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  • Writer's pictureGer Koole PhD

The Challenges surrounding Workforce Flexibility

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

As I’m writing this blog, today is the first hot summer day in Holland. Every WFM professional knows that this means fewer customer contacts arriving earlier in the day (unless you’re in aircon sales). This results in overstaffing, especially in the afternoon. To avoid this, we need flexibility. Perhaps some agents want to leave early, but the contract should allow it. Or you have some back-office work to do or training that can be scheduled, or even calls from a country where the weather is different.

Flexibility has many uses and faces. It has to do with when agents work and what they do. And both long and short term… At the same time, flexible contracts allow you to schedule more hours for the retail peak of the holiday season and multi-channel agents who can deal with short-term fluctuations that would otherwise make their occupancy too low.

But flexibility also has its downsides. For example, agents often need a guaranteed number of working hours to earn a decent living and have other obligations and preferences limiting their availability. In addition, having too many skills leads to low proficiencies on some of the skills, leading to bad service and unhappy agents. And flexibility comes at a price: usually, flexible contracts cost more per productive hour, and training agents costs time and money.

Fortunately, we do not need full flexibility. For all forms of flexibility, it holds that the first agents have this form of flexibility helped a lot, but then the returns decrease. And because the costs for flexibility increase linearly, there is a sweet spot with the optimal amount of flexibility.

How much flexibility do you need? And what type of flexibility? A bit of everything, but how much is tough to answer. It depends on many factors, such as the error of your forecasts, your routing, the labor rules, etc. You cannot simply use the Erlang formula to compute it, but you need long-term simulations taking all aspects of your call center into account. There are some rules of thumbs, however. If your SL and your occupancy are good and consistent over the day, then you probably have enough flexibility built into your system; you might even be able to do with a little bit less. If your SL is good or even higher than required, and your occupancy is too low, then you’re overstaffed. If your SL and occupancy fluctuate a lot around the required levels, you probably lack flexibility, or you cannot use the flexibility you already have. Finally, better forecasting makes for better capacity plans and schedules, reducing the need for flexibility. If you consistently need to scale up or down, you probably make a systematic error in your forecast or schedule; you are always too low or too high.

Flexibility is crucial to obtain your SL and keep costs under control, but it also comes at a cost… it makes the control of your call center more complicated. Not all scheduling tools take advantage of all possibilities, and also multi-skill multi-channel intra-day management is hard to do optimally. Highly skilled WFM professionals might be the answer, but they are tough to find and costly again. And even when an intelligent mathematician was watching all metrics in real-time, she would not react quickly enough to changes in load or oversee all consequences of removing one agent on all skills and channels. The answer? Software, but advanced enough that it makes good automatic decisions. The reaction is instantaneous, and you only need a smart mathematician once. The foundation is good routing software that automatically does most intra-management; there is no more need for intra-day changes in skill settings. But intelligent scheduling software can also automatically deal with requests for a day off. This frees valuable resources from day-to-day processes allowing them to work on what matters: improving the design of all aspects of the call center.

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