The Good the Bad and the Ugly:
The Do’s and Don’ts of Automated Staffing Optimization
By Larry Schwartz, WorkFlex Solutions
Workforce management (WFM) involves three key processes: Forecasting, Scheduling and Intraday Management. The majority of today’s commercial workforce management systems provide a comprehensive toolset for forecasting demand and creating agent schedules. However, intraday management toolsets tend to be less comprehensive with a primary focus on intraday monitoring, typically in the form of a real-time dashboard that can tell you every 15 minutes what intraday performance variances require attention. The actual addressing of these variances is generally left to workforce administrators to solve on their own using largely manual processes. For each staffing variance that is identified by the system, WFM administrators need to determine:
- Whether the variance is of a nature that requires immediate action, taking into account:
- What service queue is affected since different queues may have different service level requirements
- The magnitude, duration, time-of-day and time-from-now that the staffing variance is projected to occur
- The right action to take—e.g., extend shifts, cancel/reschedule training/coaching, schedule additional agents
- The right agents to contact taking into account factors like work-hour rules, agent skills, performance and seniority
- The best way to reach agents if they are not on-shift—e.g., email, text, social media
Additionally, WFM administrators needs to ensure that each confirmed schedule change is entered in the WFM system in a timely manner.
For workforce administrators attempting to optimize staffing levels across multiple service queues for each of the 96 fifteen-minute intervals each day, this can be a daunting task to perform manually. It is no wonder that on average more than 70% of workforce administration headcount is focused on intraday management tasks, and in particular, intraday staffing. In recent years, new workforce optimization (WFO) capabilities have been introduced that provide a variety of ways to automate staffing optimization processes. The two primary approaches to this include Automated Load Balancing and Automated Intraday Staffing.
Automated Load Balancing
Automated Load Balancing (ALB) ensures that multi-skilled agents are optimally deployed across various service queues. This does not increase or decrease total available agent capacity but can be used to improve service levels by directing more calls from high demand service queues to those agents that are capable of handling these call types.
Four approaches to Automated Load Balancing include:
- Dynamic Routing is a capability provided by most modern Automated Call Distribution (ACD) systems that uses Intelligent Routing Tables to dynamically shift incoming call volume in high-demand queues to qualified agents, thereby expanding the target skills. This can improve key customer service metrics by lowering Average Speed of Answer (ASA) within those high demand service queues.
- Reskilling is a capability provided by some Workforce Optimization (WFO) systems that work in conjunction with ACD systems. These WFO systems “trick” the ACD into directing more calls from high occupancy call queues to additional agents by reassigning skills to agents in the ACD.
- WFM Work-Type Rescheduling is a capability provided by some WFM/WFO systems, whereby multi-skilled agent work-type assignments can be automatically rescheduled in the WFM system, enabling more agents to be assigned to high occupancy service queues.
- Agent Work-Type Self-Scheduling is a capability provided by some WFM/WFO systems, whereby multi-skilled agents can reschedule their work-type assignment in the WFM system enabling more agents to be assigned to high occupancy service queues when needed.
Some Automated Load Balancing technologies can be configured for use only within the current interval (i.e., now) or future intervals (i.e., the future), whereas other technologies can be configured to work within both current and future intervals. Figure 1 summarizes which ALB approach can technically be configured for current and/or future intervals:
- Skills-Based Routing is an ACD function that can be applied only to the current interval, since, by definition, it is routing calls only in the current interval.
- Agent Self-Service for Work-Type technologies are generally not configurable for current interval since this could conflict with the other company-initiated current interval load balancing techniques.
Automated Intraday Staffing
Automated Intraday Staffing (AIS) technologies can be used to increase or decrease the capacity within service queues by increasing the total available agent capacity (work-hours) by increasing or decreasing the work-hours scheduled. This allows additional staff to be applied to service queues where demand exceeds scheduled agent supply and staff reductions to be applied to service queues where scheduled agent supply exceeds demand.
Three approaches to Automated Intraday Staffing include:
- ACD-Based Work-Hour Rescheduling is a capability provided by some Workforce Optimization (WFO) systems that works in conjunction with ACD systems. These WFO systems use business rules to execute voluntary time off (VTO) and/or solicit extra hours from agents based on ACD-measured occupancy levels. If occupancy drops below a certain threshold (e.g., below 60%), VTO actions can be automatically executed, and if occupancy rises above another threshold (e.g., 90%), extra-hour (EH) actions can be automatically executed.
- WFM Work-Hour Rescheduling is a capability provided by some WFM/WFO systems whereby VTO/EH actions are triggered based on projected staffing variances generated by the WFM system. This approach typically incorporates automated intraday reforecasting to improve projected staffing variance accuracy.
- Agent Work-Hour Self-Scheduling is a capability provided by some WFM/WFO systems, whereby agents can automatically reschedule their work-hours based on staffing variances projected by the WFM system. Some systems allow agents to preview preapproved schedule-change opportunities, whereas others can only automatically approve/disallow agent-initiated schedule changes after the schedule-change request has been made.
Certain automated intraday staffing technologies can only be configured for use within only the current interval (i.e., “now”) or within future intervals (i.e., “later”), while other technologies can be configured to work within both current and future intervals. Figure 2 summarizes which AIS approach can technically be configured for current and/or future intervals:
- ACD-Based Work-Hour rescheduling technologies are generally not configurable to make schedule changes for future intervals since they do not have the capability to accurately reforecast future interval staffing variances.
- Agent Work-Hour Self-Scheduling technologies are generally not configurable for the current interval since this could conflict with the other company-initiated current interval work-hour rescheduling techniques.
Good, Bad and Ugly Practices for Automated Staffing Optimization
Although Figures 1 and 2 depict a number of techniques that can technically be applied to automate load-balancing and intraday staffing for current and future intervals, some approaches are inherently better than others when taking into account performance impact and/or human factor considerations.
Figure 3 depicts the recommended and non-recommended approaches to automated staffing optimization.
- By mirroring the dynamic routing tables in ACD systems, WFM system reforecasting algorithms can take into account dynamic routing techniques to ensure that projected future forecast variances are accurate. For example, if 20 agents have been assigned to handle tech support and “overflow” calls from the customer service queue calls are redirected to four multi-skilled tech support agents capable of handling customer service calls, the WFM system will know that there are only 16 agents actively handling tech support calls instead of 20. With agent reskilling however, the changes made by the WFO system to agent-skill tables within the ACD are not automatically propagated to the WFM system. By using ACD reskilling to address the above example, the WFM system will still “think” there are 20 agents assigned to handle voice calls when in fact there are actually only 16, rendering intraday performance metrics and staffing variance reforecasts produced by the WFM system inherently inaccurate.
- Using WFM systems to change work-hour or work-type assignments within the current interval introduces human-factor issues. Workforce administrators have no opportunity to review and approve/modify/reject recommended staffing changes before they are invoked, and agents have no advance notice of work-assignment changes. Using WFM systems to change work-hour or work-type assignments for future intervals, however, inherently addresses these human factor issues and can significantly improve user acceptance and adoption of automated WFM rescheduling technologies.
- Agent self-scheduling automation technologies applied to future intervals can provide a double win by enabling the self-scheduling empowerment agents really want and can help WFM administrators address projected staffing variances.
- Using current interval ACD occupancy data alone does not provide enough information for ACD-based intraday staffing automation systems to effectively assess the impact on future staffing intervals rendering this approach inherently flawed. For example, an ACD-based intraday staffing automation system detecting occupancy below 60% could automatically execute a VTO action, but since current-interval analysis alone does not take into account projected staffing variances for future intervals, the outcome may be a poor decision. For example, executing a VTO action in the current interval based on current interval low-occupancy could be a poor decision if there is a projected staffing shortfall an hour or two in the future as this action would likely aggravate that future staffing shortfall.
Automated staffing optimization technologies can provide powerful tools to enable contact center operators to optimize agent utilization and intraday performance. However, it is important when using these technologies to take into account their effectiveness for use within current and future intervals.
The recommended technology approach for automated load-balancing within the current interval is through leveraging the dynamic routing technologies already provided by many ACD vendors, whereas the recommended approach for future-interval automated load-balancing is via WFM-based work-type rescheduling and agent-self-scheduling technologies.
Due to human factor considerations that directly affect user satisfaction and adoption, automated intraday staffing technologies are inherently far more effective when configured for future interval versus current interval use. When configured for future interval use, WFM-based work-hour rescheduling and agent-self-scheduling technologies can provide a highly effective toolset for automated intraday staffing.
Larry Schwartz is the CEO of WorkFlex Solutions, the industry leader in Intelligent Intraday Automation® for contact centers. For more information on WorkFlex Intelligent empowerment capabilities for agents, supervisors, and workforce administrators, go to www.workflexsolutions.com.