Is It Best to Schedule or Free-Style Agent Breaks?

A hand with a cup of drink emerging from an alarm clock - break time concept

Choosing whether to rigidly schedule your agents’ breaks in advance or free-style day-by-day is a tough call to make – especially when both set-ups are proven to work well for some and not for others.

So how do you decide? To weigh up the pros and cons, our Editor, Megan Jones, asked our panel of WFM experts and our readers for their first-hand experience of how best to manage agent breaks in the contact centre.

Here’s what they said…

We Can’t Give Agents Complete Free Rein and Say “Good Luck”

Street art or possibly hip-hop first comes to mind when I think of freestyling.

We can’t give them complete free rein and say, “good luck”. That’s giving a spray can to a toddler and hoping for a masterpiece!

And I think it’s all too easy to assume they have no rules when we see them freestyling. It’s true they may be creating this image or this song without a set direction.

But what we don’t realize is that there is still a lot of structure and experience that goes into their selections.

For example, understanding how one colour plays off another, or how one bar can circle back to a previous one to complete the verse.

I think the same structure and experience is needed when freestyling with our contact centre agents. We can’t give them complete free rein and say, “good luck”. That’s giving a spray can to a toddler and hoping for a masterpiece!

Provide Knowledge and Guidance So Agents Can Self-Select the Best Times

Dan Smitley

Instead, we need to train the agents to understand when and why certain breaks can happen. Help them understand the arrival patterns and how those vary from day to day or hour to hour.

Allow them to see the net staffing through your WFM platform and then give them the ability to self-schedule their breaks when net staffing is positive.

I’m pro-freestyling when it comes to agent breaks. This doesn’t mean I’m pro-chaos or pro-hoping for the best with fingers crossed. What this does mean is that I’m all for empowering agents to have more control and say over their schedules.

I’m all for agents having visibility into what’s going on and training them to properly input their own breaks into the WFM system. And I’m all for guiding and adjusting the agents’ behaviour when they (possibly) take breaks at times that hurt the customer and business experience.

For me, freestyling our breaks and lunches doesn’t have to mean just throwing paint on the wall and calling it art. Instead, it means that we provide knowledge, experience, and guidance to our agents so they can self-select the best times to take their breaks.

Contributed by: Dan Smitley, Founder of 2:Three Consulting

Breaks Should Be Limited During Peak Demand

Keith Stapleton, Director at Select Planning Ltd, and Associate Consultant at The Forum

The main considerations for identifying when breaks should be taken are customer demand and agent availability.

Customer demand is the most obvious. At times of peak demand, it would appear breaks should be limited, and you also need to consider matching different types of demand to available agent skills – but it doesn’t end there.

You also need to consider agent availability as you may not want breaks to occur when agents are off the phone undertaking other activities.

Contributed by: Keith Stapleton, Director at Select Planning Ltd and Associate Consultant at The Forum

Agents Need Guidelines in Place to Help Any Freestyling Run Smoothly

Jonathan O'Connor, Resource Planning Manager at Tructyre

In a previous contact centre, the Head of Centre held the view that everyone could decide their own break, as well as if they wanted to take half days, so the schedules were set up with only lunch planned.

To make this work well for everyone, we had to bring guidelines in to help manage how many agents could be off for a break at any one time.

These guidelines included:

  • Always asking your team leader or WFM team if it was OK to take your break.
  • No more than X number of agents being off at a time.
  • If there are more than X calls queueing, then please don’t ask.

With one of our new intakes, we trialled giving them the power to arrange and take breaks themselves. We found that while they were in grad bay, they were very productive and sensible, but then (unfortunately) slowly the power of business-as-usual staff infused their behaviours.

Contributed by: Jonathan O’Connor, Resource Planning Manager at Tructyre

There’s a Danger Too Many People Will Go at the Same Time and Service May Suffer

There is a danger that too many people go for their break at the same time and service may suffer as a result, so you need to ask yourself, depending on the contact centre’s SLA targets, can you afford to do this?

Also, if too many go for a break at once, they will all be back available at the same time, when you don’t necessarily need everyone, and you end up with agents sitting around waiting ages for a call, and so utilization drops!

At emovis, we have challenging SLAs, so if we lose service for an hour or more throughout the day because we have too many off at the same time, we could find it difficult to get back in service for the day – as the volumes may not be sufficiently high enough at 100% SLA to recover what was lost earlier in the day.

For the best formula, methods and advice on how to calculate SLA, read our article: How to Calculate Contact Centre Service Level

Too Much Flexibility Can Be Hard to Come Back From in Unplanned Busy Periods

There is also a potential cultural challenge of giving agents too much flexibility, as it can become standard behaviour.

So, if you need to restrict freedom breaks (for whatever reason, like unplanned busy periods), I believe it would be difficult to change agent behaviour.

Contributed by: Tim Milburn, Planning Manager at emovis

Schedule Breaks in Advance Regardless of How You Are Creating Your Planning

If possible, schedule breaks in advance regardless of how you are creating your planning. This allows you to have better visibility on the coverage per interval level but also secures a time for your employees to rest.

However, I find scheduling breaks often comes down to whether the planning is done in a WFM tool or in Excel/Google Sheets – as outlined below:

A WFM Tool Makes It Easier to Optimize Breaks on the Day

Irina Mateeva, Founder of RightWFM

There are many benefits of using a WFM tool, the main one is creating better coverage on an interval level, reflecting all the tasks that need to be done but also considering the legal and business constraints in placement of other elements, such as breaks.

Optimizing these breaks on the day itself is still very easy to do using software, and the coverage is reflected immediately.

There are also tools out there that allow employees to swap breaks or to request a different time for the break, thus empowering them to have more control over their schedules. This is a win-win situation for both your performance and your employees’ happiness.

Scheduling Breaks Manually in Excel Is a Time-Consuming Task

On the flip side, while not impossible, scheduling breaks manually in Excel is still a difficult and time-consuming task. This is the reason many companies opt out of doing that in advance and instead distribute breaks on the day itself.

You can, of course, do a lot of automation in Excel, but the shortcomings are that the more complex it gets, the easier it is to break, and it is still more difficult to achieve flexibility in your process.

Contributed by: Irina Mateeva, WFM Transformation Consultant and Founder of RightWFM

You Need “Must Haves” in Place – No Matter What Option You Choose

It’s likely most people will want different things and during different personal circumstances. So, flexibility is needed, hence the popularity of scheduling breaks and allowing them to be locally fulfilled.

This, however, should not be allowed to be on a first-come, first-served basis. Fulfilment needs to be managed to ensure that not only are not too many breaks taken, but also enough are taken and by the appropriate people.

So, here’s my “must-haves” no matter what option you choose:

  1. An allowance, shrinkage, for breaks within the capacity plan.
  2. Workforce/scheduling tool to identify when demand and agent availability best allow breaks and how they fit into agent shifts and required skill sets.
  3. Clear communication of when breaks should be taken and who to take them if required.
  4. Method for agents to select a break and recording who took it – specialist tools exist for this purpose.
  5. Means to manage breaks, usually the domain of those who manage service delivery (real-time team).

This was a difficult thing to get right when we all worked in the call centre, and the added dimension of remote working also needs to be considered in the must-haves above.

Finally, whatever you choose, there will still be times where last-minute changes are required and occasions where the outcome could have been better, but these are not reasons to change how you do this – unless they are prolonged, and the causes are understood.

Contributed by: Keith Stapleton, Director at Select Planning Ltd and Associate Consultant at The Forum

Flexibility Will Increase Morale BUT You Need Rules So You Aren’t Left Under-Resourced

Allowing your agents flexibility, by way of agent-driven self-scheduling, will increase morale and therefore probably decrease attrition.

However, I feel there still need to be some rules applied and you don’t allow complete freedom as to when breaks and lunches can be taken.

Allowing your agents flexibility, by way of agent-driven self-scheduling, will increase morale and therefore probably decrease attrition.

For example (as an extreme), you wouldn’t want an agent who works 08:00 to 16:30 and has 2 x 15min breaks and a 30min lunch to take their morning break, lunch and afternoon break at the end of their shift so they can finish work early at 15:30.

I’m sure a lot of people would like to do this if they could – which could leave you under-resourced between 15:30 and 16:30. Plus, your agents would then need to work 7.5hrs straight without a break, meaning that they might get fatigued and burn out, so productivity would drop, wrap times increase (so they get an artificial breather) and ultimately customer service would suffer.

Our Agents Are Used to Having Scheduled Breaks (and Aren’t Crying Out for Freedom Breaks!)

Tim Milburn, Planning Manager at emovis

Our agents are used to having scheduled breaks which they adhere to even if we re-optimize these to improve service. This means agents know where they stand and follow their schedule, which gives us the best chance of maintaining a consistent level of service.

I’m not convinced, generally speaking, agents are crying out for freedom breaks.

I can see why an organization might introduce them for improved agent engagement. However, I’m yet to be convinced that freedom breaks would make the difference between an agent staying or leaving an organization.

Meanwhile, the downside of the potential service pressures it MAY put on the contact centre make it a risk not worth taking, and there is no known desire for us to introduce something like this from our agents.

Contributed by: Tim Milburn, Planning Manager at emovis

You’ll Need to Sell Agents the Benefits of Scheduled Breaks – Both for the Operation and Their Wellbeing

Transitioning from ‘not scheduling breaks’ to ‘scheduling’ can be initially difficult for your employees because it is a change, and it might feel as if it is imposing more control over their day. This is why it is of great importance to explain the benefits for both the operations and their wellbeing.

How many times have your agents come to ask you for a break only to be denied or moved to a later moment because it’s ‘too busy’? How many times have people ended up burnt out because they had to cope with an increased workload?

These are the benefits you should focus on and sell internally. And if you are not using a tool currently, focus on automation and functions (such as Excel’s Solver) to distribute shifts or parts of them. You will need to invest some time to achieve the results, but it will be highly worth it.

Contributed by: Irina Mateeva, WFM Transformation Consultant and Founder of RightWFM

How do you manage your agents' breaks in your contact centre? poll graph
Break Management Method Response
Strictly Scheduled 26%
Mostly Scheduled / Bit Flexible 54%
We Free-Style It 18%
Other 2%

Freedom and Flexibility Helps to Motivate the Team

By giving our employees responsibility over their breaks, I‘m able to empower them. They take the responsibility and organize themselves. The teamwork rises and the freedom and flexibility helps to motivate the team.

Contributed by: Stephan, part of the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

Strictly Scheduled Breaks Means We Can Plan More Effectively

For me, strictly scheduled breaks means we can plan more effectively, so that we have the correct number of scheduled advisors to meet the demands of our customers.

Contributed by: Tom, who regularly contributes to the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

Group of employees chatting during break
With freestyling breaks, agents
feel empowered, trusted, and valued

You Benefit From Empowerment and Trust When You Let Agents Free-Style

With freestyling breaks, agents feel empowered, trusted, and valued as people.

The contact centre then benefits from higher morale and increased productivity and loyalty, which could also help with retention.

Contributed by: Shaye, part of the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

Agents Being in Control Is Good from a Wellbeing and Mental Health Perspective

Freestyling breaks comes down to work/life balance.

Agents being in control of when they can take their breaks is good from a wellbeing and mental health perspective.

Contributed by: Busola, who regularly shares their thoughts with the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

Freestyling Allows Agents to Work Around Ongoing Calls

Freestyling helps support adherence measures where agents would otherwise miss their scheduled break time due to ongoing calls/chats, and allows more freedom – particularly for those with medical/caring commitments to take them at the best time for them (e.g. on the school run).

If agents all take a break at the same time, this can leave a channel understaffed, with service impacts. But with a bigger sample of data, trends do emerge to support planning assumptions.

For the business, it reduces admin around manually scheduling and optimizing break schedules that aren’t always adhered to for the above reasons, but it does create challenges around predicting agent behaviour vs. customer demand.

If agents all take a break at the same time, this can leave a channel understaffed, with service impacts. But with a bigger sample of data, trends do emerge to support planning assumptions.

Contributed by: Andrew, part of the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

“Surprise and Delight” Ad Hoc Gestures Can Really Impress the Team

Nothing beats spontaneity and the thrill of the moment in freestyling agent breaks.

I find sometimes “surprise and delight” ad hoc gestures really impress the team.

Contributed by: Maurizio, who regularly shares their thoughts with the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

If you are looking for more gestures to strengthen employee relationships, read our article: 18 Goodwill Gestures to Build Better Employee Relationships

One of My Main Priorities Is Keeping Pause Time to an Absolute Minimum

We have very strictly scheduled break times to ensure we have sufficient resource at all times.

One of my main priorities is keeping pause time to an absolute minimum to avoid the chance of us missing calls, decreasing revenue and/or not meeting internal SLAs.

Contributed by: Morgan, an active member of the Call Centre Helper LinkedIn community

For more great insights and advice on shifts and planning, read these articles next:

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