The Top Scheduling Challenges and How to Fix Them

Calendar and clock. Date and time scheduler icon

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Quick Overview

Scheduling staff can be a nightmare, but there are a few top challenges contact centres need to be aware of, including:

  1. Agent Breaks
  2. Extra Staff Are Needed at Short Notice
  3. Not Enough Agents Available at Peak Times

In this article we explore the top scheduling challenges faced by contact centres and how to overcome them.


Contact Centre Scheduling Challenges to Be Aware Of

Getting the right staff in at the right time can be a nightmare. Not only do contact centres have to contend with meeting customer demand, but they also need to maintain good relationships with their employees.

In addition to this, the variety of shifts can be a challenge, for instance full-time, part-time, rotational, and split-shifts all need to be balanced against business and employee needs. But what are the top challenges contact centres face when scheduling and how can they fix them?

To find out, we asked our panel of experts.

Here are 17 contact centre scheduling challenges and ways to address them:

1. Agent Breaks

Chris Dealy at injixo
Chris Dealy

Customer service takes a dive when agents go on break, so contact centres should schedule breaks at the optimum time to avoid gaps in coverage because multiple agents are on break at the same time.

Staggering breaks just slightly makes a big difference. Ideally, you should schedule breaks within a ‘break window’ in the middle of each agent’s shift so that they can be confident of getting a break at a reasonable time, not near the start or the end of the shift.

A good WFM application makes it easy to optimize the timing of breaks. Another tip is to schedule breaks and lunches in 5-minute increments (e.g. 11:15, 11:20). That reduces the instance of simultaneous breaks.

2. Extra Staff Are Needed at Short Notice

When extra staff are needed at short notice, this can be solved with overtime. Even if you hire enough people, forecast your volumes accurately and schedule your staff efficiently around demand, there will always be occasions when you don’t have enough staff.

Good real-time management practice includes a well-thought-out ‘plan to react’ that defines the action you will take when trigger events occur, e.g. service level falls below a threshold.

Several proven tactics exist, e.g. postponing shrinkage activities and re-assigning back-office staff to the front line.

Don’t dismiss overtime as an option just because you might pay overtime hours at a higher rate. Total labour cost is made up of base pay plus overheads such as national insurance.

Overheads are already fully absorbed in normal time and not paid on overtime. Constant use of overtime indicates an underlying problem, but don’t reject it because it seems to be ‘expensive’.

3. Not Enough Agents Available at Peak Times

Hire and schedule more part-timers. Most call centres experience peaks and troughs throughout the day.

One classic example is the ‘M curve’ that has a peak in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a dip in between for lunch.

A four-hour peak can’t be addressed by moving hours from elsewhere in the schedule, and bringing in more full-timers results in overstaffing.

Part-timers don’t just make it easier to cover peak hours. They don’t need a lunch break and they stay fresh throughout their shift simply because it is shorter.

If all your agents work full-time, eliminating over and understaffing will always be a struggle.

If all your agents work full-time, eliminating over and understaffing will always be a struggle, but your entire workforce does not need to be on part-time contracts to achieve good workload fit.

A mix of 25% part-timers and 75% full-timers is a common rule of thumb.

4. It’s Either Famine or Feast

Too few agents and a massive queue, or too many agents with not enough to do.
Optimize schedules around demand.

Realistically, that’s going to be difficult without a WFM application. But it’s not just about software. If you want agents to flex their working times, you may need to change their contracts of employment, and that probably means an HR intervention.

To win over agents to work on optimized shifts, you have to respect their working time preferences, and agents love having a say in their working times.

By giving them self-service options for things like time off and shift-swaps when introducing optimized scheduling, you are more likely to convert sceptics. You don’t need to optimize the schedules of every single agent.

Just having a subset of agents working on optimized shifts can dramatically reduce the instances of over- and understaffing.

Contributed by: Chris Dealy at injixo

5. Accurately Forecasting Demand

Drew Naylor at MaxContact.
Drew Naylor

One of the top scheduling challenges for contact centres is accurately forecasting demand and aligning staffing levels accordingly.

Failure to do so can lead to understaffing, which can impact both customer experience and employee morale.

To address this, contact centres can leverage historical data and predictive analytics to forecast call volume and schedule staff accordingly.

6. Balancing Business and Employee Needs

Another challenge is balancing the needs of employees with the demands of the business. This includes managing the preferences of employees, such as shift preferences, while also ensuring that staffing levels are appropriate for customer demand.

Contact centres can use workforce management tools to automate scheduling and provide real-time data on employee availability and performance, allowing for more efficient scheduling that meets both business and employee needs.

Finally, maintaining accurate records and ensuring that employees receive appropriate compensation for their work hours can also be a challenge.

Contact centres can use scheduling software to track and manage employee hours, reducing the risk of errors and ensuring that employees are paid accurately for their work.

Contributed by: Drew Naylor at MaxContact

7. Staffing Levels

Jim Fleming at Sabio
Jim Fleming

The right staffing level is crucial to ensure that customer service targets are met. Failure to have the correct number of staff can lead to long wait times, increased call abandonment rates and a negative impact on customer satisfaction.

While overstaffing will ensure we hit service level and reduce abandoned calls, this comes at an operational cost, leading to inefficiencies.

The solution to this challenge is to use workforce management (WFM) software to forecast call volume and schedule the required number of agents based on the forecast, particularly in today’s multichannel, multiskilled operations, where schedule simulations are key to creating an optimal schedule.

8. Adherence

Adherence means scheduling agents to be available during the hours they are expected to work, but not just that, it also means making sure agents are adhering to the schedule by being on time for their shifts, taking breaks on schedule and being available to answer calls.

A lack of adherence can result in increased handle time and longer wait times and negatively impact the customer experience, as well as putting colleagues under additional strain at times.

9. Employee Empowerment

Having an engaged workforce helps drive down attrition and sickness, while improving customer experience.

Empowering employees to have control of their time – influence when they work and have options when taking time off – contributes to improving employee engagement.

This also benefits the operation, as a more flexible approach to scheduling allows agents to request overtime or short-notice leave intraday against an operational requirement, often resolving net staffing issues before they become a significant intraday issue.

There are a number of initiatives that can be considered in this area:

  • Schedule preferences, where agents can request particular start times or days off
  • Leave waitlists when particular days are not available
  • Shift-swaps as an alternative to using annual leave
  • Shift-bidding, where agents can bid on shifts that suit their needs
  • Net staffing, use the WFM solution net staffing outputs to allow agents to book short-notice leave or overtime to accommodate periods of over and understaffing

Technology such as WFM software, as well as solid and robust operational processes, can help forecast demand, monitor adherence, and accommodate scheduling preferences.

Addressing these challenges can help contact centres provide excellent customer service and maintain high employee engagement while maximizing operational efficiency.

Contributed by: Jim Fleming at Sabio

10. Queues and Hours of Operation

Adrien Seldon at Assembled
Adrien Seldon

Small-scale staffing needs from too many queues, along with long hours of operation can severely restrict your scheduling flexibility. But don’t worry, there are a couple of things you can do about it.

One solution is to group smaller sub-queues into larger parent queues so you have more hours to staff against. This will likely require you to adjust your training so all of your agents can handle all types of issues with confidence.

Another solution is to create part-time or split schedules. This isn’t a new concept, but it can help to apply some out-of-the-box thinking — including incentives for picking up less desirable shifts and full benefits for agents working 30 hours a week.

Contributed by: Adrien Seldon at Assembled

11. Balancing Volumes and Staff Coverage

John Hardick at Five9
John Hardick

Calculating the right balance between contact volumes and staff coverage can be one of the most daunting tasks in the contact centre, partly because every contact centre is unique and has different requirements, goals, and service levels.

Optimal staffing is especially necessary for businesses where contact volumes fluctuate. Two main errors occur: scheduling too many or too few agents. Both errors lead to unhappy customers and agents, as well as inflated costs.

Once the schedule has been established, workforce management monitors the agents following the schedule and whether the forecasted volumes are proving accurate.

Workforce management (WFM) tools help you avoid these errors and calculate the perfect balance.

With WFM, your business can provide highly accurate forecasts to manage groups of users and calls. It will help keep customers happy and agents engaged by ensuring the right number of agents with the right skills are always available. WFM also monitors agent activity and contact volumes against the schedule.

Contributed by: John Hardick at Five9

12. Skill Balance

Dynamic skill-based routing is a great way to match customers to the best available agent in any contact centre conditions.

However, it can’t magic skills out of thin air. If you only have one agent with a particular skill set, rather than feeling empowered by their enhanced skills, the consequence may, in fact, be a lack of variety, as they are always the ‘best-suited agent’.

This means that the most efficient, sustainable, and flexible solution is to engage individuals within teams with different elements of a core upskilling programme while concurrently underpinning that with team-wide cross-skilling.

Agents develop unique skill sets that introduce interaction variety and a core skill set to minimize the chances they get caught out of their depth when it’s all hands on deck.

13. School Holidays

Stuart Clarke at Odigo
Stuart Clarke

There are both predictable contact peaks and prime times during which agents request holidays. The best way to tackle this problem is with data.

It may be that in a particular sector, the summer holiday may be a highly desirable holiday time but historically low in contact volumes.

A static year-round occupancy rate in any established business is unlikely to be an efficient or popular strategy. WFM systems enable increasingly accurate forecasting, which makes it possible, with a responsive team for backup, to run at the lower end of anticipated agent numbers.

Fair allocation of the most popular weeks is also extremely important and can be helped by strict holiday submission guidelines and/or lotteries for the most popular weeks.

14. Flexibility and Future Possibilities

If appetite for flexibility continues, a new class of ultra-flexible workers could emerge, with a predefined number of service hours and relative freedom as to how to fill this quota.

Restrictions would come in the form of the number of available seats at any one time, which would be dictated by call volume and forecasting.

An agent might choose to work for a few hours in the evening or Saturday morning, split-shifts or to work condensed weeks with long weekends or midweek breaks.

Such a system would rely on accurate forecasting, real-time call-volume alerts and shift-bidding as well as portals or applications for agents to manage and log their shifts.

Agents get autonomy and contact centres get the variable occupancy rates to efficiently cover call volume. Flexibility, however, would be a privilege dependent on responsible actions.

Consistently forgetting to book hours and working an exhausting schedule at month end would need to trigger a review of the working arrangement.

Contributed by: Stuart Clarke at Odigo

15. Volatility in Interaction Volumes

Nick Brook Calabrio
Nick Brook

Volatility in interaction volumes is often impossible to predict and plays havoc with agent schedules. Flexibility is key but it needs to be a two-way street.

Show agents that you are willing to push through last-minute schedule requests or shift-swaps and they are more likely to go the extra mile when “all hands-on deck” are needed. Give advance warning and be open.

In the lead-up to busy times of the year such as Christmas, set expectations about having to stay late but if agents do, they will win that time back – plus a little more, as a thank you.

One way to flex agents’ schedules without too many headaches is to introduce flexible start times. For example, you can also utilize shift categories rather than specific start times, such as Early, Day, Late etc to pick the best fit for customer demand.

16. Employee Engagement and Job Satisfaction

Organizations are often so intent on keeping customers happy they forget about their agents.

Neglected agents mean higher sickness and attrition levels that can wreak havoc with schedules, while the responsibility of closing the gaps is difficult for those left behind and rapidly causes friction in teams.

Bring calm to scheduling chaos and harmony to teams by introducing schedules that support lifestyle needs.

Agent self-scheduling allows frontline staff to move breaks or swap shifts to accommodate their work-from-home regimes. Using modern workforce management technology that embraces location as the fourth dimension of scheduling can make life a lot easier for all.

Planners can offer “home” or “in-office” category labels, so agents can pick both their preferred time and location to work.

Why not allow agents to pick from a selection of predefined shifts so they get one of their choices when the bidding process is finalized by the WFM team?

It’s a fair and transparent approach that creates a level playing field for agents and builds harmonious, well-connected teams.

Contributed by: Nick Brook at Calabrio

17. Unexpected Changes and Disruptions

Christi Walters at Cyara
Christi Walters

Contact centres are dynamic environments so need to be prepared for unexpected changes or disruptions that may require schedule adjustments.

While some are expected, such as traffic peaks during major sales or following significant events, spikes could also occur with little or even no warning. This means that contact centres have to be flexible and be prepared to suddenly scale up or down as required.

Through utilizing real-time monitoring and reporting, management can better understand when influxes occur and respond effectively.

Another common method is cross-training agents. This ensures that agents are not only experienced with multiple communication channels, but they also have the knowledge and expertise to handle a wide array of queries or requests received.

This means that if one area of the business is particularly busy, these agents can pivot or be seconded to another section to assist their colleagues.

Contributed by: Christi Walters at Cyara

For more great insights and advice from our panel of experts, read these articles next:

Author: Robyn Coppell
Reviewed by: Rachael Trickey

Published On: 29th May 2023 - Last modified: 15th Nov 2023
Read more about - Workforce Planning, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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