Shift Patterns – What are the Best Options?


The creation of shift patterns to meet customer demand by every 15 minutes of the day is hard enough.  Add into that restricted contracts, working time directives, family-friendly legislation and unions.

Steve Woosey looks at the best options for your contact centre.

18 main shift patterns

We recently conducted research that looked at the different ways that flexibility could be created. The research found 18 different options, all of which are being used in contact centres across the UK.

These options are effectively the building blocks that can then be used to match demand. The role of the contact centre scheduler or planner is to create both shift patterns and a further set of options to fill any gaps, or remove any over-staffing. Overtime, time banking, unpaid leave and holidays are common ways to manipulate staffing numbers to match customer demand, but there are some more radical approaches being used too.

The Flexibility Toolkit

  1. Homeworking
  2. Student working
  3. Term time
  4. Part time
  5. Job share
  6. Second job
  7. Fixed shifts
  8. Rotational patterns
  9. Trade off shifts
  10. Annualised hours
  11. Flexi-time
  12. Time banking
  13. Unpaid leave
  14. Overtime
  15. Contractual overtime
  16. Zero-hours contracts
  17. On call
  18. Relief/short-notice shifts

Some of these options are not specifically shift patterns, but if deployed they allow for more creative shifts to be implemented. For example, homeworkers are ideal for working split shifts: 3-4 hours covering the morning peak; a few hours off; back in for the afternoon and evening peak for a further 3-4 hours.

Good shift patterns are like a jigsaw puzzle

The creation of good shift patterns is best described as a jigsaw puzzle. In order to match customer demand and the needs of the employees, different jigsaw pieces will be required. The use of one contract or shift type may match part of the customer demand and appeal to a certain group of employees, but leave a gap that needs to be filled by a different contract or shift type.

The most obvious example of this is the use of full-time and part-time contracts, with part-time employees working early mornings, evenings or weekends, complementing the full-time employees working traditional business hours.

How much flexibility is needed?

The challenge faced is that the decision on scheduling strategy and therefore on contract types for recruitment is one that needs to be made by the management team.  In order to make an informed decision there are a number of questions that need to be answered:

  • How much flexibility does the business need?
  • How are employee needs balanced with those of the business?
  • What scheduling strategy is needed to achieve strategic business goals?

The management team need support from the top in answering these questions and, perhaps most importantly, they need engagement from the bottom. The most successful shift reviews are aligned to the business goals and have engagement, normally through focus groups, with front-line staff. This engagement is a vital step towards creating schedules that work for employees and providing them with an understanding of customer needs.

Knowing what you are trying to achieve is one thing, but how do you overcome some of the challenges already mentioned?

Restricted contracts

In order to introduce changes to shifts that fall outside of the current contract many centres offer these on a voluntary basis rather than go through the laborious task of changing contracts and formal consultation.

If the shift is attractive to a certain lifestyle then people will volunteer without any need for an incentive. There certainly should be no need to offer a financial incentive to move from one pattern to another. Often non-financial incentives are used, such as additional days leave, access to time banking, duvet days and shift slides. Running a pilot is also a good way to encourage change.

Committing for a 3-month period is easier if you know that at the end of that period you can, if you wish, go back to your old shift pattern. It is really about having faith that your new shifts are better for the employees than the old ones. If they have a work-life balance then people will volunteer to change if the benefits are communicated effectively.

Family-friendly legislation

This legislation is there to help carers and parents deal with the specific challenges that face them. It is certainly not something to be ignored by any organisation. The planning team needs to work closely with HR to ensure they understand the legislation and agree a robust process for dealing with each family-friendly request.

Fairness and transparency are extremely important. The legislation does not mean that every request has to be accepted. The business can reject a request providing the decision can be justified based on the needs of the business. For most companies, it should be possible to avoid rejecting requests, but a negotiation on what is possible is perfectly acceptable. It seems reasonable that if you are requesting a family-friendly shift change you would request the best possible shift for your individual needs, but this does not mean it’s the only time you can work; is the time that, given a choice, you would ideally want to work.

Negotiating on family-friendly requests often produces a shift that is fair to both the employee and the business.


Steve Woosey

Steve Woosey

In order to help the union understand the specific challenges faced by a planning team, why not bring the representative in for a day in the life of planning? Let them understand the challenges faced on forecasting customer demand and then trying to match that demand with a set of shifts. This day doesn’t need to be about raising new ideas, it is simply about education. It is unrealistic to expect the union to understand the role of planning unless we teach them something about it.

In summary, great schedules will look and feel different for each business. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. However, the scheduling solutions for different businesses should have a number of things in common:

  • Future proof – They are fit for purpose today, but retain enough flexibility to move in line with changes in customer demand.
  • Strategically aligned – They meet the strategic business goals as closely as possible with the level of resources available.
  • Work-life balance – They provide a number of options that are attractive to different demographics and have considered how short-notice flexibility will be managed.

Steve Woosey is Membership Director of the Professional Planning Forum

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 8th Jun 2011 - Last modified: 30th Jun 2022
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