Flexible working; a 3-point plan for time-off-without-pay, zero and reduced hours in contact centers

Zero and reduced hours, time-off-without-pay (TOWP) could be the answer when it comes to flexible working but how will it work in practice? Per-Arne Karlsson, Technical Director APAC at Teleopti, shares a simple 3-point plan…

Flexibility in contact centers means many things to many people. It usually means making life easier for agents, enabling them to strike the all-important work/life balance. Or, it can apply to the automated technology that makes flexible working possible. Most recently, another meaning has emerged that focuses on the growing trend for companies to increase their business agility by introducing flexible or reduced hours working contracts.

As we all know, organizations everywhere continue to face the reality of squeezed budgets. In a race to cut costs, it’s easy to see how the concepts of zero or reduced hours contracts and offering time-off-without-pay (TOWP) are an attractive commercial proposition.

Permanent contracts translate into higher costs for employers in terms of increased insurance contributions, holiday and sickness pay, pensions and statutory redundancy payments should times get really tough. The new flexible ‘Pay-As-You-Go’ approach to employing staff means just that – employers only pay for the hours worked with the added bonus of not being legally obliged to offer all the other extra benefits on top.

Flexible working contracts are particularly appealing to industries with seasonal peaks and troughs or in sectors such as insurance, financial planning and even shopping channels, where periodic spikes in the weather, stock market surges or the demand for products promoted in short bursts are uncontrollable and often unpredictable.

This new take on flexibility makes perfect operational and business sense, but just how can you introduce the right flexibility strategy if you don’t know how volatile your demand is? That is the common conundrum faced by organizations today. How do the contact centers supporting them ensure that enough agents are in the right place at the right time and then keep them motivated to meet fluctuating customer requirements and service levels? Here is a three-point plan to keep you on track.

1. Understand the psychology of work

People like to be busy knowing they are offering a worthwhile service that is valued by their employers. Otherwise, they would prefer to be anywhere but at work, even if they are not paid. Nothing is more demoralizing or frustrating than wasting time sitting around waiting for a customer to call.

Zero hour contracts, where staff work when their employers need them, would appear to be the obvious answer. However, they have sparked a great deal of controversy and are sometimes viewed as an opportunity for unscrupulous employers to exploit staff during times of high unemployment. The truth is there are both pros and cons to this type of employment.

Despite the obvious negatives of no fixed income, being constantly on-call without any guarantee of work and feeling undervalued, the positives that zero hour contracts present are flexibility, more free-time, the chance to develop new skills and the freedom to find permanent work are real incentives for people to take the conscious decision to avoid permanent roles.

The biggest challenge appears to be for contact center leaders who fear losing their star performers and attracting the best new talent if they cannot offer a full-time permanent contract. This is where guaranteed minimum hour contracts can help.

2. Take the middle ground and include time-off-without-pay (TOWP)

The risks of flexible working and reduced hour contracts can be mitigated by following the safe middle ground. This is particularly relevant in environments where demand can be very unpredictable, for example during charity appeals, special offer advertising or 24 hour shopping channels.

In contact centers of this type demand depends on a number of factors such as viewing figures and demographics, the popularity of a presenter and the unpredictable demand for hundreds of different products. Even the weather plays a part, are people out enjoying a warm day or watching their TVs?

One option to maintain flexibility but reduce costs is to introduce minimum hours contracts that offer a fixed yet flexible number of working hours per week, say from 12-20, combined with ‘Time off without pay’. While it might sound ridiculous TWOP can be very popular. Why? It is a win, win situation because managers can better control staff costs and meet customer demand while agents, though not paid for time off when not required, are guaranteed an income and the opportunity to devote more time to their home and social lives without having to ask for it! Give it a try and watch the queue of potential applicants grow.

3. Look beyond scheduling

Introducing flexible working contracts is definitely an important step forward, but it doesn’t quite overcome the problem of enabling quick-build schedules to accommodate these new contracts. To maximize flexibility, choose Workforce Management (WFM) technology which includes a mobile app to support agents updating their availability to work at certain times/days in advance. The secret then lies in constantly adapting to change by conducting “what-if” scenarios using the latest WFM solutions.
A well-considered flexibility strategy combined with technical innovation offer a failsafe route to success and improved work/life balance for agents with minimum hour’s contracts. Also look out for WFM solutions with Real-Time Adherence (RTA) capabilities embedded in their DNA.

These include the ability to:

– issue email or SMS notifications to people with the right skills to check if they can work at short notice and so plug in any gaps
– monitor agent adherence to schedules and compare them with the live ACD status – wherever you are using a variety of desktop, tablet or mobile devices
– flag up when schedules are in danger of being breached with automated alarms

– offer real-time data feed, updated in seconds, to enable fast decision-making and action to be taken.
Take control of this new world of flexibility by understanding the psychology of work, then use this knowledge to introduce flexible working contracts underpinned by technology that goes beyond simple agent scheduling. There’s no better way to release the full potential of your contact center and your overall business.

Per-Arne Karlsson is Technical Director APAC at Teleopti