What kind of shift patterns can contact centres use? How should they be planned?
Keith Gait offers a few pointers.
There are two ways that you can look at shift patterns: what works for the company and what works for the agent.
What is crucial is that whatever you do has to be a balance between the two. However, achieving a perfect balance of timings is akin to having six numbers come up on Saturday night’s lotto. When shift patterns don’t work for a business it is often because there is too much dislike from the agents or there is a lack of adherence to what the business needs in terms of customer service provision from its agents.
What type of shift pattern should you operate?
Well, as ever, it depends on your particular operation and the requirements you need to meet. Shift patterns often fall into one of the examples below:
Contractually agreed working patterns where hours of works, days worked, and time off are fixed and consistent. This may either be highly favoured or highly disliked by agents, dependent on the fixed shift being worked, for example, 8am-4pm Monday – Friday, or 2pm-10pm Tuesday -Saturday. This pattern offers limited flexibility to the scheduler.
A call centre manager’s worst nightmare. Agents work core hours, for example between 10am and 3pm, but may work from 7am to 6pm and build up flexi-hours. The critical issue here is that under many flexi-time arrangements, the choice of when to accrue and take the flexi-time is with the agent not the operation, and this has been seen to cause many problems. Many organisations do put quite strict rules in place to alleviate this, but this is often seen as ‘defeating the purpose’ from the agents’ point of view!
Typically the annual hours are based on a core week, with hours multiplied up to an annual total, minus annual leave and public holidays. Popular in some call centres, but notoriously difficult to operate, as shift patterns can be widly different. Popular with resource planners, it offers the most flexibility, but annualised hours can be very unpopular with staff, unless communication and goodwill is very strong.
Often seen as the fairest way of balancing popular and unpopular shifts by ensuring each agent works across all hours and days, this pattern is very common. Forecasting is critical as you still only have a rostered group of agents without relying on overtime or shift delays etc. However, you have to be careful that attendance and adherence is tightly managed on the unpopular shifts.
Similar to flexi-time, but the control is much more balanced between the operation and the agent. Time can be worked over and above the contractual commitment and can be “banked” and taken at a later date.
There are a number of other shift types in use today, but most will consist of elements of the above, and be adapted for part time, flexibility, and demand requirements.
Part-time shifts can give a great deal of flexibility in the schedule. They can also provide extra flexibility for key members of staff.
Some of the most popular part-time shifts include:
- Student shifts (typically evenings and weekends) so that the student can attend lectures
- The part-time mother (typically working from 9.30 – 14.00) allowing a mother to work while the kids are at school
- The late riser
Reserve workers are a pool of agents not looking for regular work, but who are happy to come in during busy periods such as at Christmas or to provide holiday cover. Dependent upon circumstances, the hourly rate is often better than for part-time or permanent staff.
This is a similar system to the way that most schools operate with supply teachers.
Homeworking is becoming an increasingly useful tool. There are lots of benefits to it and one of the key benefits it brings – just like NHS Direct have done – is to allow people to do a two- or three-hour shift from home. If agents don’t have to travel to work, then you can design shorter shifts or fill particular gaps which you find hard to recruit for at a physical centre.
How to get the best from shift patterns
You won’t get the luxury of working out the shift patterns from a blank sheet of paper, but what would you want to consider / include if you could?
Don’t sit in a room and design it – engage with the agents, operations and recruitment people in the business. Open a dialogue about what they need.
Draft and regularly review a set of principles to work to when designing a shift pattern. Get as much input as you can and see it as an ongoing process every six months.
Be flexible with your intra-day planning. All kinds of factors can change intra-day volumes, such as news events, competitor reaction, local incidents, etc. You need a process in place that allows for schedule changes to items such as: breaks and lunches, cancelling or rescheduling off-line activity or the offering of short-notice leave or overtime, as late in the planning cycle as possible.
Pitfalls to avoid
You need to be seen to be fair to everyone but also to have some flexibility when needed. There is something wrong with the management culture if you can’t recognise and act upon individual issues or areas that are proving to be a problem. The seemingly obvious, but vital rules are as follows:
- Don’t put an early after a late
- Don’t put a certain shift down after time off
- Give agents consecutive days off whenever you can.
Don’t set the parameters for the shift patterns in the software solely to what the business needs. Make sure you have added the above rules as a minimum. Breaks need to be looked at and be realistic – not half an hour after the agent has arrived!
Keith Gait is the Founder and Principal Consultant, Orchid Consulting (www.orchidconsulting.co.uk/)
What type of shift patterns do you find most successful? Share your experiences in the comments box below.