Building Blocks of Scheduling
By Penny Reynolds
Call Center Scheduling – The art and science of getting the just right number of people in their seats at precisely the right times to handle the calls. Too many at one time of day and you’re paying needless dollars for staff when they’re not needed. Then at peak times, when there aren’t nearly enough people to go around, service level suffers (not to mention the poor souls that are logged in and facing a never-ending queue of calls). If only you could get to that “just right” balance.
The first step towards this goal is to calculate schedule requirements (incorporating shrinkage assumptions) and develop an overall scheduling strategy, which takes into account contact center stakeholder perspectives, scheduling priorities, coverage objectives, rules and constraints, and definition of a scheduling horizon. Once these strategies and definitions are in place, then it’s time to begin the process of scheduling with a tactical plan.
A tactical schedule plan includes the following:
- Shift definitions
- Day of week options
- Lunch plans
- Break options
- Activity planning
- Vacation/time off planning
One important definition is how many hours a full-time person works per week. The most common definition of a full-time shift in North America is 40 hours per week, but there are many organizations that define full-time as 37.5 or 36 hours per week. Note that this number of hours is what will be used to describe an FTE or a full-time equivalent.
The definition of a part-time shift is far more varied. For some organizations, anything less than full-time is part-time, but that number of hours may vary a great deal. An organization may have some part-time associates who work 30 hours per week and others at only 10 hours per week. The number of hours may define what benefits the staff is eligible to receive.
There are many ways to assemble a 36-40 hour shift for a full-time definition.
|40-Hour Work Week||36-Hour Work Week|
|Five 8-hour days||Four 9-hour days|
|Four 9-hour days + one 4-hour day||Four 8-hour days + one 6-hour day|
|Three 10-hour days + two 5-hour days||Three 10-hour days + one 6-hour day|
|Three 12-hour days + one 4-hour day||Three 8-hour days + one 12-hour day|
|Two 12-hour days + two 8-hour days||Two 10-hour days + two 8-hour days|
Scheduling success depends upon scheduling the number of hours that are best suited to each day. Since some days will have more hours of work than other days, it makes sense to have staff work more hours on some days and fewer hours on less busy days.
With highest call volume on Monday and declining volumes through the week, a “Slant Schedule” may be a good fit. For example, a person may be scheduled for 10 hours on Monday, 9 on Tuesday, 8 on Wednesday, 7 on Thursday, and 6 on Friday. This early end on Friday is pretty popular with staff and the extra hours on the busy days can provide a more consistent service and occupancy level.
There are countless possibilities for defining part-time shifts. There can be any number of hours worked, any combination of days on and off, and hours scheduled at various times of day to match peak demand. The key to part-time success is to create shifts that match workload by day-of-week and time-of-day.
The biggest advantage of part-time schedules is the flexibility they provide in scheduling. Just like building something with Lego blocks, the more pieces and different sizes, the better fit in building an exact model. Replacing an 8-hour full-time schedule with 2 4-hour part-time schedules can provide needed adjustments to prevent understaffing and overstaffing.
In addition, there may be a cost savings associated with part-time staff. Even though the hourly rate may be equivalent to full-time staff, there are generally not as many benefits paid out to part-time staff. The degree to which benefits are paid to part-timers varies widely by organization. A benefit of part-time staffing that is often overlooked is that by only working part of the time, the staff stay fresher and less burned out on the phones.
While there are many advantages of using part-time staff, there are also some disadvantages. The flexibility that part-time staff provides can be a huge benefit. However, if the part-time staff is made up of students with a set class schedule or staff who are doing call center work as a second job, then other commitments may actually make them even less flexible than full-time staff. It is important to hire with flexibility as a hiring criteria in order to realize the full benefit of part-time staff.
If staff is hired to be part-time, then the time they can devote to training may be part-time. Training classes are generally scheduled as full 8-hour days so ensure that new hires are aware of the training schedule and are able to attend. The trainers may only offer classes during day shifts making it difficult to reach the part-timers who will work nights and weekends due to other daytime commitments.
Many part-time staff are hired as students or as staff looking for another career. Therefore, there may be higher turnover associated with part-timers.
If staff is only working part of the day, then it may be difficult to coordinate their schedules with needed coaching, training, and team meetings. There may be fewer hours available and less overlap with supervisors and quality analysts for communications and coaching to occur.
It may also be more difficult to include part-time staff and make them a part of all call center activities, including promotions, games, activities, and parties. They may feel less included and less a part of the culture than full-time staff, another factor contributing to attrition.
Given that there are always peaks and valleys of workload, an ideal schedule for some staff would be a split shift, where staff work peak hours in different times of day (with a longer than 1-hour break). While very efficient in terms of coverage, a split shift is generally not very popular with call center staff. Most staff would not want to come in for a short shift, leave the center, and then return for another shift.
However, there are some creative scenarios that can make split shifts more attractive to staff.
Some centers have created split shifts that work well for students who work early and late hours, taking classes in the middle of the day when the center is staffed sufficiently. Another center has a group that works a split shift with a 3-hour break in the middle of the day and they all leave together to work out at a local gym before coming back to work. Other centers may have staff work the needed peak hours in the center and actually go work in another department in the company during non-peak times.
The most obvious way to create a split shift is to create a work situation where people do not have to travel into the center to work. Those staff that work remotely may be much more amenable to working the needed shifts if they can do so from home.
Remote staffing with associates who work from home can provide the ultimate in scheduling flexibility. The majority of contact centers in North America have some staff that work from home to handle contact center workload. However, offering this option only to tenured staff and allowing them to bid for the most attractive shifts will undo much of this benefit.
Start and Stop Times
Defining start and stop times is another component of the schedule creation process. There may be times of the day or night that shifts should not begin or end even if the center is a 24-hour operation.
For example, the number of security staff may be reduced during certain hours of the day, and that may affect when shifts begin and end. In this case, there may be certain times of night when it would not be safe for people to be in the parking lot arriving and departing.
Another consideration is how often start times should begin. For example, it should be decided whether schedules would start on the hour or every half-hour. Some call centers choose to define schedule start times on the quarter-hour. While more frequent start times may seem problematic in terms of managing the process, these frequent start times will likely result in a more efficient schedule mix.
For example, if 20 people are scheduled to start at 8:00am, it would be more efficient to have some start at 7:45, some at 8:00, some at 8:15. Staggering these start times naturally staggers breaks and lunches later in the day, keeping coverage more consistent. In this example, only 18 people would be needed if start times are staggered because of the better coverage that carries over throughout the day.
Day of Week Options
Another part of the shift definition is the pattern and sequence of days on and off. The traditional arrangement is to work five days and have two days off. In the call center world, where many operate seven days a week, the day off arrangement has to be defined so that Saturdays and Sundays are covered too.
Some centers are open 6 days per week, closed on Sundays. This makes the 2 days off together requirement especially difficult, as the only available combinations are Saturday/Sunday or Sunday/Monday. With Monday being the busiest day of the week for many centers (and especially so for those closed on Sunday), requiring 2 days off together can exaggerate the challenge of providing consistent service across all days. It may be surprising, but there are some associates who prefer having split days off to better coordinate with spouse, friends, or other commitments.
In some cases, full-time staff may be entitled to work Monday through Friday and have Saturday and Sunday off, with part-time staff covering the weekend days. In other centers, staff may be entitled to two days off in a row, but the days off will not necessarily be weekend days. Many call centers use a rotation approach to determine who works the weekend days, with staff perhaps responsible for weekend coverage once every four or five weeks. In some cases, the two days off may not necessarily be together, but might be Saturday and Tuesday, for example.
Lunch and Break Schedules
The lunch period may be 30-minutes, 45-minutes, or 60-minutes, depending upon the call center’s policies and perhaps associates’ preferences.
It is common in some call centers to allow one of the breaks during the day to be combined into a longer lunch period (to accommodate personal needs to run errands, go to the gym, etc.) for one or more of the days of the week. Again, just like with the part-time schedules outlined above, the more possibilities with break times, the more flexibility the scheduler has to create schedules to meet agent preferences as well as cover workload demand.
By offering a mix of 30, 45 and 60 minute lunch periods, the center can provide better coverage in the middle of the day and also match the desired lunch length for more of the associates. In many centers, the very beginning of the day and the end of the day may be a bit overstaffed so that taking the extra 15-30 minutes off the ends of the shifts will tend to even out the staffing across all periods.
Another consideration in the definition of schedules is the frequency and duration of breaks. This definition should include how long an employee should work before a break is scheduled, how long the break should be, and how many breaks should be scheduled for a given shift length.
The common practice in defining breaks is to schedule the first break no sooner than 90 minutes after the start time, but no later than three hours after the scheduled start time. Defining this “window” of break time provides some flexibility in scheduling the break during the periods of most available staff.
Some centers allow three 10-minutes breaks in an 8-9 hour span instead of 2 15-minute breaks. This can work to move the lunch period earlier or later than the precise middle of the shift.
Scheduling Off-Phone Activities
Scheduling team meetings is always a challenge in the contact center. It’s important for staff to have regular meetings, yet it’s difficult to schedule a group of people off the phones for 60 minutes, or even 30 minutes, without negatively impacting speed of answer to callers.
Here are some creative things to allow for team meetings without negatively affecting service to customers:
- Cross-train a few people from related departments to cover the phones during team meetings. You might also pull in staff who have recently left the center for other departments.
- Rotate responsibility among one or two people within the team and catch those staff up after meeting.
- Hold off-hour meetings with free meal.
- Send calls to an outsource partner by either sending all calls during that hour to an outsourced answering service (who can page for critical calls),
- Hold more meetings with shorter duration, like twice a week for only 30 minutes per session.
Vacation and Time-Off Planning
The final step involves establishing a vacation calendar and beginning the bidding process for scheduled time off. You’ll need to determine bidding order. Usually this is by seniority, performance, or some combination of both. Many centers use seniority because it’s the easiest to defend but others use the vacation selection order as a major reward for performance.
There is typically a waiting list process. Chances are that if the week an associate wants isn’t available during the initial bid, it might open up before the week arrives. There are many things to consider when administering your waiting list.
In order to introduce another level of “fairness” into the process, you may want to consider dividing your bidding into two rounds. This prevents the people at the top of the bidding rank from taking all the “good” weeks and messing up other holiday weeks with single day selections. In this case, people with more than a week of entitlement can only select one week in the first round and then after everyone has picked, they can select the additional weeks.
When you establish a vacation and time-off planning process, you also have to establish a process for managing change, both throughout the year and on an intra-day basis.
Figure out how you’re going handle cancellations. If someone held a week for a long time and canceled at the last minute, that’s not really fair for the people who were on the waiting list. Also, if you allow people to cancel without scheduling their time elsewhere, you may end up with a troubling carry-over issue.
Close all remaining slots by the week prior (at a minimum). In a flexible scheduling environment, schedules have the ability to move around vacations (basically, they optimize themselves). If you allow people to continue selecting vacation once the week has been generated, you’ll create holes in coverage. Eliminate this issue by identifying a day when remaining slots are closed and manage additional requests via the intraday process.
The process of moving from a forecast of workload to a schedule that will ensure people are in place as needed is challenging. A clear and honest picture of the shrinkage loss is critical to ensuring enough total people to meet the service goals. Then creating schedules that balance the needs of all the stakeholders is a real juggling act that takes creativity and negotiating skills. Thinking through the details and searching for ways to improve the process is a constant need, but one that is rewarded with happier customers, better budget control, and lower absenteeism and staff turnover.
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 email@example.com or at 615-812-8410.