10 Tips to Improve Agent Scheduling
Illustration by David Gladis

Work in a contact center for any length of time and it soon becomes apparent that the largest capital expenditure is in staff. Agents are both the center’s greatest asset and greatest expense. Agents are lost through the natural attrition process, call patterns change and leave holes in the work day, or it’s a beautiful day to head to the beach and unplanned absences skyrocket.

Whether you are a brand-new workforce management (WFM) professional, or an experienced WFM guru, figuring out how to deal with fluctuations in headcount and appropriate staffing can be one of the most challenging parts of the job. Here are some tips that will help improve the process.

Weekly Scheduling Tips

OPTIMIZING TIME: Utilize true and accurate shrinkage. Before running any schedule, make sure you understand your shrinkage and include that data so your staffing requirements are accurate. Shrinkage impacts both scheduling and intraday management and inaccurate data will invalidate your plan. What actually constitutes shrinkage will vary, depending on which WFM application you use.

CONSISTENCY: Run a completely new schedule with no major constraints to see what mix of shifts the business actually requires in order to meet service level. If the center is resistant to more flexible schedules, try setting consistent start times for the scheduling period. Most WFM tools have a setting to produce a schedule with a consistent start time for the duration of the scheduling period.

FLEXIBILITY: Ease into a more flexible schedule. Start with flexible breaks and lunches. Those small adjustments will fill in some schedule holes. You don’t have to force your entire staff to have a more flexible schedule in order to get results; put new hires on the flexible start times instead. Natural attrition will eventually ensure that there are enough agents working flexible shifts to produce an effective schedule without impacting tenured staff. Additionally, offer incentives to tenured agents to work a more flexible schedule. Incentives can be as simple as ensuring weekends off or shift combinations that are attractive to the employee.

CROWDSOURCE: Poll the agents to see what types of shifts they would enjoy working and to get their ideas on what works well. Agents are often left out of the planning process, and including them can offer some incredibly helpful insight.

SLANT & SLOPE: Part-time shifts are fantastic for filling in schedule holes, and are typically less expensive to fill. Offer alternative shifts to full time employees for an effective headcount boost. 3×12 and 4×10 schedules have been in use for years, but schedulers are getting more creative in order to do more with less. The Slant schedule works well for customers who have declining volume through the week. It would look something like this:

  • Day 1: 10 paid hours
  • Day 2: 9 paid hours
  • Day 3: 8 paid hours
  • Day 4: 7 paid hours
  • Day 5: 6 paid hours

The Slope schedule goes in the opposite direction, from low to high, for centers whose volume increases over the course of the week.

There are some drawbacks to offering alternative schedules. If an agent on a 4×10 calls in, it effectively leaves you understaffed for 1.25 headcount rather than 1. Additionally, if the agent wanted to take a vacation day, they would utilize 10 hours of vacation instead of 8, so some thought needs to go into the decision to offer alternative shifts. What-if modeling can be invaluable in helping to make the decision.

Intraday Schedule Management Tips

As the day progresses, there will always unplanned be staffing issues that arise. Below are a few tips to help conquer these challenges and ensure things keep running smoothly.

  • Partner with the Operations team and Supervisors to develop an action plan for dealing with staffing variances. This will alleviate the need to get approval or consensus in most situations, allowing the WFM team to take rapid action to deal with the variance because prior approval has been granted.
  • Enter absences as they occur. If unplanned absences put the center in an understaffing situation, cancel or reschedule any non-critical meetings or trainings. This will boost headcount without any real impact to the bottom line.
  • In an overstaffing situation, schedule eLearning events, one on ones, or coaching sessions. This is also the perfect time to get some “housekeeping” done. Assign agents to some of that off phone work that has been piling up.
  • Adjust breaks and lunches. This is a last resort, unless the team you’re working with is used to more dynamic scheduling. Agents need sufficient time to plan for that change, so ensure the process begins fairly early in the day.
  • In an understaffing situation, offer overtime. Reduce lunch time and bring in sandwiches or pizza, or extend shifts. This is the most expensive option and not every center has the budget to make this work, but in a critical staffing situation, it can be effective.
  • In an overstaffing situation, offer Voluntary Time Off (VTO). Not everyone has the ability to offer VTO, but it may be possible to allow staff to use PTO instead. There are almost always some agents who are happy for the opportunity to leave early.

Deciding when to shake the scheduling tree is very dependent on business tolerance. A warranty center will probably have a much higher tolerance for hold times than a BPO. Staff size will also play a factor in staffing variances; business units with 800 agents can tolerate more unplanned absence than a center with 80 agents.

As a final thought, working around some of the artificial restrictions that businesses place on schedules can be a challenge. Management may be resistant to change because, “we’ve always done it that way.” One of the most effective ways to battle that mindset is to attach a dollar value to the schedule. Every restriction has a cost associated with it, and management is not always aware of the financial impact of inflexibility.

Jeff Canter” width=

Jeff Canter serves as Senior Vice President of Services for inContact, where he leads Professional Services and Technical Support. Prior to inContact, Jeff was Chief Executive Officer and one of the founders of Uptivity, where he helped grow the business more than 150% in 10 years, leading to the company’s successful sale to inContact. Prior to co-founding Uptivity, Jeff built his extensive knowledge of the contact center industry while working as a senior software engineer for a large outsourcer, where he architected and launched the organization’s key software infrastructure, including several critical voice and data applications. Jeff received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Science from Capital University.