What to Do When Everyone Hates Their Schedules

What to Do When Everyone Hates Their Schedules
Illustration by David Grey for Contact Center Pipeline

It is rare for everyone to be happy with their schedule, but there may be changes you can make to improve the current situation.

Schedules are a key contributor to employee satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) in a contact center. There are times when someone has to work a shift they hate, and the response is negative. Those feelings of anger and bitterness may materialize later in small paybacks, like tardiness or inflexibility to other needs of the center. Sometimes it even escalates into more menacing behavior—I have heard horror stories about workforce managers having their vehicles keyed and their tires ruined.

WFMers hold the responsibility of optimizing the best schedules to fit the service goals at the exact best times, and the way they handle it can go a long way toward building bridges instead of burning them. Sometimes you may need to just start over from scratch and do it better. The following steps outline a process to help create schedule harmony.

1. Conduct an Employee Schedule Satisfaction Survey

The very first thing to do is gauge the level of employee satisfaction in the current environment. This becomes the baseline to improve. Limit the questionnaire to 10 questions about the team schedules, the individual schedule, and the schedule selection process. Use a numerical ranking in the response so you can assign a value to the total scores (e.g., 1 = worst, 5 = best). Include space at the end for write-in comments. If you want, you can allow an option for employees identify themselves or remain anonymous. Just be sure to set a deadline for replies.

A schedule satisfaction survey serves two purposes:

  1. The data returned identifies popular scheduling desires, and
  2. After the new-and-improved scheduling process is developed, resurvey the staff (using the same questionnaire) and compare the new values, which will produce an improvement percentage to demonstrate the quantity of success.

2. Put Together a Schedule Focus Team

The schedule satisfaction survey might generate some buzz, along with thoughts like, “If I was in charge of schedules I would…” This is a good mindset for people you want on the schedule focus team. Ask for volunteers or have people formally apply for the role of “Schedule Champion.” Include a short interview process and ask candidates to describe why they’d be good for the team. Look for the problem-solving, brainstorming types who will actively participate. Current schedule satisfaction should not be a prerequisite; in fact, a diverse group would offer better insights. The group size should include a good representation for everyone.

The first group meeting is a good time to open discussions on potential schedule constraints, wish-list desires and alternative options. White boards are great for this type of session. Use one board to list the scheduling restrictions. This would include things like service goals, operating hours, team sizes and required staff by intervals, day of weeks, etc. Identify any mandatory restrictions as hard constraints. On another board, list the staff’s schedule desires collected from the surveys. This would include things like daycare, school, traffic, etc. Use a third board to brainstorm scheduling rule ideas from the group. This can relate to consecutive days on/off, 4×10 versus 5×8 shifts, rotating weeks, weekend coverage, flexible or part-time shifts, etc.

The goal for the session is to get consensus on just how flexible the employees are willing to be after understanding the constraints. You may need to plan time for a short tutorial on required staff vs. planned staff (net staff), and simulate the impact that understaffing has on service goals. This might even be a good time to pull out the tennis balls and hold a Power of One event. The team should begin empathizing with the scheduler’s role at this point, since they will be attempting to solve the same problems from their perspective.

3. Keep Employees Informed

Once the team gains consensus and begins making progress, keep employees (and the people who manage them) informed about what is happening, while it is happening. Delegate the responsibility of those communications to the schedule focus teammates. Give them the responsibility of deciding what information to share, how often and the delivery method. This is important—keeping everyone involved is what prevents the “Us vs. Them” debacle, which can be very hard to overcome.

In addition to keeping current employees in the loop, be sure to communicate with HR and anyone else responsible for interviewing and hiring contact center staff. When new-hires understand that their schedule isn’t automatically going to be M-F, 9-to-5, that is one less disappointed person you have to deal with later on. Again, delegate the communication tasks to the focus team—these responsibilities help keep them engaged.

4. Run Simulations of the New Scheduling Solutions

Once the team identifies and agrees to new scheduling parameters, it’s important to simulate them with a test run before going live. Sometimes things that look great on paper won’t work out the way you expect them to, and that goes double for schedules. Bring the team back together to look for ways to poke holes in the new shifts. Test the schedule effectiveness (does it give adequate coverage in all the right places?) and look at its impact to service goals. If you don’t get the results you need, the group will need to revise the plan until it’s something that the agents, managers and your customers can live with. You can also use this opportunity to introduce the idea of schedule-change frequency, especially if the center has a lot of seasonality that demands more frequent schedule changes. 

5. Assign Schedules

The next phase is working on schedule assignments. The team needs to think about how they are going to assign names, so they must decide on a fair process for matching shifts to employees. If your center is a multiskilled environment, there may be little choice in the matter because of the way the coverage rules work (meaning, you have to have at least one person staffed in every skill). This also applies to bilingual (the “skill” is the language) and multigender groups. That last one threw me off at first, but I learned there are some extreme situations with groups that only want women taking certain calls. In those cases, the male agents become single-skilled, and the female are the multiskilled population.

Multiskill scheduling has a way of de-balancing everything from preferred start times to vacation administration. The irony is that the higher a person’s skill set climbs the more valuable they become to the coverage demands and the less opportunity schedulers have for releasing that shift.

Collect Schedule Preference Forms from everyone before the assignments start (another task delegated to the schedule focus team). Design the form as a group so that each person (the “Schedule Champions”) can be responsible for distributing/collecting the forms for their teams. Schedule Champions become the single point of contact.

Deal with exception cases first—people with special schedules to accommodate their personal lives, such as school or daycare. Assign schedules for anyone given an exception by HR or management first, not last; otherwise, schedule efficiency will drop. If you don’t deal with these at the beginning and keep those employees in their natural rotation, by the time you get to them, their exception schedule may no longer be available, which means you could end up being understaffed in the wrong place. It’s not going to end up being fair, but the alternative might be expensive and wasteful. If the exception process leaves too many hard feelings (and many times it will) use that as an opportunity to draw up a case study. Show what the schedule run would look like without the exception at all, a second version with the exception in place (demonstrating who else becomes affected because someone is getting special treatment), and a third version showing extra cost on coverage if the exception were to occur in the proper ranking position (demonstrating where service may be sacrificed).

There are many options to choose schedule assignment: by seniority, by performance or by rotation are three popular examples. I’ve also seen a hybrid of seniority and performance work nicely. As a Scheduler, I don’t actually care which is used, but as a Schedule Champion who may eventually work one of those schedules, I care very much. The success factor isn’t in the method you chose, but rather how well the group accepts it. Therefore, it’s good that employees have representation present when making that decision. Remember to set deadlines to keep the process on track and on time. 

6. Conduct a Follow-Up Survey

After the schedules are developed and rolled out, send out the schedule satisfaction survey again. Be sure to use the exact same questions so that you can have a clean “before” and “after” result to share with your focus team for a job well done (and to share with your managers for your performance review).

It’s unreasonable to expect that everyone will be happy, but if the team can make a change that appeases the majority, addresses the business needs and improves employee satisfaction in a quantifiable way, that means they were successful.

Editor’s note: This post is an excerpt from Tiffany LaReau’s ebook, Diary of a Workforce Manager, a comprehensive WFM guide told through LaReau’s experiences, trials and errors during her 30+ years as a WFM consultant. Download your copy today!