Do you have lots of unfilled vacancies in your contact center? Are you constantly struggling with understaffing? If so, you are not alone. In the US, there are 5 million more vacancies than unemployed people. A similar situation exists in the UK for the first time since records began. Contact centers have always faced challenges in hiring and retaining staff, so it’s no surprise that they are front and center in this crisis.
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A major cause of the problem is the so-called Great Resignation, the term coined in 2021 by Dr. Anthony Klotz, professor of business administration at Texas A&M University. The Great Resignation is characterized by large numbers of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs in pursuit of better work/life balance. It is a side-effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which we all had time to reflect on our priorities and experienced the benefits of home working. It’s a global phenomenon and it isn’t going to end anytime soon.
How should contact centers respond to the Great Resignation? Increasing salaries isn’t a sustainable solution. It can create a vicious circle of recruiting and attrition when there are many centers in a neighborhood. Neither is creating unrealistic expectations about career progression. It’s tempting to put the agents first in everything you do, and that may temporarily stem the flow of leavers. But if a single-minded focus on the agents means that the customer experience is terrible and staffing costs are excessive, your contact center may become a place where nobody works in the long run.
I’ve talked to some seasoned contact center planning professionals who have shared some solutions that are working for them.
1. Level up your real-time management
Understaffing and high turnover make it more difficult to schedule tightly around peaks and valleys of demand weeks or months in advance. That means that it’s more important to be at the top of your game with near-time planning (looking ahead a few days) and real-time management (intraday). Now more than ever, it’s necessary to have a ‘plan to react’ that helps you to apply discipline to real-time management. You need a strategy to handle under-staffing that might start with re-allocating back-office staff to the front office, cancelling or postponing shrinkage events such as meetings and training, and then offering overtime. If you’re lucky enough to have overstaffing at the end of the day, consider giving agents the option to leave early.
2. Roll out flexible working
It’s increasingly difficult to turn down flexible working requests without risking resignations. In fact, flexible working from the first day of employment is likely to become a legal requirement in the UK before long. A UK government study revealed the business benefits of introducing flexible working arrangements:
- “Attracting top talent - 87% of people want to work flexibly, rising to 92% for young people”
- “A highly motivated, productive workforce - 9 in 10 employees consider flexible working to be a key motivator to their productivity at work ranking it as more important than financial incentives. Employers have reported seeing improvements in staff motivation and employee relations”
- “more competitive business environment - the CBI Employment Trends survey found that 99% of all businesses surveyed believed that a flexible workforce is vital or important to competitiveness and the prospects for business investment and job creation”
It’s clear that the era of fixed shifts for all is coming to a close. That creates opportunities for both the employer and the employee.
3. Rethink the hiring and training process
Many contact centers are reporting that staff turnover is highest among newly-hired staff. This is not a new phenomenon. A good tip is not to base job advertisements and candidate selection criteria on an idealized vision of the perfect employee. This not only reduces the size of the candidate pool, it may attract applicants who find the job doesn’t match their ambitions and resign early. Instead, consider analyzing the characteristics of high-performing agents who have remained loyal employees, and search for candidates with similar properties.
Regarding training, it may be wise to avoid a ‘big bang’ approach if you suspect that new agents may leave even before completing the onboarding process. Consider staggering training over a few months, making agents proficient in a subset of skills to start with, then building their proficiency over time. The case for e-learning rather than classroom training has also never been stronger. E-learning reduces the cost of an activity that is becoming more frequent. It also accommodates the reality of a remote workforce.
4. Take conscious steps to reduce stress and burnout
According to Centralus, the main reasons for high turnover in contact centers are high levels of stress, excessive demand, unrealistic targets, and strict monitoring of performance. It’s impossible to eliminate stress altogether. It’s a fact of life that some calls will be neither pleasant nor easy. There will always be significant queues at peak times. And the power of one teaches us how important it is for every agent to adhere to their schedule. Good forecasting practice and sophisticated WFM tools can help reduce stress and burnout by accurately forecasting workload, then matching supply with demand as often as possible. This minimizes the occurrence of the severe understaffing that causes agents to feel overwhelmed. WFM also adds a higher degree of predictability to the work experience, which is known to improve agent satisfaction. And deliberately applying reasonable occupancy rates when calculating staffing requirements will help minimize the overwork conditions that lead to burnout.
5. Introduce employee-led scheduling
Agents are increasingly aware that the contact center jobs market is now a seller’s market. Agents are in a very strong position to demand a say in the shifts that they work. Clearly, conceding to every request in an uncontrolled manner is a recipe for chaos. But there are ways to balance the desires of the employees with the customer experience and the business imperative to defend the bottom line. You should start by finding what individual agents value. Some would happily work more late shifts in exchange for less weekend work, others the reverse. You may find that you can satisfy these preferences without damaging coverage. Shift bidding is another solution. This is the process whereby agents place requests for shifts that have been optimized around demand but not yet allocated to agents, then matching bids with requirements as closely as possible. Letting agents declare ‘windows of availability’ is another way to adapt shifts around employee working time preferences. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and all of these techniques require additional administration effort. The good news is that advanced WFM applications can automate away much of the manual effort.
6. Engage with your agents
Agent engagement takes many forms. Good team leadership, transparent communication, and recognizing employee achievements are important. Involving employees in the planning process has an impact, too. Agents love having a say in the scheduling process. I mentioned shift bidding and availability in point 5, above. Allowing agents to book time off or swap shifts with colleagues on a self-service basis are also proven to improve employee engagement. Again, full-featured WFM applications make this a breeze. Better WFM applications let agents engage with planning using their smartphones or mobile devices.
7. Empower your agents
This is all about giving employees the authority, autonomy, and information they need to do a good job in the way they see fit. An injixo survey revealed that less than 50% of contact centers give their customer-facing employees the necessary ‘decision rights’ and access to the information they need to deliver great customer service. Moving away from a command and control environment requires a culture change and senior leadership buy-in. It can’t happen overnight, but the Great Resignation makes employee empowerment something that every contact center should take seriously.
8. Improve the work environment
This isn’t about providing a beautiful building with chill-out zones, free lunches, and a company gym. It’s about adopting the sort of corporate culture that makes companies win Great Place to Work awards. Employees are attracted to companies that do more than pay lip service to trust, respect and fairness. According to a survey by Great Place to Work, the world’s best workplaces enjoy 52% higher levels of intent to stay and 65% more employees willing to recommend their employer than average. Clearly, achieving Great Place to Work certification is not a trivial exercise, but you may be able to get some quick wins. Even a seemingly small initiative like offering 30 minutes of well-being support every month can make a tangible difference.
9. Continue offering home working
The Covid-19 pandemic proved that it is possible to run a contact center efficiently with the majority of agents based at home. And many agents never want to return to the office. A study by Microsoft revealed that 41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year and 46% say they’re likely to make a move because they will be able to work remotely. It makes sense to continue offering home working or hybrid home/office working even when Covid-19 is consigned to history.
Conclusion and next steps
Clearly, there are many tactics that contact centers can deploy to survive - and thrive - in the era of the Great Resignation. What’s also clear is that once we make the necessary changes, there is no going back. And arguably, that is a good thing from the perspective of the business and the customer as well as the employee.
Would you like to discuss the challenges that you are facing around under-staffing and The Great Resignation?
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