Banked hours can be a great way of scheduling staff to cope with varying demand. Matthew Brown looks at how banked hours could work in the contact centre.
Dealing with a fluctuating level of demand is a continual challenge in customer service call centres.
It is useful to have a certain amount of flexibility in the shift patterns and schedule. There are a number of ways to do this, such as having a number of agents ‘on call’ as cover for unexpected busy spells.
Overtime can be offered, or flexible resource management systems used to redirect agents from services experiencing quiet periods. Sometimes, in certain circumstances, temporary workers may be brought in.
Flexibility is also desired by employees, and it can be beneficial to offer flexible working as a routine part of the scheduling.
This is where banked hours schemes come in. Banked hours schemes can take different forms, and tend to vary between organisations. But the basic underlying principle is that agents can save (bank) hours at a time they’d rather not work on condition that they make them up later. The time frame in which these hours can be banked varies massively depending on differing business needs, so the best way to explain banked hours schemes is to take a look at a few model examples.
Some call centres use swing shifts, meaning that agents have fewer hours in summer than they do in winter. Agents can work more hours than usual over the winter and then take the time already worked as extra holiday during summer. This clearly appeals to agents, as most people prefer to take holidays during the summer months and may appreciate extra hours away from work to enjoy time with their families whilst the weather is likely to be reasonably warm. The hours banked in winter can alternatively be taken to shorten shifts.
This kind of long-term flexibility can make agents happier in their jobs through better work-life balance. But it is vital that such a scheme is tracked and scheduled correctly. Too big a bank of hours can leave a call centre short-staffed in summer and overstaffed at times during winter.
Weekly banked hours
A variation on the swing shifts system above is a banked hours system that operates on a weekly basis. For example, if staff are contracted to work 40 hours a week, they are always paid for these 40 hours as usual. But if they want a few hours off in week 1, they can bank them without it resulting in lower pay for that week, on condition that they work the banked hours in addition to their usual 40 hours in week 2. This can cause problems, for example, if agents come to resent having to work a longer week when it is time to pay back their hours. One call centre manager told us:
“I think most agents are happy with it – for many they have never experienced anything different, and I rarely find problems getting agents to clear their banked hours. I would say maybe 5% of agents don’t play ball.”
The importance of limits
Another problem with this system is that some agents may use it too often, and build up arrears of hours they ‘owe’ to the organisation. For example, an agent could work five hours less than their contracted amount one week, and then continually say they’ll work those hours at some point in the future without ever actually doing them.
To prevent this happening, it is important to set a limit on the time frame in which banked hours must be repaid. As seen above, some call centres operate these systems on a weekly basis, others monthly or annually.
How many hours can an agent owe?
It may also be necessary to limit the number of hours an agent can ‘owe’ before having to pay back, as an agent who builds up a large deficit may then struggle to work them all by the time the deadline for repaying them approaches. One call centre we spoke to allows agents to go no more than a weeks’ worth of hours into arrears.
This leads to a key point about the use of banked hours schemes. They complicate scheduling and administration. In a recent discussion, one contact centre manager told us that his banked hours scheme became difficult to run:
“Our system for timekeeping didn’t allow for banked hours so we had to set up manual spreadsheets and it became difficult as more people took advantage of the scheme.”
The risk is that if a scheme becomes difficult to track, it also becomes difficult to enforce, and some agents end up not working the hours they banked.
Short and long Saturdays
To avoid this, some scheduling could be based around the number of hours agents owe. Take this example, posted in our forum by user KevinP:
“At my place of work this is done in the form of short and long Saturdays. It isn’t dependent on the agent agreeing. For us, everyone starts working on Saturday morning at the same time, and as it quiets in the afternoon the agents gradually drop off. We have scheduled finish times of either 2, 3, 4 or 5pm. Rather than scheduling this on a rotating pattern I tend to do this so those with the least banked hours get the shorter Saturday shift, and consequently bank more hours than those working till 5pm. I haven’t encountered any complaints about “why do I always get the longer Saturday…” but it’s the sort of thing that could come up, so only do this if you are confident in delivering the answer.”
Monitoring banked hours
Keeping banked hours schemes aligned to the needs of the business rather than just agents also requires monitoring. One call centre provides agents with a calendar view for their process around when they can add time on, allowing managers to focus on times of higher call demand. They also manage the booking of time off with allowances in the same way as annual leave, so they can reduce it at peak times.
When introducing a new banked hours scheme, some agents may resent the fact they may end up working hours they would previously be paid overtime for – meaning they earn less overall.
As with any flexible working, a banked hours scheme can present a certain scheduling challenge and can prove unworkable if not monitored correctly. If a balance can be struck between the needs of employers and employees alike, banked hours can be a useful asset to a contact centre.