New Workforce Management Transfers Power to Agents
By Donna Fluss
In DMG’s 30-plus years of working with and covering all things contact center, we are hard-pressed to find a technology that has undergone as significant a paradigm shift as the workforce management (WFM) sector. The fundamental purpose and function of WFM remains the same, but the means to the end is vastly different. There’s been a transfer of power, as WFM has evolved from a dictatorship to a democracy. The new generation of WFM solutions gives agents unprecedented visibility into and control over their schedules so they can create a work-life balance.
But for contact centers, the surrender of power over agent schedules is far from a defeat. They are realizing multiple benefits, including reduced operating costs, optimized scheduling, improved performance, decreased staff attrition, and an engaged and committed workforce that is willing to do what it takes to assume ownership of issues and keep customers happy.
FLEX STAFFING SPELLS THE END OF THE FIXED SHIFT
Fixed shifts are becoming an anachronism. Contact centers are nontraditional operating environments; they need to optimally staff on a 24/7/365 basis, including weekends and holidays. At the same time, contact center staff members want what workers in other departments have always had: the flexibility to maintain a work-life balance. Practically, it does not make sense to attempt to staff this type of operating environment today using a traditional fixed-shift approach. As contact center attrition rates attest, it’s a recipe for failure.
Leading WFM solutions have re-imagined the fixed-shift staffing paradigm, and the alternative is flex staffing. Flex staffing/scheduling is the antithesis of fixed shifts. With flex staffing, agents are empowered to create their own schedules by entering in their availability and preferred times to work. Work periods can be defined in terms of start/end times, days worked/off, preferred activities (e.g., calls in the morning, email or chat in the afternoon), and break/meal period rules. This may mean a morning shift one day, a night shift on another day, and a split shift on the day after that. Alternatively, agents can build their schedule by selecting the days and hours they want to work from a master list of available work hours, based on the number of people needed per hour. With either approach, agents have control over when they want to work.
OLD SCHOOL VS. NEW WAVE
Contact centers need the ability to rapidly respond to real-time conditions. Inevitably, “variances to plan” occur and result in staffing deficits that jeopardize service-level goals and, more importantly, positive customer outcomes. To be successful, companies need WFM solutions that are self-adjusting and adapt in real time to volatile demand and resources, enabling enterprises to bridge the gap between forecasts and reality. Adaptive real-time scheduling software provides this functionality in WFM solutions by automating the intraday management challenge. Adaptive real-time scheduling identifies when the service level is inadequate, re-forecasts for the remainder of the day, determines the skills and resources required to address the new projections, and then executes the necessary changes to schedules to “acquire” the needed employees, or to notify agents that they can leave early.
Life happens, and agents also experience “variances to plan.” They need to be able to adjust their schedules in real time in response to unanticipated events. Agent self-service portals, enhanced mobile self-service capabilities, or mobile apps provide a vehicle for agents to trade shifts, swap hours, request vacation, request time off, or, better yet, offset the missed hours from one day by exchanging them with hours on another day when the contact center needs them. Agents with a personal emergency no longer need to be penalized with an absence, tardiness incident, or lost vacation day just because they need to come in an hour or two later than scheduled.
The gap between old-school WFM and new-wave WFM continues to widen, and the key differences are flexibility and automation. Traditional intraday management solutions are informative; real-time adaptive scheduling is actionable and automated, kicking off overtime or early departure requests to adjust to real-time requirements. Traditional WFM is shift-based; flex staffing is fluid, automatically adjusting staffing requirements as agents choose or change their schedules. Fully automated and real-time self-service provides agents with flexible and granular schedule and time-off accommodations. Flex scheduling, agent self-service, and adaptive real-time scheduling capabilities are the new standard of WFM and key competitive differentiators for the WFM vendors that offer these capabilities. They also happen to be key drivers of agent satisfaction, empowerment, and retention.
THE NEW MATH
Algorithms are the underlying mathematical formulas, the proprietary “secret sauce” that WFM solutions use to calculate omnichannel forecasting, staffing, and multi-skill scheduling requirements for contact center environments. They are the underpinnings of WFM solutions because if the algorithm is faulty, the forecasts and schedules will be inaccurate. There is no one-size-fits-all algorithm that can forecast for every kind of interaction. Further, as WFM continues its expansion into back offices, branches, and other operating areas, vendors seriously pursuing this large untapped market opportunity need forecasting and scheduling algorithms that take into account the types of work performed in these environments and the time required to handle each customer transaction.
As early as 2010, DMG strongly advocated for vendors to review their WFM applications and, most importantly, their underlying algorithms, to set in place plans for major rewrites of their solutions. After many years, the WFM vendors are investing in their algorithms, delivering new and enhanced methods to more accurately forecast and schedule omnichannel, multi-skill, and blended environments. These new algorithms, or improved simulation models—many of which leverage artificial intelligence (AI) technologies—are optimized for each discrete channel and account for blended environments, multi-skill efficiencies, and the unique characteristics of both synchronous and asynchronous contact types. DMG expects the focus on developing enhanced algorithms and improved simulation models to continue and become an important differentiator.
AI: ETA OR TBD?
The world is moving rapidly to adopt AI, which is playing an increasingly influential role in the future of contact center technology. The WFM sector is no exception, but WFM vendors are at varying levels of maturity when it comes to AI-enabled applications and processes. For some, it’s simply a matter of when these technologies will be implemented; for others that are lagging, it remains a big if.
In the WFM realm, AI-enabled capabilities are emerging to determine which model, from among as many as 45 different algorithms, works best with a given set of historical data. Machine learning is being leveraged to improve pattern detection and identification of outliers or deviations for validating models and forecasts and, in an iterative learning process, to improve scheduling accuracy and fairness. AI and machine learning are also being leveraged in skill/skill-proficiency assignments to support outcome-driven predictive routing strategies. Predictive analytics can assist internally with hiring decisions as well as identify and understand the drivers of agent churn and recommend intervention. Predictive analytics can also be used to anticipate if work will be completed on time based on data collected about individual work items.
WFM, which has always been a vital component of contact center technology, has become a necessity due to social, economic, and business trends. Today’s workforce demands scheduling flexibility, work-life balance, and the autonomy to self-serve and self-manage. Today’s customers require omnichannel support and personalized service. Today’s contact centers need to address operational requirements, satisfy employee needs, and meet customer expectations, all while managing costs. AI and automation are driving critical changes in WFM solutions to address these opportunities and more. But while the technology has changed, in many cases the people have not. Fear of losing control and letting the technology do what it is designed to do is the biggest inhibitor to the adoption of new-wave WFM’s automated and AI-enabled processes. Given what we’ve seen from the leading WFM solutions, it’s time to take the leap of faith.