National Seminar Report: Flexibility

Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility. What a year it has been for our flexibility agenda. As we move forward with writing our best practice book on the subject we had another chance to work with our members at the National Best Practice seminar. The topic proved as popular as ever with 120 people attending the session to look back on the timeline of innovation since 2005 and discuss the role the wider planning team has in delivering the flexibility agenda.

Flexibility is not just the role of the scheduling team but is the collective responsibility of the entire planning team, MI and operational teams. So what do we need from each of these areas in order to deliver a sustainable flexibility strategy? Let’s take each question in turn.

What is the role of forecasting in creating flexibility?

Understanding how volatile volumes are and therefore the amount of flexibility needed appears to be a critical role for forecasters to take. Add to that at what stage does the forecast become more accurate and can that be linked to when the schedules are issued. The more accurate the forecast, the better the chance of matching actual demand with the schedules and in turn the less our real time teams will have to do on the day.

Is it realistic to say we can't issue our schedules until two week out because our forecasts are not accurate until this point? Surely this will create a backlash from the agent population who want more certainty? This may be true but as always if we look at this challenge in a slightly different way we can overcome it.

Of the shift options we create most can be issued with greater notice than two weeks, but we need to have at least one option that is issued with short notice or have the ability to adjust a number of the shift options by say 30 - 60 mins to deal with the inaccuracy of the earlier forecast.

The other role that the forecasting team can take is to look at demand management. Is it possible to introduce new procedures/campaigns that help to move or reduce demand? Go back to the 2010 innovation awards submission by HM Revenue and Customs where a project team helped to promote early renewals through a combination of pro-active outbound calling and multi-skilling. This initiative was designed to soften the blow of excessive demand rather than simply trying to staff up for the period in question. It may not always be possible to move demand or change customer behaviour, but it is something the forecasting team should consider rather than simply producing a staffing requirement and expecting the scheduling team to match it.

What is the role of real time in creating flexibility?

The tools that real time can use to flex staffing to deal with demand vary from one business to the next. Whether it’s overtime, time banking, skill changes or changes to call routing they all need to be formally agreed before they are implemented to avoid the inevitable conflict on the day. Pre agreed triggers and actions are widely recognised as a fundamental part of real time best practice, the question is what should be on the list of potential flexibility actions and is there anything else real time can do to make life easier for themselves and the agents?

As Richard Crowther from Lloyds Banking Group Insurance says “Real time management is the last opportunity to deliver the plan. It focuses not only on demand but also on our colleagues. If our demand is lower than expected, our real time team will invest this time in our front line people, creating capacity for their development and ensuring the necessary “people stuff” can happen. The real time teams are key to building relationships with the front line and creating a flexible front line population through education, engagement and support.”

One particular idea that came from the National seminar is an “I don’t mind list”.  This is a list where agents can add their name on arrival for work to say they are available for overtime, unpaid leave, shorter or longer breaks. This is a simple yet effective idea that allows the real time team to have a pre-defined list of people to call upon when flexibility is required rather than having to go through the team leaders and wait for a response.

How does good MI support the need for flexibility?
Too often MI is about production and not analysis, yet the role MI needs to have supporting flexibility is to use the information available to provide insight into what works and what doesn’t. Bringing both planning data and performance data together to provide sound reasoning for any particular approach.

For example, there is no point offering a long shift if it has too big an impact on productivity or absence rates. Looking at solutions in their entirety is crucial if they are to be successful. Whilst working at AVIS we identified that Sunday evening was the best time for conversion, the advisors were targeted on conversion and we had historically struggled to get people to work the Sunday evening shift. Knowing that conversion was strong at this time made it easier to encourage people to move shift or take up overtime. It was only possible to solve this problem with good, insightful MI.

The other area MI will play a part is proving return on investment. It is not always easy to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the individual and in some cases the solutions may appear to be inefficient. However, the MI teams can often show other areas of improvement that outweigh the additional staffing costs, whether these are in performance, absence or attrition rates. Working closely with our MI colleagues will help build the business case for chance.

As Debby Grundy from DWP says “MI will show how demand changes across the day, week, month, year and what impact this has… it can really highlight the need for flexibility to adapt to changing demands. Get you contingency plans in place before the event happens – supported by your MI.”

What part does the Operation, HR, Training and Recruitment have in delivering a sustainable flexibility strategy?
Whether it’s recruiting the right people, having someone to train the latest multi-skilling programme or simply agreeing to borrow some agents from another department, a sustainable flexibility strategy cannot be achieved without support from all areas of the business. In all the best practice sessions we run there is a clear message that communication and education must be a priority if the flexibility strategy is to be delivered.

All areas of the business are there to work towards the strategic goals of the business, it may not always seem this way but that is often down to failed communication. Why should an HR manager understand planning, that said why should a planning manager understand operations? We all have a responsibility to educate each other on our role and to be open to understanding the part others play in the wider business. It is common that different departments have different objectives and that these can seem at times to be in conflict. In our experience when these so called conflicts are worked through and each party takes the time educate the other; they are in fact for the overall good of the business.

Work together, remember why you are all there, don’t believe that you have all the answers, work collaboratively and look for all the potential solutions not just the first one you think of.

View the presentation.

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