Don’t Fear Workforce Management in Non-Voice, Back Office, and Beyond

By Marshall Lee, ttec

It is happening. Workforce management (WFM) professionals are being asked to move into the back office, support retail, and go beyond voice into other channels.  We are being asked (or told) to support the entire workforce. And it scares some of us. It excites others. Change is coming. It’s not bad though, and in many ways, it’s not really change – just expansion.

Only a few times in my career has my blood run cold, and I thought “Wow!  What am I going to do with that?  How is that going to work?”

The first time was when I took my first call in a call center, and fell hard on my face.  The second was when I had to do a massive Request for Proposal response in 48 hours as an analyst on a team of two WFM people, when I’d never done one.  The next was being asked to add nurses and claims agents (back office people) in our WFM system.

I handled each one. They required a little finesse and some adaptation, but in the end, it wasn’t that scary. It was getting started that was frightening – because I just didn’t know where to start, and like all new things, I just hadn’t applied my skills in that context at that time.

In each situation, I knew the basics of my job. I knew how to take calls – I just hadn’t taken a live one solo before. I knew how to run staffing models – I just hadn’t run that kind of “what-if” on that scale before.  And up to the point of adding those nurses and claims agents, I had only done contact center inbound voice, outbound, and chat WFM.  While I knew the basics and had the right tools, I just didn’t have the new context.

The truth was that in all three situations, I had most of the skills I needed already. I just needed confidence. Today, when I go to conferences, seminars, or just talk to my WFM Tribe, nothing scares many of us more than “back office” or “omni-channel” applications.  It shouldn’t, though. Like playing chess, succeeding in workforce management is about applying the basics. You must be able to see and remember the whole board, like a chess player. Don’t look at one piece alone – see the entire board.  You need to understand all the pieces, know the moves, and get the basics, and you can play in any match.

(Note: One reason the Certified Workforce Planning Professional (CWPP) exam and certification are so genius in its design is that it requires an understand of the theory and steps of WFM in the raw. It is not about a single system or tool, but rather the integral steps of the staffing process. The CWPP designation means that you know the basics and theory of WFM.)

Knowing how to staff and schedule for traditional voice is good, but going forward, you need to know how to apply those skills to back office and non-voice channel workforce management too. Think about the realities of what is happening with automation and smart phones.  It’s been a while since something got my attention and shook me awake, but last year, I saw two things that had me anticipating change – again.  I saw Google Assistant make a phone call, and I watched a demo where software made a schedule, based on an automated forecast.

Considering this automation, what is my relevance in 2025?   My relevance in 2025 is the same as Erlang’s scribblings from 100 years ago are today. Change doesn’t have to be scary, and it doesn’t have to make you obsolete.  A.K. Erlang lived from 1878-1929 in Denmark, and started pondering queueing theory for lines in post offices. His adapted work became the basis for server and trunk calculations, staffing models, telephony service, and agent staffing. In 2019, 90 years after his death, we use calculators named after him to calculate staffing, even for the number of bots needed to answer calls from other Artificial Intelligence bots. His work is still relevant because it adapts. It’s because the basics still matter.

Manufacturing, supply chain, customer service, back office – all of these need WFM. There may be a future where lawyers, physicians, accountants, and other professionals will need their time and workload managed by professionals, possibly with real administrative staff in centralized or virtualized centers. The future is unclear, but with smart phones and automation, the work is clearly moving to new channels and arenas. In this world, people who can figure out how many people and what skills are needed will be very important.

The key to preparing for this future is to remember the contact center gave you most everything you need. Workload will always be volume of work multiplied by the time it takes to do it. FTE requirement will always be based on how many resources are needed to do the workload based on time available, divided by workload, and adjusted for how many widgets you can do at the same time.  Shrinkage will always be the time pulled away from being productive, in office, out of office, planned, and unplanned. Occupancy will always be how busy you are when available to work. These are unchanging. You have the skill set. Once you have a forecast, arrival, service, and production targets, you have everything you need to generate a staffing model. It doesn’t matter if it is a call center, contact center, factory, claims center, doctor’s office, or anything else – as long as you know the information, you CAN handle the basics.

Of course, there are differences in this new type of work.  However, they are smaller than one might think. It’s the perception of this difference that is your biggest obstacle to overcome.

Many workforce professionals have been faced with scheduling for a group who are convinced that “they are different.”  An excellent example of working around these differences takes me back to that project where I was in charge of putting nurses on a schedule designed by workforce management.

When faced with scheduling a non-phone group through basic WFM principles, I was not as adept at explaining how alike they were back then, while respecting the uniqueness they may have. I was given many reasons that nurses who worked faxes all day would not be put on a WFM program.

They knew how many faxes a nurse should work, they tracked a quota, and made sure the work was completed. There were 181 in this department doing only faxes. I started by looking at what the nurses were doing. There were 7 departments, 21 queues, and 63 skill combinations. There were peak weeks, peak days, backlog periods, overtime, and holiday blackouts. After doing some research and validating some AHT and maximum skilling for licensure, we were able to do the same work with 147 nurses. Through applying WFM principles, we were able to free over 35 nurses to the constantly queuing phones without hiring.

They implemented the change. After 6 months of cross training and realignment, we were live. After 3 months live with reporting, we had a full WFM cycle of Forecasting, Staffing, Scheduling, Execution, and Reporting to repeat.  With this cycle in place, we were able to manage AHT down 27% in two areas, bringing the FTE need down another 8 staff. They were different, but so was I. I was not a clinical resource manager but I was a Workforce Planning Professional trained in staffing and scheduling based on demand and service targets, but also trained to adapt my skill set to unique staffing situations. Suddenly nurses were 87% occupied, with a better work/life balance, and we were right staffed.

They were different but workload is workload, shrinkage is shrinkage, occupancy is occupancy, and so on. Applying WFM is giving an organization a GPS instead of a map.

If you have always used a map and you know how to use one, you don’t think you need a GPS. But you are not psychic – you can’t see an accident or traffic back-up in real-time, or know where all the construction is. You can’t see the front of a building with a street view. A GPS has all the info, a forecast (map), a plan or schedule (route), real time info (info and route updates), and reporting. A map just gives a big picture alone and you have to figure it out. A GPS ties it all together.

For multichannel, omni-channel, or back office, you can be the GPS. You can be the one who ties it all together. Again, it is all about the basics. You just have to understand the uniqueness of the environment in which you are going to be staffing and scheduling.

The last step to making the transition is being able to communicate your message, and more importantly, getting the inputs you need.  In order to get the information you need, the people supplying it must be able to understand what you need. Speaking the language of the group you’re scheduling is critical.

I started my contact center life as a trainer. As an immigrant to the WFM space, I am a strong advocate for quality and training initiatives. However, if I want to lose the interest of a WFM team when I talk about the importance of a training schedule length, I can talk at length about why the Blooms Taxonomy Level Required is Analysis Level and the ISD Model is at minimum a 60-minute model followed up with a 3 stage Kirkpatrick Evaluation. There’s little chance a WFM team will understand all that training language.

On the other hand, the WFM team has their own language that needs to be modified when speaking to non-WFM people. The worst nightmare of a new team that you are going to support is that someone who “doesn’t get them” is going to come in and change the way they work. If you come in using terms they are not familiar with, you will scare people. You will have to “de-workforce” your language a bit. Then open your ears to hear.

Start by asking them what they do. Then listen. Then listen more. Take notes. Spend time in in their operation watching them work. Ask again. Listen and do time studies. The most important question in any workforce planning is “What should my people be doing?” Find out what this group does, find out what is different about them from traditional call/contact center – and then once you understand them, explain why they are not different.

You can apply the WFM cycle of Forecasting, Planning/Scheduling, Execution/Adherence, and Reporting to any team. You just need to be willing to learn to apply your skills to a new context. To be relevant, you need to be ready to change and adapt.

The future is coming faster than any of us can imagine. We must think of ourselves as innovators of time and space as well as work. Where and how can we fit people and tasks together, in ways that make it so they can accomplish the tasks they were hired for, or that are needed for them to be successful? This is the new 3D Tetris game of Workforce Planning and Workforce Management. The day may be coming where a WFM team helps schedule family time, kid’s activities, and school events. It isn’t that hard to imagine.

Anything is possible – just be ready for that future. You already know what you need to handle it – you just need to apply it with an open mind and be ready to adapt. Don’t be afraid to move and expand your services beyond the contact center.

Marshall Lee is Director, Global Workforce Management, at ttec.  He may be reached at marshall.lee@ttec.com.

Don’t Fear Workforce Management in Non-Voice, Back Office, and Beyond

By Marshall Lee, ttec

It is happening. Workforce management (WFM) professionals are being asked to move into the back office, support retail, and go beyond voice into other channels.  We are being asked, or told, to support the entire workforce. And it scares some of us. It excites others. Change is coming. It’s not bad though, and in many ways, it’s not really change – just expansion.

Only a few times in my career has my blood run cold, and I thought “Wow!  What am I going to do with that?  How is that going to work?”

The first time was when I took my first call in a call center, and fell hard on my face.  The second was when I had to do a massive Request for Proposal response in 48 hours as an analyst on a team of two WFM people, when I’d never done one.  The next was being asked to add nurses and claims agents (back office people) in our WFM system.

I handled each one. They required a little finesse and some adaptation, but in the end, it wasn’t that scary. It was getting started that was frightening – because I just didn’t know where to start, and like all new things, I just hadn’t applied my skills in that context at that time.

In each situation, I knew the basics of my job. I knew how to take calls – I just hadn’t taken a live one solo before. I knew how to run staffing models – I just hadn’t run that kind of “what-if” on that scale before.  And up to the point of adding those nurses and claims agents, I had only done contact center inbound voice, outbound, and chat WFM.  While I knew the basics and had the right tools, I just didn’t have the new context.

The truth was that in all three situations, I had most of the skills I needed already. I just needed confidence. Today, when I go to conferences, seminars, or just talk to my WFM Tribe, nothing scares many of us more than “back office” or “omni-channel” applications.  It shouldn’t, though. Like playing chess, succeeding in workforce management is about applying the basics. You must be able to see and remember the whole board, like a chess player. Don’t look at one piece alone – see the entire board.  You need to understand all the pieces, know the moves, and get the basics, and you can play in any match.

(Note: One reason the Certified Workforce Planning Professional (CWPP) exam and certification are so genius in its design is that it requires an understand of the theory and steps of WFM in the raw. It is not about a single system or tool, but rather the integral steps of the staffing process. The CWPP designation means that you know the basics and theory of WFM.)

Knowing how to staff and schedule for traditional voice is good, but going forward, you need to know how to apply those skills to back office and non-voice channel workforce management too. Think about the realities of what is happening with automation and smart phones.

It’s been a while since something got my attention and shook me awake, but last year, I saw two things that had me anticipating change – again.  I saw Google Assistant make a phone call, and I watched a demo where software made a schedule, based on an automated forecast.

Considering this automation, what is my relevance in 2025?   My relevance in 2025 is the same as Erlang’s scribblings from 100 years ago are today. Change doesn’t have to be scary, and it doesn’t have to make you obsolete.  A.K. Erlang lived from 1878-1929 in Denmark, and started pondering queueing theory for lines in post offices. His adapted work became the basis for server and trunk calculations, staffing models, telephony service, and agent staffing. In 2019, 90 years after his death, we use calculators named after him to calculate staffing, even for the number of bots needed to answer calls from other Artificial Intelligence bots. His work is still relevant because it adapts. It’s because the basics still matter.

Manufacturing, supply chain, customer service, back office – all of these need WFM. There may be a future where lawyers, physicians, accountants, and other professionals will need their time and workload managed by professionals, possibly with real administrative staff in centralized or virtualized centers. The future is unclear, but with smart phones and automation, the work is clearly moving to new channels and arenas. In this world, people who can figure out how many people and what skills are needed will be very important.

The key to preparing for this future is to remember the contact center gave you most everything you need. Workload will always be volume of work multiplied by the time it takes to do it. FTE requirement will always be based on how many resources are needed to do the workload based on time available, divided by workload, and adjusted for how many widgets you can do at the same time.  Shrinkage will always be the time pulled away from being productive, in office, out of office, planned, and unplanned. Occupancy will always be how busy you are when available to work. These are unchanging. You have the skill set. Once you have a forecast, arrival, service, and production targets, you have everything you need to generate a staffing model. It doesn’t matter if it is a call center, contact center, factory, claims center, doctor’s office, or anything else – as long as you know the information, you CAN handle the basics.

Of course, there are differences in this new type of work.  However, they are smaller than one might think. It’s the perception of this difference that is your biggest obstacle to overcome.

Many workforce professionals have been faced with scheduling for a group who are convinced that “they are different.”  An excellent example of working around these differences takes me back to that project where I was in charge of putting nurses on a schedule designed by workforce management.

When faced with scheduling a non-phone group through basic WFM principles, I was not as adept at explaining how alike they were back then, while respecting the uniqueness they may have. I was given many reasons that nurses who worked faxes all day would not be put on a WFM program.

They knew how many faxes a nurse should work, they tracked a quota, and made sure the work was completed. There were 181 in this department doing only faxes. I started by looking at what the nurses were doing. There were 7 departments, 21 queues, and 63 skill combinations. There were peak weeks, peak days, backlog periods, overtime, and holiday blackouts. After doing some research and validating some AHT and maximum skilling for licensure, we were able to do the same work with 147 nurses. Through applying WFM principles, we were able to free over 35 nurses to the constantly queuing phones without hiring.

They implemented the change. After 6 months of cross training and realignment, we were live. After 3 months live with reporting, we had a full WFM cycle of Forecasting, Staffing, Scheduling, Execution, and Reporting to repeat.  With this cycle in place we were able to manage AHT down 27% in two areas bringing the FTE need down another 8 staff. They were different, but so was I. I was not a clinical resource manager but I was a Workforce Planning Professional trained in staffing and scheduling based on demand and service target, but also trained to adapt my skill set to unique staffing situations. Suddenly nurses were 87% occupied, with a better work/life balance, and we were right staffed.

They were different but workload is workload, shrinkage is shrinkage, occupancy is occupancy, and so on. Applying WFM is giving an organization a GPS instead of a map.

If you have always used a map and you know how to use one, you don’t think you need a GPS. But you are not psychic – you can’t see an accident or traffic back-up in real-time, or know where all the construction is. You can’t see the front of a building with a street view. A GPS has all the info, a forecast (map), a plan or schedule (route), real time info (info and route updates), and reporting. A map just gives a big picture alone and you have to figure it out. A GPS ties it all together.

For multichannel, omni-channel, or back office, you can be the GPS. You can be the one who ties it all together. Again, it is all about the basics. You just have to understand the uniqueness of the environment in which you are going to be staffing and scheduling.

The last step to making the transition is being able to communicate your message, and more importantly, getting the inputs you need.  In order to get the information you need, the people supplying it must be able to understand what you need. Speaking the language of the group you’re scheduling is critical.

I started my contact center life as a trainer. As an immigrant to the WFM space, I am a strong advocate for quality and training initiatives. However, if I want to lose the interest of a WFM Team when I talk about the importance of a training schedule length, I can talk at length about why the Blooms Taxonomy Level Required is Analysis Level and the ISD Model is at minimum a 60-minute model followed up with a 3 stage Kirkpatrick Evaluation. There’s little chance a WFM team will understand all that training language.

On the other hand, the WFM team has their own language that needs to be modified when speaking to non-WFM people. The worst nightmare of a new team that you are going to support is that someone who “doesn’t get them” is going to come in and change the way they work. If you come in using terms they are not familiar with, you will scare people. You will have to “de-workforce” your language a bit. Then open your ears to hear.

Start by asking them what they do. Then listen. Then listen more. Take notes. Spend time in in their operation watching them work. Ask again. Listen and do time studies. The most important question in any workforce planning is “What should my people be doing?” Find out what this group does, find out what is different about them from traditional call/contact center – and then once you understand them, explain why they are not different.

You can apply the WFM cycle of Forecasting, Planning/Scheduling, Execution/Adherence, and Reporting to any team. You just need to be willing to learn to apply your skills to a new context. To be relevant you need to be ready to change and adapt.

The future is coming faster than any of us can imagine. We must think of ourselves as innovators of time and space as well as work. Where and how can we fit people and tasks together, in ways that make it so they can accomplish the tasks they were hired for, or that are needed for them to be successful. This is the new 3D Tetris game of Workforce Planning and Workforce Management. The day may be coming where a WFM Team helps schedule family time, kid’s activities, and school events. It isn’t that hard to imagine.

Anything is possible – just be ready for that future. You already know what you need to handle it – you just need to apply it with an open mind and be ready to adapt. Don’t be afraid to move and expand your services beyond the contact center.

Marshall Lee is Director, Global Workforce Management, at ttec.  He may be reached at marshall.lee@ttec.com.