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The Workforce Management Overstaffing Problem

Published: May 29, 2012 | By: Intradiem

In an ideal world, contact center workforce management (WFM) solutions would generate accurate forecasts and schedules to identify the exact number of agents required to handle the projected volume of interactions at a given service level for every minute of every day (and every night, if appropriate). The problem is that even the best workforce management solution is not 100% accurate, and even if it were, it is often impractical to vary staffing levels over every short interval. Therefore, there are inevitably many periods of time when contact centers are either overstaffed or understaffed. There are a number of underlying reasons for this, but one is that when an erlang-based workforce management solution is used, the algorithm errs on the side of slight overstaffing to ensure that the department’s service level is met. While the result is likely to be relatively insignificant for a small contact center with 100 or fewer agents, the impact of overstaffing is costly, possibly running into the millions of dollars, for large contact centers with over 1,000 agents.

While efforts are being made in the market to address this challenge, no one has yet come up with an ideal way to address the problems with erlang-based WFM solutions, which make up the vast majority of the systems in the market. The goal is to reduce the extra fractions of full-time equivalents (FTEs) that these solutions allocate to ensure that the targeted service level is achieved.

This challenge is exacerbated by other WFM-related issues.  There is false assumption in the market that contact center managers can easily change their agents’ schedules when forecasts alter the department’s staffing needs. While managers can (and do) ask their employees to change their lifestyle or personal commitments to meet the needs of the company, this is not an approach that is successful in the long term. Agents may be willing to do this once or twice to keep their jobs, but at some point, the disruption will cause them to reconsider their employment options and begin looking for a more stable environment.

There is now a new generation of WFM solutions that have been enhanced to take employee schedule preferences into consideration. Agents tend to prefer a stable schedule that fits in well with their other commitments. The push for schedule stability is likely to create even more overstaffing in contact centers that want to consistently meet their service levels while keeping their agents’ preferences reasonably satisfied. This almost inevitable overstaffing means that it is a good idea for contact centers to take on back-office or other non-phone-related activities to fill agent idle time. Instead of asking agents to alter their commitments when contact center volume patterns change, managers can schedule some extra capacity and fill this time productively by asking agents to handle non-phone or back-office tasks.

Workforce management remains an essential activity and application for contact centers. But the weaknesses of these solutions need to be addressed, as they are costing companies too much money in terms of overstaffing and unhappy agents. It would be ideal for the WFM vendors to come up with a way to fix their underlying algorithms and for contact centers to hire only agents with extreme schedule flexibility , but as this has not happened in the past 30 years, it’s time to look for another way to compensate for these weaknesses.


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