Call Center Scheduling Best Practices: 8 Mistakes to Avoid

Chris Dealy 10 min read Download as PDF
Call Center Scheduling Best Practices: 8 Mistakes to Avoid

Workforce management is a complex topic. There are numerous stakeholders and multiple, sometimes conflicting, objectives. Even seasoned practitioners can forget the best practices that they have learned, ignore some key principles, and fall into bad habits. In this post, we draw on the collective wisdom of the injixo team and several industry experts, highlight some of the mistakes that we have seen and give some tips on how to correct them.

Thanks to Conduent, Allclear Insurance, and other contributors for their valued input to this post.

Mistake 1: Failing to use flexible scheduling

The most basic forms of agent scheduling are fixed shifts and simple rotating patterns, for example, week one early, week two middle of the day, week three late, then repeat. With some ingenuity, fixed schedules can be managed using spreadsheets. Agents generally welcome predictable working times, so in some centers, flexible scheduling is regarded as evil.

In reality, flexing schedules around demand is far from evil. With the need to streamline schedules, minimize costs, and keep customers happy in mind, the more flexibility you have, the better. In many centers, agent contracts include scope to vary start and finish times and thus optimize each agent’s working hours - yet planners and managers sometimes balk at doing this. Flexible scheduling lets you match ‘demand’ (workload) with ‘supply’ (agents in seats) as seamlessly as possible, because it allows more granular assignment of start times, finish times, and breaks. Here’s an example: The period from 09:00 to 09:15 is overstaffed and the following 15-minute interval is understaffed. Simply delaying the start time of one agent by 15 minutes is enough to improve schedule efficiency and get closer to service level goals in two intervals. So failing to capitalize on flexibility means leaving a major win on the table.

René Nijman is Global Head of Resource Planning & Workforce Management at Conduent, a leading international player in the contact center outsourcing market. He puts it like this: “I am bemused to see that large parts of the call center industry are still working with fixed schedules (or rotations, blocks, and so on). Many of these firms have a WFM tool - and one must wonder why they bother to use it. Our clients expect us to deliver maximum efficiency. Flexible, optimized scheduling is one of the best weapons in our arsenal for this. What’s more, think about this: agents have their own personal lives too, and it is not always fixed or rotated. Many agents would welcome small adjustments to their schedule instead of having to find a new job when something changes in their personal lives.”

Mistake 2: Not handling shrinkage properly

Shrinkage is the percentage of paid time that agents are unavailable to handle contacts. This includes unproductive at-work activities such as breaks, meetings, training sessions, and 1:1s, plus out-of-office time for vacation, sickness, lateness, and unexplained absences in general. 

Staff shrinkage is a key metric, since it plays an important role in how many people will need to be scheduled per interval. If you don’t factor it in when calculating how many staff to schedule, you will always be understaffed.

To calculate shrinkage, you can mine attendance reports and WFM systems for data using a pretty straightforward formula. There are, however, some pitfalls to watch out for.

  • Shrinkage is not a constant, it varies over time. For example, you can expect higher shrinkage during the summer vacation season. It can also vary by the day and week. Ensure you use the most appropriate shrinkage estimate before scheduling staff.
  • Get the calculation right. If the shrinkage percentage is s%, you should inflate the number of scheduled staff by dividing by (1-s%), not multiplying by (1+s%). Example: In an interval where 70 employees must be in their seats to meet the service level goal and shrinkage is 30%, you should schedule 70 / (1-0.3) = 100 people. If you add 30% to 70, the result is 91, which falls short.
  • Don’t think that shrinkage is beyond your control. As the old saying goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. But if you track shrinkage factors - and employees are aware of that fact - you can minimize them.

Mistake 3: Employing too few part-timers and short shifts

Most call centers experience workload peaks and troughs throughout the day. One classic example is the ‘M curve’ that has a peak in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a dip in between for lunch. But if all your agents work full time, eliminating over and understaffing will always be a struggle. A four-hour peak window can't be addressed by moving hours from elsewhere in the schedule, and bringing in more full-timers results in overstaffing. It helps if you can schedule breaks to take place during troughs in demand but this is unlikely to completely solve the problem. Split shifts can be useful but are not liked by agents. In a typical contact center, an exclusively full-time workforce will be inefficient.

It’s tempting to hire full-timers. Planning is easier with unified work schedules across the board, e.g. 8 hours/day, 5 days/week. And there is a perception that good agents will always want a full-time contract.

However, every scheduling strategy needs to include part-timers. Part-timers make covering peak hours easier - paving the way for a better workload fit. They don’t need a lunch break. Part-timers stay fresh throughout their shift simply because it is shorter. And tools and techniques exist to make scheduling part-timers a breeze. Remember, not all agents seek full-time work. Parents, students, and carers actively prefer part-time shifts since it gives them the work/life balance that they need. And your entire workforce does not need to be on part-time contracts to get good workload fit. There is usually an ideal mix that varies from center to center, with around 25% part-timers being a common rule of thumb.

René Nijman of Conduent adds: “In WFM, part-time is not just about the number of hours per week. Much more relevant is how many ‘part-time’ shifts you can use. For example, 36 hours / 5 days can be scheduled as 4x8h + 1x4h, while 16 hours / 2 days are probably scheduled as 2x8h and therefore contribute less to the part-time shifts ratio. Although you should calculate the required number of part-time shifts per program (client), a golden rule is 20-25% of 4-hour shifts”.

Mistake 4: Not scheduling breaks

Even if your contractual landscape prevents fully optimized flexible schedules with moveable start and finish times, you should still consider scheduling breaks. This one step can transform efficiency and service level and is normally less challenging from a contractual perspective. If your agents currently take breaks whenever they feel like it and groups of friends tend to lunch at the same time, a culture shift will be needed. You may need to give something in return for the scheduling of breaks. This needn’t be money. It could be giving agents some sort of self-service portal to book time off or swap shifts, for example. Agents love these self-service options, especially when available on their smartphones.

As Howard Stephens, Resource and Planning Manager from AllClear Insurance puts it “We schedule all our breaks, primarily because this lets us distribute lunches effectively to provide optimal coverage for our busiest period. Lumping breaks together is ineffective and not the answer”.

Good call center scheduling software will automatically schedule breaks at the optimum time so as to minimize the impact on coverage and service level. The pattern of breaks that the software produces may appear random when viewed on the schedule management screen, but don’t be fooled. The breaks are where they are for a reason. To quote Scott Moss, a veteran planner with over a decade of WFM experience in telecom, outsourcing, electronics, and retail: “Don’t be tempted to ‘tidy up’ the breaks that the software inserts into agent shifts. Let the optimizer do its job!

Mistake 5: Not measuring schedule efficiency properly

The call center is a data-rich environment. All sorts of reports and performance indicators can be obtained, typically including service level, first-call resolution, calls answered, calls abandoned, and agent occupancy. Here, making schedule efficiency one of your KPIs is advisable, since it affects almost all the other metrics.

Schedule efficiency measures how accurately and consistently the number of agents in seats matches the required staffing over the evaluation period. Discrepancies between planned and required figures should be measured in 15- or 30-minute intervals and summarized on a weekly or monthly basis to produce a score. Your WFM tool should clearly show schedule efficiency and you can use the Standard Deviation or Correlation Coefficient functions of spreadsheets. Always use weighted averages when producing consolidated figures, i.e. 50% coverage is a much bigger problem in an interval with 100 calls than in one with 10. And don’t forget to exclude time outside business hours.

Reaching 100% efficiency is impossible in the real world. And this makes it all the more crucial to monitor your schedule efficiency and benchmark it over time - ideally with your industry peers.

René Nijman of Conduent comments: “Schedule Efficiency is a metric that COPC uses in their Table F. In addition to this metric, there are several very useful WFM metrics in COPC’s Table F”.

Mistake 6: Obsessing about minimizing overtime

If you are doing staff planning right, you will generate accurate forecasts and schedule your agents efficiently, so that overtime will not be required. Sometimes optimal shifts, which minimize over- and under-staffing at all times, can only be achieved by asking some team members to work overtime. But paying overtime is expensive and intrinsically evil, right? Not necessarily.

Fully loaded hourly labor cost is calculated as base pay plus overheads. The latter include employment taxes such as social security or national insurance, other indirect costs such as health insurance, and the pay ratio, which is the total annual hours an employer pays an employee, divided by the hours the person works after deducting time off over the year.

Although overtime attracts a higher hourly wage rate, e.g. a 50% premium, no overheads are incurred. They are already fully absorbed in normal time and not paid on overtime. So in reality the fully loaded cost of overtime is little higher than normal time. Conversely, if you produce schedules that lead to periods of overstaffing, then one or more agents are getting paid the normal hourly rate without adding value. Studies have shown that idle time has a far greater adverse cost than overtime. This may offend common sense but the fact remains that overtime should be part of a well-run call center. Excessive use of overtime signals poor planning, but should not be avoided on dogmatic grounds.

René Nijman of Conduent comments: Overtime (OT) should be used with care. It is one of the most misused solutions for increasing scalability. Structural use of OT means you lack capacity or your capacity has a limited fit with your week and day distribution curves. OT is not fixing the root cause. Also, keep a close watch on your metrics like shrinkage and schedule adherence if you find yourself using OT. You don’t want to create a culture where it is possible to be sick in the morning and have premium OT in the evening”.

Mistake 7: Assuming nobody wants to work unsocial hours

Many planners believe that filling ‘unsocial’ shifts like evenings, weekends, and public holidays will be a challenge. But even if many call center agents would rather spend Friday night bar-hopping and Saturday watching sport, this is not necessarily the case for everyone. Subjective assumptions are best avoided. Some people actually relish working evenings and weekends. Take students, for example, who prefer to work and earn on evenings and weekends to pay for their daytime tuition, and other similar groups.

In practice, unsocial hours tend to coincide with intervals of relatively low staffing requirement. Consequently, the scope of the problem is typically limited and manageable, provided even a few agents are willing to cover the less popular shifts.

Mistake 8: Trying to muddle through

It is never a good idea in life to just hope for the best. Here is a story from a planner at a major US retail call center, who wishes to remain anonymous: “We had suffered an unexpectedly high level of staff turnover, and as peak season began, we became consistently understaffed. It takes time to train up new hires - typically four weeks. Plus we had recently changed our recruiting provider, introducing uncertainty. We decided to muddle through without hiring. We figured that this would avoid recruitment costs and the need to lay off the new starters when peak season came to an end. I recommended retaining underperforming agents, one of whom was on a final warning, to make the numbers add up. Big mistake! The agents set a bad example, encouraging their co-workers to turn up late, take long breaks, etc., which exacerbated the understaffing problem rather than fixing it”.

The moral of the story: Hope is no substitute for good planning and taking hard decisions.

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