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10 Scheduling Strategies to Optimize Your Workforce

readyThis article was updated on 6/24/2022.

Imagine for a moment that you are the main attraction in a high wire performance. You’re a little nervous at first and start off a bit wobbly, and then you can concentrate and steady yourself...until you hear a loud scream in the audience. At that point, you almost fall. A few more unstable steps…and finally, you have crossed to the other side.

Pretty crazy job, right? Now, look at your WFM analyst, manager, or team. That is what their day is like as they forecast anticipated contact trends, schedule agents to match volume peaks, and try to keep everyone “balanced “ with intra-day activities and events. Contact center workforce managers are the data “artists” in the company. Workforce management is a critical and challenging position. It’s about understanding and knowing when you’ll be the busiest, making sure people are adhering to what is planned and then quickly anticipating and adjusting throughout the day.

Here are 10 strategies to help:

Strategy #1: Intra-day Events Matter!

It matters when and where events like break, lunch, training, meeting, and coaching occur. It can be discouraging when people aren’t doing what they have been scheduled to do especially after all that planning. These events keep your company from meeting its service level goals and prevent employees from taking calls. It isn’t realistic to just overstaff by 15-20% to accommodate. Not to mention, it’s just plain costly. Use your creativity for these events, since they typically happen in 15-minute intervals. Some examples: Try 10 min breaks, or 45-minute lunches, or 15-minute coaching sessions.

Strategy #2: Stagger the Workload

Because arrival patterns with company priorities, promotions, billing events or cycles, or the launch of a new product offering, it is essential to ensure that you are fully staffed around your contact volume peak times. Instead of having everyone start on the hour, try staggering those start times by adding half-hour and quarter-hour start times to employee shift assignments. For example, try an 8:30 am or 8:45 am start time, rather than 8:00 or 9:00, etc. This will give you added coverage and flexibility in your staffing requirements during your busiest intervals.

Strategy #3: Hiring and Part Time Staff

Part-time shifts may not apply to every company, but it’s worth reviewing and considering. It will allow you to cover the “higher volume” needs by hiring part-time employees to work part-time shifts. Part-time shifts are usually easier to implement and hire because typically people who work part-time don’t expect to have a set schedule and are used to working different shifts on different days.

Use the hiring process to your advantage. Work with your HR or Recruiting office to update job descriptions or procedures to include additional criteria regarding shift requirements. Set proper expectations about how shifts are assigned in your organization (fixed shifts vs. flexible shifts) and, if possible, inform your qualified candidate's possible shifts or hours they may need to be available to work.

Strategy #4: Be Flexible

Consider different shift options: part-time shifts, split-shifts, extended shifts and more. Remember, the goal is to ensure your workforce is appropriately balanced to incoming contact volumes, not to create mayhem among your employees. Adding flexible shifts to your scheduling strategies may also increase employee retention and hiring applicants, as these types of shifts appeal to demographics that need more flexibility—like students (class schedules) and parents (accommodating child needs). As you examine these possibilities, you may also find that some of your employees would prefer to work fewer days during the week with more extended shifts, or more days with fewer hours. This is a win-win situation that meets business need and scheduling accommodations, reduces scheduling conflicts, increases employee satisfaction and engagement, and reduces attrition and hiring costs.

Strategy #5: Look Beyond 9-5

If you need additional help to answer calls, offering over-time is always a quick and easy option. Most of the time, you won’t have any problems getting people to volunteer to work to get the extra hours and extra money, specifically around the holidays that fall late in the year like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The only real consideration here is to make sure the employees that are offering to work additional hours are skilled in handling the contact channels provided during the overtime shift.

Leave-without-pay and Voluntary Time Off (LWOP/VTO) options are popular alternative for slower periods, and there are usually enough people that are more than willing to take you up on it.

Strategy #6: Take time to Plan. In Advance!

Don’t forget to plan and account for absenteeism. These patterns are easy to predict and prepare for (unless weather or the flu bug hit unexpectedly).  Absenteeism is always higher on a Monday than a Wednesday or a Thursday, and on the day before or after a holiday. You’ll also see an increase in absenteeism during warm weather months and vacation season, so consider offering additional shift options during these times.

Strategy #7: Time is of the Essence

When it comes to scheduling, it’s more than just forecasting volume and publishing a schedule. It also means managing everyone’s “time”. Consider these three areas: Agent Time, Supervisor Time and Adherence.

Agent Time: Employees should know what to do when your center is experiencing a “higher than normal” contact load. Whether you provide dashboards and display queue stats on monitors or use a “red light/green light” approach, employees should know what the expectation is during these times.

Supervisor Time: What do you expect of your supervisors and leads during high volume times? Consider this: Should they log in to the phones and help answer customer calls or should they walk the floor and be available to answer questions quickly for your staff? Ask them what they think. By getting them involved in the scheduling processes, they will be your champion during these stressful moments.

Adherence: Set an adherence goal for your employees. This means appropriately setting the expectation about how much “wiggle” room someone has in doing exactly what they are scheduled to do. In reality, it is next to impossible to go to break, lunch, training, or meetings, on time every single day. Calls tend to go longer than expected, or a call may come in just before it is time to leave for the day, so setting a realistic goal is important.  An ideal goal is 90-95%. Determine when to make “exceptions” to employee adherence, but remember, if you override too many, the goal doesn’t matter.  

Strategy #8: Make it Count

Make your “slack time” work for you. If you are overstaffed, this time can be used to your advantage and can be productive. This would be the optimal times to cross-sell/upsell, take overflow calls for other departments, work on special projects, and schedule training, coaching, or self-paced learning sessions. There is always work to be done and not enough people to do it, so schedule it and use existing staff!

Strategy #9: Other Duties as Assigned

You can forecast non-phone workload just as easily as contact workloads. By addressing back-office workload and including this in your scheduling, you can ensure that no additional contact volume is generated into your contact center because of a backlog of non-phone workload.

Strategy #10: Use tools in your toolbox

Examine the systems that may be contributing to your center's contact volume. Consider adding announcements that educate your callers on the best time or best way to reach you. Or add more communication channels, like email, chat, social media, or text messaging. Implement callback functionality during peak times that will hold the caller’s place in the queue line while protecting service levels. Priority is another option to explore. Identify both customer and call types and give the preference to the most important ones.

Whatever your staffing challenges are, take some time to review how you're balancing all the moving pieces. There is no right or wrong way to approach scheduling, only better ones! Happy scheduling.