| The familiar terms “flexible working” and “work-life balance” hold different meanings for different people. For an employer, flexibility often means a way to ensure staff availability at the right times to meet customer demand. To the employee, flexibility usually means freedom to pursue outside interests, whether leisurely pursuits or family commitments, and to schedule work around these activities.
As a result, there is a daily battle of managing the conflicts between staff preferences and business needs. This is particularly relevant for the contact center industry, as working mothers are the largest employee group and nearly seven out of 10 agents prefer to work flexible hours.
Fortunately, tensions between both perspectives can be reconciled within the same organization. In this article, we will explain how flexibility and work-life balance — for both employee and employer — can be achieved in five steps with workforce management (WFM).
Why Work-Life Balance And Flexible Working?
Besides the obvious benefit of sanity or less stress in an increasingly hectic world, there are pragmatic, bottom-line impacts from achieving a work-life balance and flexible operation, as follows.
Save on recruitment costs. Just as it is more expensive to win over new customers than to retain existing ones, it is good business to retain the people you have invested time, money and training in. Recruitment is expensive, and research shows that staff turnover is significantly lower in those organizations that have four or more work-life balance initiatives or flexible working practices.
Reduce absenteeism. In a recent survey, a public sector organization established that more than 50 percent of its staff members admitted to using sick leave as a means of managing family commitments, resulting in an overall attendance rate of 87 percent. When improved flexible working options were introduced, attendance rose to over 96 percent.
Motivate staff. Employees who can designate the times they would like to work, their less-preferred times, times when they are not available and so on are likely to be more productive, have higher attendance rates and are less likely to seek a new job. Lack of work-life balance is one of the top 10 reasons stated by employees for resigning their position.
Improve customer service. More productive, happier employees also mean better customer service. Having the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time improves operational efficiency and performance, reducing the number of calls abandoned, increasing revenue and sales, reducing the time spent managing customer complaints and so on.
Finding The Right Balance With WFM
The typical manager must account for many considerations in developing flexible working options while ensuring that the contact center meets its goals. These considerations include:
• How many agents do I need, at what time and with which skills?
• What are the preferred working hours of each agent?
• How do I balance personnel who want flexibility against those who do not?
• What other constraints do I have to consider, e.g., breaks, training, meetings, working time directive, contractual hours, etc.?
• How do I manage special events or new campaigns and have the ability to identify and respond to unforeseen events?
• How is my contact center performing (service levels may differ for different work types)?
• How do I understand the impact of changes in advance?
• How do I ensure that supervisors and team leaders have time to do other things outside of schedule management?
• How do I keep staff informed of what they are working on and when?
Many contact centers try to manage these processes manually, which is incredibly time-intensive and unproductive since it removes agents from their primary purpose of serving customers and managers from their core function of managing the business.
A sophisticated WFM solution can be a cost-effective way to balance all of these pressures, enabling organizations to deliver flexible working options while improving performance and reducing costs.
Five Key Steps To Work-Life Balance
Step 1 – Identify The Options
There are a broad range of flexible working options:
Term-time working. When someone on a permanent contract can take unpaid leave during school holidays.
Part-time working. Employees work a reduced number of hours, usually with working times agreed in advance.
Flex-time. Gives employees a choice about when they work.
Job-share schemes. Two people share the duties of a post that would normally be done by one person. Both work part-time and share the salary, holidays and any other benefits.
Compressed working hours. Allows staff to work their contracted hours over a shorter number of days, for example, a four-day week.
Shift swapping. Employees rearrange shifts among themselves to suit their needs, as long as the business needs are met.
Telecommuting. Employees do their jobs from home, often using a telephone and computer to stay in touch.
Staggered hours. Employees have different start, finish and break times that cover longer working days.
Step 2 – Understand Demand
Inflexible working practices contribute to poor performance within many contact centers. For example, a standard rotating shift pattern in one organization offering 24/7/365 service delivered only a 47 percent workload fit, with significant overstaffing over the weekend period when call volumes dropped and significant overtime pay to fill understaffing during weekdays.
It is essential for today’s contact centers to have a sound understanding of demand volumes across all touch points in the organization; the impact of seasonality and trending; and the impact of shrinkage factors on their ability to meet service levels and to easily apply a myriad business rules, both legislative and corporate-mandated.
For many contact centers, this is a manual, time-intensive and error-prone process that relies on spreadsheets and Erlang C calculations. A robust WFM solution, however, can employ statistical forecasting to predict touch point (phone, Web, e-mail and faxes) volume. Forecasting calculations are automatic and take into consideration seasonality, long-term growth trends and the effect of additional factors such as advertising campaigns on call traffic.
A good WFM solution should also understand the impact of shrinkage — including sickness, training, meetings and many other work/availability exceptions — and automatically factor these into the schedule. It should also understand the skills of individual agents and their proficiency level within each skill area, providing truly optimized schedules to ensure there are the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time.
Case studies reveal a 60 to 80 percent reduction in the number of hours spent by supervisors producing and managing schedules, which translates to hundreds of dollars or more in savings per year from more efficient schedule management in addition to productivity and revenue gains from higher employee satisfaction and customer service.
Step 3 – Manage Flexibility Preferences
Working pattern changes are not always productive if designed hastily or improperly. Some can require months of consultation, appeasement and change in management and staff. Introducing flexible working options ideally should not add to the complexity of the resource planning function or managing staff; rather, it should make life easier.
A good WFM solution eliminates the need to design an alternative shift pattern. By optimizing schedules based on employee preferences, those employees who do not want to change their work schedules can remain as they are; those who want to have more flexibility can do so; and part-time staff can be utilized to better support the business. In addition, as posts become vacant through natural attrition, the solution should be able to identify the type of agent required, i.e., part-time or full-time, with the right skill set and availability. This tailors the recruitment strategy to meet the needs of the business and to reduce costs.
In the same way that a structured pattern of work will suit some employees and not others, the same is true of flexible working options. An advanced WFM solution will allow for several layers of availability as well as seamless management of staff, shift patterns and rotations within the solution.
Further, the solution should have the flexibility to incorporate all of the necessary business rules, ensuring that the schedules produced adhere to the parameters in place. These rules include, for instance, assigning breaks with the capacity to automatically understand when a different break set rule applies; e.g., if a shift is extended, the employee is entitled to more or longer breaks. Other business rules may include terms under local best-practice guidelines.
Step 4 – Making The Case For Change
There is compelling research that shows the various business benefits of introducing work-life balance initiatives. The majority of employers report that introduction of work-life balance measures had a positive impact on:
• Employee relations: 71 percent
• Employee commitment and motivation: 69 percent
• Staff turnover: 54 percent
• Improved productivity, absenteeism and recruitment: 50 percent
Case study examples have shown to yield the following results, as an example, within 12 months of implementing a
Grade of Service
(27,000 per month)
0.7 percent (1,735 per month)
Step 5 – Delivering Work-Life Balance
The key to delivering a new way of working is a good change management strategy. The critical tasks that must be accomplished are as follows:
• Establish the time and appropriate resources required to effect the change in working practices. This may include personnel managers to establish new policies, planning training sessions and providing literature for staff.
• Spend time ensuring that key players such as departmental managers, supervisors, team-leaders and staff association representatives understand the business benefits to the organization and employees. The benefits should be a sound mix of organizational efficiencies and qualitative benefits.
• Involve employees from an early stage, highlighting the flexible working options available to them.
• Start small: better results are obtained if the project is taken in small steps. Pilot new ways of working in a small area, either a department or team of people, and get feedback from staff and modify plans, if required, before rolling the program out to the entire organization.
• Make effective use of supporting technologies, of which workforce management tools are one, freeing up employee and supervisor time to do more of their job roles.
Don’t be alarmed if you recognize some or all of the conflicting demands outlined in this article; you are not alone. But technology exists today to help. An advanced workforce management solution, together with your organization’s commitment to work-life balance for employees, can harmonize your operational requirements with employee preference as well as the human factor considerations that influence safety and employee performance — creating a perfect balance where there was once a perfect storm. CIS
Tracey Hawkins is Business Development Manager for GMT (www.gmt.com). GMT’s workforce and cash optimization solutions were designed to create competitive advantage by enabling companies to improve customer service and sales, while decreasing their variable expenses.
1 The Second Work-Life Balance Survey: Results from the Employers Survey (Employment Relations Research Series No.22), National Centre for Social Research (November 2003). See www.dti.gov.uk/er/ emar/wlbsemployers_results.pdf