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Article : Workforce Management: What is Optimal?

There is a rampant perception amongst many contact center managers that workforce management equals routine reshuffling of agent's schedules and lives. This is simply not the case. One element of an effective workforce management strategy may be creating optimized schedules for existing agents or a new hire class, but it is only one facet of a broader strategy.

The fact is that ALL call centers practice workforce management, whether they have a commercially available solution to help them or not. Workforce management is simply your defined operational methodology for handling workload and includes scheduling. The various software packages available are decision support tools that enable a more effective workforce management culture.

Workforce Management vendors are largely responsible for this misperception. For years optimization algorithms have been the cornerstone of sales presentations. Return on investment is typically calculated based upon you changing all of your existing agent schedules. In many cases, the mere suggestion that you are not interested in "optimizing" all of your agents draws knowing glances as though "you must not be smart enough to understand." Kind of makes you wonder if some of these guys have ever really been in a call center before, doesn't it?

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Many call centers implement a software package and believe that they are now an effective workforce management entity. This is the reason for the low degree of satisfaction with workforce management software. Workforce Management is a business culture, not software that resides on server. If you don't implement cultural change with the tool, you will only receive minimal benefits from the system. Cultural change however, does not have to mean changing agent schedules either. In fact, workforce management software is a good idea even if you never change agent schedules.

The perception that workforce management is only optimized schedules has kept many contact centers from adopting the technology. Managements' understanding that their agent population is inflexible coupled with an incessant ROI driven sales message of the vendor community creates resistance to investment in this powerful technology.

Figure 1 is a simplified model illustrating how requiring increasing flexibility from agents often results in increased attrition. The cost of this increased attrition then effectively offsets improvements in efficiency. It is this line of thinking that has resulted in the slow adoption of a technology that should be the primary means for managing the workload and the resources in the contact center.

Effectively using workforce management software is about process, not algorithms. The belief that applying an algorithm to a set of schedules "is workforce management" is the reason that so many workforce management software applications turn into shelf-ware.

If Not Optimization then What?
We keep talking about workforce management not just being a tool for automated schedule generation and assignment. This naturally begs the question "How do I get benefit from my workforce management application if not through schedule optimization?" The most effective workforce management cultures, flexible agents or not, utilize their workforce management software to manage daily risk and opportunity. Contact center managers have, through reports found in every commercial workforce management application, the ability to determine if staffing levels are appropriate for projected workloads by future interval.

As a general rule WFMG believes the more static you agents' schedules are, the more flexible and aggressive you have to be as a management team. Intraday scheduling and analysis becomes much more critical with an inflexible workforce. Routine reforecast analysis must be completed to determine areas of risk and opportunity as they present themselves throughout the day. For example, by reforecasting the day, at 10 AM it has become clear that the anticipated forecast will be significantly higher than originally anticipated. We now know that staffing between the 1 and 3 PM intervals will be inadequate.

How will you contend with this? At 10 AM you have more opportunity to put a plan in place to effectively deal with the understaffing you know will occur given the days' trend analysis. You may cancel planned exceptions such as meetings or training sessions to offset the shortages. One could also ask for a little overtime, ask people to come in early, whatever means you have at your disposal to ensure that the required workforce is in place. If 1 PM rolls around if you have not already completed this exercise, it is bedlam. Once the queue begins to build it's time to scramble, and scrambling is rarely effective. The time you did not spend doing an intra-day analysis will be spent explaining to upper management why you missed service goals.

WFMG rarely sees contact centers treat overstaffing with the same sense of urgency as understaffing, but in static environments, it is essential to manage the risk on both sides of the equation. Low occupancy spells unproductive agents and this time should be squeezed with education and coaching at the appropriate times.

Optimization can be intelligently infused incrementally. An inflexible workforce is not always what it appears. Managers may be surprised to find that there are numerous agents who are interested in some form of flexible work schedules when properly motivated.

Many organizations have a tendency to view schedule optimization as an all or nothing proposition. In fact most organizations do not need to maintain more than a 15 percent flexible workforce. If you consider that call volume never drops below a certain base during normal working conditions then there is only really significant benefit in optimizing the variable portion of workload. For example, on Mondays we typically take between 6300 and 7100 telephone calls, we never take fewer than 5500. WFMG recommends defining a base staff up to 5500 and only using flexible staff for the balance of the call volume. When you consider that now you only have to recruit and maintain about 15 percent of your staff to be flexible it is much easier proposition.

Agents may be incented through either pay differential or perhaps even shift or day-off protection. For example, if you're willing to be flexible you're guaranteed never have to work on Sunday. By offering incentives rather than forcing agents to be flexible managers can stay within a work/family balance for agents who have specific personal constraints but still gain enough flexible, variable staff to be effective.

Contact center managers have a tendency to view breaks and lunches as a part of flexible schedules and believe that if agents can't work flexible start time and day off combinations than they cannot work with variable breaks and lunches either. Attrition is impacted when agent's school, daycare and other personal needs cannot be planned for on a routine basis. Not knowing when you are going to work, it may be difficult to set up a daycare schedule. But that is not the same for breaks and lunches. While it is true that may be more desirable to have the same break and lunch every day, agents don't tend to quit as a result of having flexible breaks and lunches, they may complain a little bit, but they don't quit. Managers may gain of very important level of flexibility and optimization by requiring agents to be flexible for breaks and lunches.

So what is optimization? Optimization is maximum utilization of resources within the constraints of the culture. If your agent population supports widely varying schedules and flexible start and end times, you are one of a very few unique entities. More likely you are balancing the needs of the business against a finicky workforce and your opportunities demand management alacrity. Aggressive intra-day management is the primary means for meeting service level and maximizing agent productivity.

About Todd Cotharin:
Todd Cotharin is a Co-founder of The Workforce Management Group, a consulting firm dedicated to workforce management in the contact center. Todd has over 13 years of contact center experience working as a contact center manager for Citibank, working for a WFM software provider, until finally forming WFMG with Daryl Gonos.

About CommunityWFM:
Company LogoThe Workforce Management Software Group, Inc. (WFMSG) was founded in 2005 by a team of workforce management experts. WFMSG personnel were deeply engaged with legacy workforce management technologies and deployment approaches for Fortune 500 companies throughout North America and abroad. This expertise was distilled into the modern, cloud-based design of Community, now available in two performance versions, and our steps-to-success deployment and services models.
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Published: Thursday, November 21, 2002

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