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How can one size fit all? Creating a future-proof workforce strategy and flexibility toolkit.

Published on 31 August 2022

How can one size fit all? Creating a future-proof workforce strategy and flexibility toolkit.

Debate around working patterns and practices is always lively. You need to be ready for it if you want to make progress at pace or scale. A key purpose of workforce strategy is to build a toolkit that helps you be agile and flexible in planning resources. To be ‘future-proof’ and fit all ‘shapes and sizes’, your operating models should embed playbooks and apply the principles in an established, predictable way, based on agreed triggers and actions. This means thinking ahead about how you respond to different challenges and the needs of different types of people.

Colleagues come in many shapes & sizes!

Think of the questions you would ask if you were buying a uniform for all your colleagues. How will it fit different shapes and sizes? How long will it last? Will it be suitable for people doing different kinds of jobs? Does it embody our brand and customer promise? These are also great questions for building a future-proof workforce strategy and a flexibility toolkit. Therefore, the first step is becoming really clear what different kinds of people need and want. It’s important not to make assumptions, but to ask some questions.

So, how do you help people describe ‘good’ in their own words? The right questions are key. Asking “what shift would you like to work?” is so open that it’s likely to limit discussion, dependent on people’s prior experience. Asking someone now what they want to work next year (and beyond) is also difficult for people.

A lot can happen in 12-months, as we’ve seen over the pandemic. You need a transparent, iterative process of education, to create understanding and learning. This should influence what people then go on to choose. This way, people and the business can learn alongside each other to create future-proof operating models. You need to plan out this kind of communication, not go in feet first!

A future-proof workforce strategy and toolkit enable the operation to retain and develop people. This can be counted as a tangible value, or asset. So you need to approach your work from the perspective of colleague engagement, retention, and attraction. Working practices, shift patterns and your operational environment all impact loyalty and tenure, along with the opportunity for development, appreciation and so forth. By contrast, pay and bonuses can be matched by competitors and sometimes only offer short-term advantages. If people leave or are demotivated this ends up costing money. Can you measure this? Be aware that, when it comes to working practices and workforce strategy, there are often strong opinions about what works (or not).

Beware of the HIPPO, where the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion dominates. Personal bias, at all levels, all too often limits the flexibility offered. We also need to consider laws and regulations, which may vary by jurisdiction or sector. Be confident to challenge internal assumptions or policies about this. These can be mistaken, as we see too often with (say) Flexible Working laws. What’s more, we often don’t spend enough time talking to those who work these patterns or might be recruited to work them. Even then, if we ask them bad questions, this will lead to the wrong answers.

How do you match resource to customer demand?

Good working patterns also need to meet Customer and Commercial requirements, as well those of Colleagues and regulatory Compliance. These 4 Cs and the Strategy Pyramid methodology from The Forum are vital tools for developing any strategy, especially a workforce strategy. So the second step is to understand customer demand drivers and commercial or operating constraints (see box on the next page). In a fast-changing business, you will need to become clear about what is uncertain, volatile, or ambiguous (see chapter 4 of this guide). You will need to analyse complex issues, using models and pyramid principles, so that they become simple for people to understand.

There are strong, inescapable links between the way you set out to meet customer demand and what you require of your people. Both are part of your operating model. You cannot build future-proof working patterns without charting these links. For instance, digital transformation changes the skills you need, the opportunities for development, and the way in which demand arrives. The working patterns you require are different if more work can be deferred, with planners for digital channels starting to use resourcing methods from the back office. Furthermore some patterns are a huge attraction, bringing in new people or a significant reason for people to not leave.

So recruit purposefully! A workforce strategy should define your recruitment proposition and you need to link this with operational processes that develop people and give them reasons for staying in the operation. Your operating model is costly if you set out to recruit people motivated to work late shifts or develop customer contact skills (for instance), if they all move on to other corporate roles after 12 months
which are in office hours and using a new skill set. You need to make this cost visible in budgets and plans. See more in our article on the colleague lifecycle.

Finally, it is not enough just to manage resource flexibility using the methods discussed in this article. Alongside this, your toolkit needs to consider management of workload demand. Try tapping into any capability in your organisation for designing selfservice and automation technology around customer experiences and journeys. For instance, if you build good relationships with the people involved you can start to really leverage chatbots, mobile apps, and the website to signpost and set expectations. This way you can be prepared for the unexpected peaks, directing or deferring different types of contacts in a way that actually works for customers. IVRs may be part of your toolkit, but they are not the answer in themselves these days and increasingly the phone is not the first touchpoint in a journey anyway. Many people use an app or website, even if just to find the right contact. We will be further developing this part of the toolkit in our 2022-23 programme, so get in touch if you want to be part of the pioneer group for this work.

A future-proof strategy fits all sizes

A key purpose of workforce strategy is to build up a comprehensive toolkit, so that you can be agile and flexible in planning resources as a business or service. This flexibility toolkit is an integral part of a successful operating model. If your planning systems and capability are not fit for purpose your operating model will not deliver. This capability lifts you from top-down aspirations, or planning assumptions, into a place where the operation can genuinely deliver at scale and pace. Crucially, it also helps us think more flexibly as planners, analysts, managers, or influencers. If every problem seems a new problem, we make slow progress in an ever-changing world. Our capability as professionals is a key ingredient.

So, what is a good toolkit? In our Learning Academy, we talk about the importance of playbooks for tactical planning. It’s slow and costly if you need to go talk with people, every time you need to change work types during the day, or slide breaks, or defer meetings. We can act faster when we do the comms in advance and agree the principles. Hence, for your workforce strategy to be ‘future-proof’ and fit all ‘shapes and sizes’, your operating model needs to include a myriad of playbooks that embed the different principles and make clear what applies to what person in what circumstances.

These playbooks are not just simple contingency plans, like those in tactical planning can be, but are created in a similar way. They are a key part of your operating model, which is not complete without them. Your plans become real, not just a number in a spreadsheet or budget. Some playbooks need to be streamlined or automated, with technology to enable this, but sometimes they are primarily tools for engagement and cross functional alignment, especially with budget or strategic planning. Here, automation can be less important, though you still need to avoid ambiguity or undue complexity.

Finally, your approach will require iteration. So, think of evolving working patterns as a continuous improvement cycle, not a one-and-done ‘shift review’. Your workforce strategy and operating models are actually the framework for all your planning and insight work. Decisions on opening hours, contact channels, work types, priorities and the skills required are all key parts of your operating model, and well-designed working patterns needs to fit together with them. Like a jigsaw, this may require patience and skill, as things that seem to fit when you start out, prove to be not quite in the right place by the time you have more information to hand.

Four main approaches to working patterns

There are four main types of approach to shift working patterns that you will find in different customer operations. These options can all be used for full OR part time hours. They could be contractual or non-contractual. They could be worked from home, in an office or across both. They can also be combined with other methods, which we look at in a moment, to create an almost infinitely diverse range of options and playbooks for groups or individuals.

  1. Gig workers have been a fast-growing segment of the wider economy. They bid for work from a list of options, typically weekly or monthly, but sometimes real-time. You may bid for working hours (as in hospitality) or for specific jobs (eg Uber). While some rules or principles may be pre-agreed, there is generally no expectation of consistency. Gig working is common among selfemployed or contract workers, but broadening out, post-pandemic, especially for homeworkers where specialist systems can now support micro-scheduling.
  2. Fixed shifts are where people repeatedly work the same shifts, with the exact same days/times each week (eg day shifts, Mon-Fri) or in some set, regular repeating pattern (eg 1 weekend in 3). While lacking flexibility, the consistency can be reliable, for both person and organisation. In the US, people may bid for these shifts, with preferences applied in a fixed order, often based on seniority. Because people then work a constant, fixed pattern, this should not be confused with gig work.
  3. Rotating shifts are where a variety of shifts (days/ times) are worked around a rotational pattern over several weeks, ranging from fixed patterns (eg 4 on/4 off, 12 hours shifts) to variable patterns (eg over 12+ weeks or a season). ‘Fairness’ is achieved by everyone working the same shifts over the full cycle. This is a long-established shift working practice for extended-hours operations in UK/ Europe, with certain patterns deeply entrenched in some sectors, like health, security, or travel.
  4. Trade-off templates are designed around a pre-defined mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shifts. They provide people with a small, manageable set of different high-level choices, which are seen to be equally fair and appeal to different lifestyles. For this reason they are increasingly popular with members at The Forum. They are not fixed but provide tailored flexibility to both organisation and person and can be combined with many of the other working practices below.

What lifestyle patterns can you offer?

Alongside these, you can tailor options for specific types of people. This works very well indeed for targeted recruitment, and operations using trade-off patterns. These options do not have to be specific contracts, as we discuss later. They can be combined with any of the approaches above, but trade-off templates are especially fruitful when some of them are tailored around specific lifestyles (option 2). Then people can request changes, without having to be placed onto personal patterns (option 3).

If you go down this route, you will need to monitor shrinkage and performance metrics by group, so you are alert to any issues. Also, keep the proportion of people on these patterns under regular review; this is an illuminating metric for benchmarking. Specifically, a high proportion of personal or fixed shifts may indicate that you do not yet have a strategic approach to flexibility in your operation.

  1. Zero-hours: These contracts can be considered as one type of gig work, for people with other commitments or in work with volatile demand. The organisation may have no obligation to provide hours or consistent patterns, the individual no obligation to work. In the UK, this now includes the right to sick pay. Contracts could set a minimum on weekly or monthly hours, an issue that unions have campaigned on, and planners could facilitate this. Zero hours working can be very stressful for people if they don’t really want to be working on this type of contract, for example doing it as their main job because they can’t find other work. It works better if it is genuinely matched to a lifestyle choice, about part time work around another major life activity.
  2. Lifestyle patterns: More generally, work patterns for term-time or student working can be built around school/study hours, or sometimes terms/holidays. This can include parents having school holidays off or students working different hours in college holidays. Flexible arrangements could also be made for people with other availability constraints, such as family carers or those with second jobs, either within the organisation or at a different business. Job Share, uncommon for frontline workers in customer operations, is where one role is shared across two people.
  3. Personal fixed patterns for individuals are fixed under flexible working laws in UK & Europe. They are not flexible from a business point of view, but really a type of fixed shift. Widely misunderstood, they are widespread only in operations that do not have a strong workforce strategy to enable two-way flexibility through other means. We recommend that you provide enough other choices, so that personal shifts are not required in many cases, as is recognised, and permitted, by the law.
  4. Annualised hours is common where there is strong, predictable seasonality, with higher working hours in certain weeks, typically by working longer shifts, within an agreed annual total. It can be popular with colleagues if it matches their preferred lifestyle, for instance if they don’t have to work more at times when they want to be off (eg summer holidays, winter break). For some operations, this practice is just an annualised time bank (see below) but traditionally it was a separate contract for a distinct group. Student working could be seen as an example of this.

How are you flexible on work or time off?

There are some common working practices to increase two-way flexibility in managing time off — and working time. Time is usually measured in minutes or hours, although in some cases people may work extra days or take days off. Administration can be slow or costly, and rules vary greatly. Getting this right is key to success; try pilot projects with ideas first so you ‘test and learn’. Before scaling up, be sure to have a simple self-service, automated process, ideally integrated with your workforce management system. This capability can underpin powerful flexibility playbooks. Also, be sure changes are easy to request, ideally with instant, automatic confirmation to a mobile.

  1. Overtime of some kind is almost universal, whether scheduled or voluntary. This can be cost effective, if any premium is balanced by lower shrinkages (eg holiday, training, breaks). It also allows those who want more money to work more paid hours. A working agreement that specifies how and when you can schedule overtime could be a good first step into greater flexibility.
  2. Time-banking allows people to accrue time (at a standard rate) when working extra and to take time off (in lieu) at quieter times. Schemes with clear controls are required in most contact centres, due to tight service levels, but flexitime is still common for office workers, with wide freedom on when you start/finish, and often the chance for an extra day off.
  3. Unpaid time off schemes are varied, from buying/ selling part of your holiday allocation to taking extra (unpaid) hours off via time banking. You need to adapt your shrinkage calculations if you do this, but its very popular with some individuals, as it allows choice and control.
  4. Shift swaps with colleagues provide people choice and control, but problems can arise when there are different skill groups or people don’t know each other. If people can tailor their shift patterns or request time off, this can cut the number of changes.
  5. Work blending means that one advisor can do many types of work within their shift. It used to be a manual and adhoc arrangement (eg back office or outbound teams may support inbound calls). Increasingly this is more common, strategic, and even automated as part of a digital first strategy. This can apply for branch or field staff, not just in the contact centre or back office.

How to change work practices & contracts

A significant choice you will need to make, as an organisation, is how you implement these approaches. For almost all the options, you could either choose to set up and move people onto specific new contracts or you could negotiate an agreed new working practice. This may depend on your HR policies, but the fact is that it’s much harder to change contracts when people’s circumstances change. You need to make it easy to change working practices, rather than face potential future problems with fixed contracts. When setting up new working practices, create processes that are acknowledged to be fair and communicate effectively. This is important, both for colleague engagement and for compliance with employment law, in most jurisdictions.

  • Let’s learn from what worked well during the pandemic. Don’t forget how much local and non-contractual arrangements have helped or rush back to formalising everything. Hard-wired rules become limits, a negative way of controlling people, whereas a set of principles and guidelines can be appropriately stretched. There will always be things that aren’t within the rules, but everyone is very happy, when they are clearly explained. So, creating a contract can sometimes limit options, reduce flexibility, and de-personalise. It is not necessarily better security for individuals either; clearly documented working practices often provide the best protection.
  • Either way, regular review points are crucial, and we still often find members don’t have these in place. Agreements around Term Time Working, for instance, could have a natural review point as this can change with children’s age. At Direct Line (2013 Case Study) they agreed to publish a cycle of reviews and all patterns are then changed. This is common with rotating shift patterns, whereas with gig work, the need for review is seemingly superseded by the flexibility built into the regular operational cycle. Be careful to adapt your approach in a more bespoke way for personal patterns and lifestyle approaches, so that it is fair and reasonable.
  • Flexibility on contractual hours is another area to consider, rather than just see them as either full-time or part-time. For me, this feels outdated. Consider offering a range of hours, with a minimum and a maximum, having considered the limits within which someone can work effectively. Also take account of shrinkages (eg development, absence, breaks) as 8-12 hours a week may give you as little as 3-4 hours of contact time! Also think about the number of days worked in a week. Some organisations are looking at a 4-day week with fewer hours. You need to be able to make the implications visible for different kinds of job role.

It’s also important to consider when and how pattens are set. Knowing when you are at work (or not) is usually hugely important for colleague certainty. One idea that was very effective at esure (2019 Case Study) is to set the day off pattern for the next 12-months. This provides certainty for the colleague, whilst giving options for the business to tweak the shift time. Along the same line, you may want to consider how people make choices about when they are in the office or working at home. Here choice may be more important than certainty, and some self-service booking system that puts each individual in control is often hugely popular.

When and how do you change schedules?

You will need to change your schedules or activity in response to variation in your demand and supply, so your toolkit needs to give you options at each stage of the planning cycle. Typically you learn more as you get closer to the day of operation. Equally, there are areas where advanced notice is really important to people. There is great value in being able to facilitate this, so you need to develop tools to mitigate or limit any potential adverse impact. Here some of the factors to consider.

  1. Time off: There are lots of ways to give flexibility that people value here, from ‘duvet days’ to leaving early or taking an hour out or the option to buy, sell or accrue holidays. Just make sure your process for booking holidays and time off is really good. If it’s a special holiday for next year, don’t say ‘the booking window isn’t open’. That’s like ‘the computer says no’! If someone is imagining still working for you next year, encourage this! Just don’t let people book Christmas off for the next 10-years – this is different.
  2. Shifts: Changing shifts or days off at short notice is always unpopular. Where it’s essential, you can schedule on-call or reserve shifts to show people what’s certain and what is not. Try for prior agreement (non-contractually), perhaps as part of trade-off templates or time bank agreements. In the digital world, we need to log data upfront on who is ok with this and then communicate electronically and automatically. This is how agile operations are built. Remember, even a small proportion of people working on-call or at short-notice could provide much needed flexibility.
  3. Start & end times: Here, a small change can make a huge impact. Some people need consistent starts so give a guarantee. For others sliding shifts is no big deal. Operationally, there may be more impact from flexibility at the start of the day (to stop queues building) or at the end (as work backs up towards a hard end-of-day deadline in back office and field operations).
  4. Absence & appointments: Pre-empt disruption from unexpected absence where you can. Don’t just rely on strict performance management (eg three strikes’ or the ‘Bradford factor’). Look to facilitate other ways for people to do the things they need and let you know in advance. Forecast what can’t be notified in advance and update shrinkage at each stage of the planning cycle, so that staffing shortfalls don’t create stress.
  5. Breaks & meals: Policies range from guaranteed, consistent time to freedom breaks. They can all work! Break/lunch adherence can be difficult when tasks are long or variable in length; it can just drive the wrong behaviour. Letting people go for a break whenever they want can feel like a leap of faith, but it has been successfully implemented at a number of organisations. Maybe don’t rule anything out but take a test and learn approach so that you are sure of the consequences.

Offering choice and self-service helps hugely with engagement and performance, but setting clear expectations and agreements also helps massively in terms of certainty. Playbooks are powerful methods for delivering this. Think about notice period in particular; a change on the day will be ok for some and not for others, depending on their travel and personal commitments. In some sectors it is common to use certain groups for the less certain work, such as agency staff or zero hours teams, but this isn’t popular, so usually you need to pay a premium or have access to people who really need the work and will live with the social changes. Where your core teams can provide short notice flexibility this is always very useful.

Personal choice, certainty & control

Research shows that choice, certainty, and control are key drivers of engagement and motivation. Working patterns and time off really matter to people! Working patterns are NOT just about the scheduling stage; that is just one part of the process and there is usually more than one way of achieving any end goal. So think about how you can increase two-way flexibility (for both colleague and company) at each of the six stages of the planning cycle, from strategic planning to tactical or on the day activity.

You need to understand what people want, find ways to make this happen and have the capability to forecast all this activity and build it into your resource plans. For instance, if people want a regular day or evening off work, you could give them a schedule pattern that allows this, or you could allow them to swap shifts or guarantee them access to those times with time banking for instance. There are always alternatives you can consider. The key thing is to understand what is most important to your business performance and agility – and then match that to the things that matter to different people. You don’t need to ask for the same thing from everyone to be fair; fairness requires an understanding of what matters and either giving choice or setting expectation.

Author: Phil Anderson

This article was first published in the 2022 Best Practice Guide - You Moment of Truth: Confident to Succeed

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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