Agents find the option to swap shifts very useful, but for businesses, it can cause all sorts of trouble. Shift swaps can leave a call centre understaffed and unable to perform to targets, if organised badly. Matthew Brown looks at the trials and tribulations of swift swaps in the call centre.
There are lots of reasons why staff may need to swap shifts occasionally. There are also good reasons a business would want to allow its staff to swap shifts. For a start, shift swaps encourage staff to attend work rather than call in sick when they need a day off.
They also allow staff some control over their own working hours, an important factor in staff well-being and happiness in their job. The key to a successful balance between shift swapping and business needs is to have an effective system in place, and to be aware of these common problems.
Too many shifts swapped
One obvious problem with shift swapping is the risk that too many will be swapped. A high number of swaps can be hard to keep track of. It’s not hard to see how a culture can develop in which swapping is seen as an acceptable thing to do every week. Left unchecked, shifts might hardly ever be staffed by the people initially assigned to them.
“Supervisors need to have a process in place that keeps track of how many shifts are swapped,” said Sarah Heydayati, of Impact Learning Systems (www.impactlearning.com).
“Instead of creating a negative mindset around shift swapping, spin it into a positive by providing incentives for low levels of shift swapping.”
Incentives could include allowing employees up to five shift swaps per quarter, but rewarding those who don’t use any of their swaps for an entire quarter by allowing them to leave work early a few times.
Shift swaps might result in some employees working at times of day in which they aren’t normally scheduled to work. If an employee isn’t used to working in the evening, for example, their productivity might suffer in comparison with that of their normal shift.
While inconsistencies in service are never good, shift swaps can glaringly point them out.
Disruption to contact between supervisors and agents
Shift swaps can also have a disruptive knock-on effect on the work of other employees. While the agents doing the swap may think their arrangement fits in perfectly, managers and supervisors may find themselves inconvenienced when a particular member of staff isn’t at work when they are needed.
Phil Anderson, Contact Planning Specialist at the Professional Planning Forum, sees this as one of the main problems with shift swaps.
“If, for instance, there isn’t team-based scheduling in place, and people are swapping shifts, a team leader might have planned to speak to a certain agent on a particular day and all of a sudden they can’t, because that agent isn’t at work,” said Anderson.
“Lack of appreciation for breaks, lunches, any offline activity, in particular training or team-leader contact time, which can often be at a premium anyway, is one of the niggles around shift swaps.”
Anderson recommends that organisations be very open and honest with staff as they join the company. Let every new agent see the impact of the ‘power of one’, and take that a step further to educate them about the effects of short-term absenteeism. The aim is to make agents think more carefully before attempting to swap shifts at short notice.
Lack of workplace cohesion
Many call centres have a self-service shift swapping system on the company intranet. These allow employees to organise swaps amongst themselves without adding to the workload of their supervisors. But it is important to monitor self-service swapping, according to Phil Anderson.
“There should be a process in place and some communication of the number of shifts being swapped,” he said.
“From my experience, the sort of people that tend to swap shifts tend to swap them a lot, so there’s probably actually a greater need there that needs to be addressed that could prevent a lot of manual work.”
Tracking shift swaps against individuals will help identify people swapping shifts too often, and any issues can then be discussed.
“It’s not necessarily bad, it could be they just can’t work on a particular day of the week or can’t work a late shift or can’t work on a Saturday or Friday. There’s often a very easy way round it, and it comes back to staff understanding the rotas and how forecast and how planning works,” said Anderson.
Talking to staff all the time, and having open meetings once a month or each week can help avoid these problems.
Unpopular shifts may be difficult to cover
Another issue is the fact that some unpopular shifts may be difficult to cover.
“Agents will not want to swap into “difficult” shifts and additional incentives should be considered to address this,” said David Evans, Workforce Management Consultant at Business Systems (UK) Ltd (www.businesssystemsuk.co.uk).
How to swap shifts effectively
By talking to individuals who swap shifts too often, and making sure all shift swaps have to be approved by a supervisor, a call centre can ensure that employee needs and business needs are both accommodated.
Having a ‘lockdown period’ can help achieve this. The Professional Planning Forum recommends looking at shift swaps a week in advance. For example, a deadline of close of business on Tuesday could be imposed for all shift-swap requests for the following week. These requests could be approved or rejected on Wednesday morning, and any problems resolved in plenty of time.
“I think it’s important to have flexibility in the system so you can make changes late on, but at the same time employees need to appreciate that the company doesn’t revolve around them,” said Phil Anderson.
“Planning, team leaders, the operation needs time to adjust just in case it has an impact on anything.”
Shift swaps are a fact of life for many call centres, and it is in everyone’s interest to find a system that works fairly.