Schedule Exception Management

By Maggie Klenke

One of the biggest challenges for the workforce management team is defining and managing the schedule exception process. The purpose of establishing a defined process for managing schedule exceptions is to ensure that the staffing matches the requirements as nearly as possible on a half-hourly basis with the minimum amount of management time expended to achieve it.

Setting Adherence Goals

If you are using a real-time adherence monitoring tool and holding agents accountable for an adherence percentage, then you must be clear about what exceptions will be entered and what will not to avoid a lot of angst and needless interaction. If the goal for percentage of adherence is set high (>95%), you will have to enter exceptions for short periods of time to be as accurate as possible. If you set your percentage lower, then there is some “forgiveness factor” built in where only the longer exceptions are entered (over 5 minutes or even over 15 minutes if the percentage is low enough).

The length of the average contact is also a factor since one of the most common exceptions is going to break late due to getting stuck on a call. If calls are typically 3-5 minutes, then a lower adherence percentage can build in some time for these so you don’t have to track them. But if the calls are more like 15 minutes long, you may have to deal with exceptions for these delays to avoid too much forgiveness when it is only rarely needed. Therefore, the first major hurdle is simply reaching consensus about what the adherence percentage will be and what is already forgiven in that percentage versus what must be tracked through exceptions.

The objective of a documented schedule exception process is to define the list of variations to the schedules that can be planned for and those that cannot, and to define the process by which each will be managed, measured, and controlled. The following definitions and processes are recommended based on work with many call centers over the years.

Exception Definitions

Schedule exceptions fall into five major categories:

  1. Preplanned exceptions are deviations from the schedule that are planned for and built into the short-term schedule process. This includes such items as team meetings, training, and coaching sessions as well as absences for vacation and other time off. In an effort to create a plan that establishes the expectations as accurately as possible, all planned deviations must be negotiated with the workforce management scheduler prior to the beginning date of the schedule implementation.
  2. Unplanned management exceptions pre-approved are deviations from the schedule that are not planned before the schedule is published, but are controlled by the agent’s team leader or manager. Such exceptions often are needed to adjust to the ebb and flow of work within the planning horizon. This also includes any changes that are made to the preplanned exceptions after implementation of the schedule. As long as these exceptions have been pre-negotiated with the workforce management team, they are counted in this category.
  3. Unplanned management exceptions not pre-approved are deviations from the scheduled that are not planned and not negotiated with the workforce management team. These are ad hoc decisions made by operations and reported after the fact. These include such items as team meetings that run longer than planned, ad hoc coaching sessions, and any management decisions that result in schedule changes that were not pre-negotiated with the workforce management team. These exceptions are measured for management performance.
  4. Unplanned agent exceptions are deviations from the schedule that are not planned for and which are not entirely within the control of the agent or management. These include items that affect the number of staff available, but are not counted towards the agent’s adherence measurement or the manager’s performance. This includes such items as sick time, technical downtime, and intermittent FMLA. Since these items are not in the control of management or the agent, they are not included in performance measures of either management or the agent, but should be monitored for opportunities for improvement.
  5. Adherence-affecting exceptions are deviations from the schedule that are not planned or pre-approved and are entirely within the control of the agent. These items are the ones that affect staffing and count toward the agent’s adherence measurement. This includes early/late start on shift or breaks, and not logging into the right skills as the schedule dictates.

Each schedule exception in the workforce management system must be categorized into one of these five types. Reporting can then be provided that tracks the situations that are working well and those that could benefit from some attention.

Procedure for Planned Exceptions (Type 1)

Any schedule exception that can be built into the scheduling process with a reasonable degree of accuracy should be. For example, if a new schedule plan is created each month, in order to give the workforce management team time to create the plan, the operations managers must provide input to the workforce management team on all planned exceptions by no later than 15 days prior to the time the schedule is published.

It is also important to allow some negotiating room in the planning of the exceptions to allow the plan to make the best match of staffing to requirements. The plan request from operations should be stated in the broadest acceptable terms to allow for the needed flexibility. For example, a definition could be that each agent needs to attend a team meeting of 30 minutes each week. Based on coverage, it may make sense to have three team meetings simultaneously during overstaffed periods and none during the understaffed periods. If the timing of the meetings is dictated by operations, it assumes that there is no flexibility for that meeting to be at any other time.

Procedure for Unplanned Management Exceptions – Pre-approved (Type 2)

Once the planned schedule has been completed and the schedule has been published, any changes requested by management and approved by the workforce management team prior to the actual event fall into this category. These are adjustments that are made to the schedule to accommodate the needs of the center, or to respond to unplanned fluctuations in workload or staffing.
If workforce management advises that the exception cannot be accommodated without affecting customers, then it is not “pre-approved.” If management decides that the exception must be taken regardless of customer impact, then it will be recorded in the Type 3 category as not pre-approved by workforce management.

Procedure for Unplanned Management Exceptions – Not Pre-approved (Type 3)

Any changes that are made with the approval of management but without the prior notification and concurrence with the workforce management team fall into this category. This category exists primarily to allocate the responsibility to management when an agent fails to adhere to the schedule when the agent had no control over the situation.

Any request by management that was not pre-approved as Type 2 above or was reported after the actual event falls into this category.

Unplanned Agent Exceptions (Type 4)

When an agent is unable to adhere to a schedule for reasons that are not within the control of either management or the agent, the exceptions fall into this category. This includes sick time, intermittent FMLA, jury duty etc. While it is helpful for these to be reported to the workforce management team as quickly as they are known, it is not uncommon for these to be reported the day of the event. A certain amount of “shrinkage” is built into the plan to accommodate these situations.

Adherence Affecting Exceptions (Type 5)

When an agent has not adhered to the planned schedule (including any exceptions that have been made under types 1-4) for any reason that is within his/her control, this category tracks that time of non-adherence. This includes early or late log-in for a shift, break, or other planned exception, and failures to be logged into the appropriate skills as the schedule dictates.

In some cases, an exception will be reported and entered to account for this time (often after the fact), but in many cases no exception will be entered. Both conditions should be included in the measurement of non-adherence.

Example of Adherence Goals and Exception Parameters

The following is an example of how these schedule exception definitions might work. The percent of adherence to the planned schedule that is expected of agents is 95%. This is defined as the percent of time that the agent is in compliance with the exact details of the schedule, rather than measuring whether the person worked the total number of minutes planned regardless of when they were worked. So if an agent is 30 minutes late in the morning and makes up for it by staying 30 minutes late at the end of the shift, he/she is out of adherence for one hour even though the total time is correct. The agent was absent when needed and may have been idle most of the extra time when he/she was not needed, thus affecting service, occupancy, and cost.

Based on a 40-hour work week, this percentage of time that can be out of adherence (5%) equates to 120 minutes each week or an average of 24 minutes per day for those on 5-day schedules. The adherence goal is based on the understanding that there are times when a rep will be in the middle of a customer contact when the break time or shift end time arrives. It also builds in
a reasonable and fair accommodation for human needs such as restroom breaks between scheduled off-phone times.

Another consideration in the establishment of the adherence goal is to minimize the need for tracking short-duration exceptions that could affect adherence. For example, if a meeting runs over 3 minutes, it is burdensome to enter a 3-minute exception into every agent’s record. And if an agent is on a call at break time, with an AHT of 3-5 minutes, it will be rare that the failure to adhere for that reason will exceed 10 minutes. Therefore, no exception of less than 10 minutes will be accepted and entered into the workforce management system. As a result, agents may be held in non-adherence for a few of these situations in any week even though it may have been out of their control, and the percentage goal is set to accommodate these situations.

However, this non-adherence time should not be considered an “entitlement” to be used for an extra break if the needs of that day have not demanded it. When measured over a period of weeks, there will be days when everything seems to go wrong, and other days when little variation is required. This adherence performance measurement is designed to be an average of the total period taking into account both the good days and bad.


Defining an adherence goal and administering it fairly and accurately can have a tremendous impact on customer service, center morale, and costs. Therefore, taking the time to define the process thoroughly and hold both managers and agents accountable for their behaviors will pay significant dividends.