types that are only handled at one site even if other call types are shared across sites. In any virtual environment, forecasting for all of the sites that share a call type is a requirement. Once the total forecast is done, moving to scheduling offers four choices. Selecting one of these is as much a preference of management as it is a function of efficiency as most situations allow for any of these to work. There are some exceptions explored in the descriptions:
Call Volume Allocation. In this methodology, the total forecast call volume is divided up between the sites. This is typically done based on hours of operation and budgeted head count. Average handle times may even be different by site. This gives the maximum responsibility for ensuring proper staffing and meeting service goals to the site managers.
Staff Requirement Allocation. In this scenario, the AHT has been added to the call volume forecast and a total staff requirement has been determined for the entire network. This is the staff requirement that is then divided up and allocated to the sites, once again based primarily on hours of operation and full-time equivalents (FTEs). The local site would then create schedules using its own rules and preferences to ensure that the bodies in chairs requirement is met by interval.
Schedule Allocation. When the scheduling rules are quite similar among the sites, it is possible to create the schedules on a central basis and then divide them up among the sites. This can be very difficult if there are any differences in scheduling rules among the sites, such as local union agreements or even just local management preferences. For example, if one site requires a rotation of weekend work among the staff but others do not, it is difficult to accommodate all of these in one schedule run. When this method is used, the site manager has little control over the planning process and cannot be reasonably held responsible for achievement of the service goal. However, these managers are responsible for ensuring every schedule is filled and worked as assigned.
Centralized Schedules. This is the fully centralized plan in which not only are the schedules developed centrally, the entire process is held by the central team. Even assigning the agent names to the schedules is done centrally.
Choosing the best method for any given operation can be challenging with multiple management inputs and some technical challenges. However, if one method does not work well, switching to one of the other methods can be done relatively easily. Most commercial WFM systems can accommodate all of these options.
When working with an outsource provider, choosing the best option may be controlled by the contractual agreement. Management of that outsourcer to the terms of the contract will need to take into account the allocation method chosen.
Deciding upon an overall scheduling philosophy, coverage objective, and rules to be applied sets the stage for the detailed work to follow in defining the specific schedules for each time period and person. Understanding and balancing the multiple perspectives is a difficult challenge but has a better chance of success when all parties understand the trade-offs of various options. Preparing a series of “what-if” scenarios can be very helpful in educating all of the people who influence the staffing decisions.
Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to SWPP, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the workforce management community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 615-812-8410.