Equity vs Equality Scheduling
Updated: Feb 27
A common mantra used by Workforce Management professionals to explain WFM's primary outcome is;
Workforce Management is about assigning the right number of employees with the right skills to the right job at the right time, to meet demand.
While this is categorically accurate, it is straightforward to look at all elements of an operation, customers even, as all numbers. However, my considered belief is that when developing an employee scheduling strategy for your contact center, numbers shouldn't even be your primary focus. Yes, schedule fit is essential; you still need to coordinate a contact center's scheduling according to anticipated demand, but valiantly attempting to prove employee fairness by treating everyone the same is actually the opposite because each employee will have a different life outside of work.
I have long believed, having experienced the power of this first hand, that great customer experience starts with great employee engagement …at every level… and workforce planning has an important part to play in this. Driving productivity is vital for any business, but when your scheduling strategy is driving schedule fit at the cost of employee engagement, you rapidly lose productivity through higher employee turnover and absentee rates.
The cornerstone of an equity-based scheduling strategy is an appreciation that each employee's preference matters. The good news is this does not have to be at the expense of schedule fit. For example, some employees will want to work the less popular shifts, like a student looking for part-time evening/weekend work.
While this is not a new trend in workforce management, contact centers still have to adopt flexible workforce strategies. Such as lifestyle scheduling, flexible time-off options, and managing flexible working requests through business/employee benefit trade-offs.
Start by asking people what shifts they want to work. Yes, you will find that most will want to work from 0900-1700 Monday to Friday, but you will also find others who want to work weekends and/or evenings. You will probably also find that you will not fulfill everyone's preference in the first round. Still, reducing the less popular shifts (for those who don't want to work them) is beneficial. If supplemented with targeted recruitment, this method can be highly effective. One word of warning: setting too many shifts to fixed patterns will cause problems when you cannot back-fill the shift when an employee leaves the business. This is fine when workforce size is either in growth or stabilized state, but when workforce size is declining, replacing via recruitment is unviable. Therefore, leaving a contingent of your workforce flexible may be advisable.
A viable alternative or, even better, a complement to the above can be shift bidding. The idea behind shift bidding is simple, shift patterns that suit business needs and colleagues are published, allowing agents to bid in an eBay-style auction.
Flexible time-off options
Getting time off for significant life events can represent an incredibly emotive subject for any employee. Following some of the excellent steps outlined in Phil Anderson's article on holiday management article should be considered a sanitary factor. Still, those extra flexible time-off options are where differentiation can be achieved. There are many options in this space depending on the particular needs of your workforce, but here are some possible options:
Term-time working - Gives parents who otherwise cannot find a job with hours that suit them a workable solution without worrying about childcare during school holidays.
Time banking - An agreement is created with the employee where time worked over and above the contractual requirements can be banked and taken back later or vice versa. The employer or the employee can activate this approach.
Unpaid leave - An employee can request time off unpaid, whether a few hours or a more extended period.
Duvet Days – holding back part of your holiday allowance for an unscheduled day's leave from work, taken to alleviate stress or pressure and sanctioned by one's employer, can help reduce sickness levels progressively.
Flexible Working Requests
A flexible working request can take many forms. Some might be contractual, like part-time work and permanently fixed shift patterns. Others might be more temporary, like a request to not work a specific date or not work an evening shift next Tuesday.
Having a clear, transparent, and prompt policy for employees to make a request is necessary. This should cover how a request should be made (including what further information the employee should provide), transparency for how a request will be considered, and arrangements for discussion with the employee to gather more information or feedback on the outcome. Of course, the golden rule when dealing with such requests is to give your employees reasons for when you have to decline a request, so at least there is understanding in this respect.
Wherever possible automating temporary shift changes will also pay dividends, many of the WFM solutions provide options in this space. Not merely will this offer lower administration overheads for your planning team. It will also give employees an instantaneous, unbiased avenue to make temp shift change requests and give them more control over their schedule without compromising business results. The types of shifts requests that can be automated can range from two-way swaps between two equally skilled employees, shift slides on a given day, and allowing employees to amend their breaks.
Providing flexible working options, either permanent or temporary, can be a real 'win, win' for employers and employees alike. The above only details a few of the more common examples. There are many more, with each contact center frequently creating its own innovative set of options to meet its unique workforce needs. I would love to hear from people who have been down this path and what creative opportunities you have provided.