On Target

A quarterly publication of Society of Workforce Planning Professionals

Flexible Scheduling: What is It and Are You There?

By Marshall Lee, ttec

If you ask five workforce professionals what “Flexible Scheduling” is, you may get five different answers. It has meant anything from variable start time, offering creative shifts, offering to schedule shift events at agents’ convenience, offering flexible events such as training and coaching, or offering for agents to work at their convenience. Honestly it can mean even more, when you start to get nuanced about what scheduling is in a production environment. How do you do it? What does it mean? Is it even possible in today’s volatile climate?

One truth is that the workplace has changed and is changing again. So is the workforce. It’s not just about a paycheck, or even a shift anymore. Your agents and customers are both more discerning in what they want and expect. This means that having the right people at the right place at the right time in order to get the work accomplished is more important than ever. At the same time, employees are not as willing to just work the leftover schedules and will easily leave a job for something that better fits their lives and goals. Retention of both customers and employees is very schedule-centric today. Flexible scheduling can be a solution, but only in the right contexts. If executed poorly or not understood, it can lead to the opposite of its intentions.

Let’s begin by defining some of what flexible scheduling is today:

  • Work Schedules
    • Variable Start: Set schedules that can have different start times within a set band.
    • Open Schedules: Schedules where an agent can sign up to work the times open and fill demand hours as needed.
    • Non-traditional Schedules: Set schedules that are not 5×8 or 4×10 that give an associate a total number of hours.  Schedules come in different combinations (split shifts / long and short shift days / combination 2nd and 3rd shift / etc.)  The flex aspect comes from agent input on schedule creation.
    • Rotational schedules: A series of set schedules that provide agents the opportunity to rotate through various start/end times.
    • Off Day Rotation: Similar to Variable Start or Rotational – but the days off can change.
  • Shift Events
    • Flexible break and lunch times
      • Open Breaks and Lunches that an agent can sign up for
      • Set breaks and lunches in unique combinations
    • Shift Activity
      • Training or coaching at the agent’s preferred time
      • Training or coaching at the coach or trainer’s convenience
      • Meetings set around the host’s availability or preference
    • Time Off
      • Vacation Bid: Bidding on times off
      • Unlimited PTO: Having an unset amount of time off
      • Same day PTO: Same day time off (more organizations are offering this)

These different terms and inputs create many expectations of staff, be it contact center, back office, manufacturing, or any production environment. Each one can have benefits to employee satisfaction, and can lead to retention and less burn out. So where do you begin? You start with sound forecasting and planning, communication, and process.

First, you really need to understand what your organization can support. Understand what you need to do to get the work completed, what your policies allow, what your technology will enable, what your associates want, and then what you can execute given all of these factors. Then begin to explore benefits and demand. Do you have access to employee exit surveys? Was work/life balance and scheduling a driver for turnover? Was eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) impacted by scheduling and the ability to have a life outside of work? Is scheduling a big factor? Do you have a union to work with? Understanding all this first lets you know if the project is worth the effort and return.

Next, identify what you can do. What is your demand and schedule efficiency? How accurate is your forecast? If the forecast is far off, and the demand is moving, then you may find that you are going to complicate things for little benefit. If you have a solid plan in place for predicting workload and shrinkage, you may be able to begin implementation of some practices. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing though. You can start small and work your way in, beginning with Shift Events, moving to Time Off, then expanding to Work Schedules.

Ultimately, flexible scheduling is going to come back to the Work Schedule. We’ll focus here. The fundamentals of flexible scheduling are the same in many respects as a classic over/under schedule against an intraday workload forecast. You need a reliable workload, production or service targets, shrinkage estimates, and then you can engineer FTE requirements. The difference comes in how you shift your culture. This is where the soft skills begin to take over.

The most popular trend in many circles is leaning to the Open Schedules concept. Ten years ago, non-traditional schedules were considered very innovative. Now these are a known concept and can be expected. They can be considered flex schedules if agents have input in how the schedules are created, and agents can flex hours based on bid models. “Flex on” and “Flex off” same day time off is another trend that is becoming popular. This is where you may be able to call out but make up hours with no penalty at another time. All of these can work if the process is built to allow the flexibility to match demand.  But it requires looking at same day flex as a certain allowable amount of shrinkage or Open Schedules have finite hours where the last ones to sign up will get what is left over. Process and understanding are what make these work or not. Associates will only adopt what they understand and see as fair.

To achieve any of this, the first mental shift must come in the WFM Team. You are no longer just creating schedules – you are empowering customer service by identifying peak and non-peak times. You are trying to balance meeting production need not just with bodies, but happy, and refreshed associates.

Now, about those soft skills. You begin by communicating. The entire process is communication-centric. You truly cannot over-communicate what you are trying to accomplish and how your process works. Adoption and buy-in are critical. Once you get the process ironed out and create a general approach with Leadership and HR, talking to associates is the next step. What do they want and need? Surveys, focus groups, and other insights from those operations leadership and HR conversations will give you valuable information on this front. Often what we get back is not what we expect. People may not mind working “a night or two” – especially if they understand the business need and how it can help the overall group. The key is having a fair, transparent process, and conversation. Identify if the organization and associates are looking for and open to Variable Start, Open Schedules, Non-Traditional, or Rotational. There can be many combinations of all four if the stakeholders in this process are open and willing to try.

Next look at your technology. Does your WFM system easily allow for rotations, variable shifts, and weekly bidding or signups? You must run your systems through the paces here. You can do this by checking out the features you have, connecting with your vendor, and working with your user groups. When you begin to model scenarios, you’ll quickly see if there are issues in shift creation. This can’t be stressed enough – there is no way to over-simulate if you are starting this process for the first time. See what you can do. In your modeling of simulated variances in forecast, give yourself spikes. Change the AHT, the shrink, look for gaps, holes etc. If you normally run three scenarios, try 12. Use different arrivals for three weeks in a row and see what that does. Is your core coverage plan consistent enough to cover the swings? Imagine what it would be to address intraday. Sometimes in this process you uncover tolerances you are willing to live with to get the balance, but you make contingency plans for anomalies that you don’t have today.

When modeling over and over, also test the “livability” of the process. Is the bid-horizon too short or long? Are the schedules humane? Does the technology allow the fairness you intended? Is the process easy and intuitive for you and an agent both? If you are using Variable starts are the flexes too big for comfort? This is your chance to break the model, fix it, break the process, and refine it – before you try and execute. Don’t just take it around the block for a test drive – take it for a demolition derby, then drive it into a lake. Make your processes and schedule model iron clad and work for your organization. The best you may be able to do is offer 4x10s and that is a win. Or you may be able to go to weekly “sign up for your hours” coverage. However, you do it, make sure it gives you the coverage you want and a process and culture you can support and are ready for.

Once you run it through the paces and establish what type of flex scheduling you will do, determine how you can manage this process fairly.  You can use survey methodology to find out what agents are willing to work, then build out the schedules. But if the team doesn’t understand the mechanics around the process and they are not sold on them, it could cause more turnover. The process must be clear. Use those communication and listening skills to partner with associates, HR, and leadership to get the best buy-in and execution strategy.

The truth is that flexible scheduling in some way shape or form is a new reality. It is an expectation, and work/life balance is more important than ever. So be flexible, be fluid, and begin to explore the future of staffing and scheduling in the workplace.

Marshall Lee is a Director of GWFM at TTEC.  He serves on the Board of Advisors for SWPP and our sister association, the Quality Assurance and Training Connection.  He may be reached at marshall.lee@ttec.com.