Over the past 10 years, more and more organizations have moved toward self-directed work teams. The result has been better productivity, increased employee motivation, reduced bureaucracy, and continuous improvement in the work product being delivered.
Although these self-directed work teams are most often implemented in manufacturing environments to turn out a better-quality product more efficiently, many customer service organizations have also embraced this concept. But while some of the concepts of work teams have resulted in delivery of better, more efficient service to the customer, other components have created service problems.
A self-directed work team is a group of employees fully responsible for a product or a service. Every member of the team shares responsibility for the finished product, but the concept goes beyond demonstrating teamwork. The members may possess a wide range of cross-functional skills and have much greater decision-making capability. The team plans, sets priorities, solves problems, schedules and assigns work, and handles personnel issues such as hiring, training, evaluation, and disciplinary action. The definition of a team varies by organization. While an “average” team size is 10 employees, some companies operate with four-person teams, while others have teams made up of 18-20 members.
A big issue for the team concept in the contact center lies in the schedule of team members. While some companies have teams where all members start, take breaks, and leave together, others have teams where the members’ schedules many have varying start times and breaks and where members may even work different shifts.
The economies of teams
While the notion of “eat, sleep, and breathe together” may indeed foster a sense of group spirit, teamwork, and better individual productivity in some areas of the company, a company may not be able to afford to assign team schedules to the staff in the contact center.
The contact center is at the mercy of the incoming-call workload, which arrives randomly within each hour. Unlike the sequential tasks associated with paperwork or manufacturing, the random arrival of the call workload results in schedule requirements that can vary widely from hour to hour. Inefficient schedules can result in overstaffing and excessive costs in some hours, and understaffing and poor service in others.
And scheduling in blocks of 10 people is inherently less efficient than scheduling for the exact number of bodies in chairs needed each half-hour. The schedule requirement may call for six people to be on the phones at 7:00 am, eight people at 7:30, and 10 people at 8:00. Scheduling all 10 people to start at the same time to support the team concept overschedules for the first two half-hours of the day, resulting in overstaffing for this slot, which probably leads to understaffing later in the day.
Let’s look at the effect of team scheduling vs. a traditional scheduling approach for a small (20,000 calls a month), midsize (60,000 calls a month), and large (300,000 calls a month) contact center. All scenarios assume a 24-hour operation, an average handle time of 180 seconds per call, and a service-level goal of 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds. The full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members represent total weekly staff hours needed divided by 40 hours per week. The required FTE is the absolute number required to handle calls at the desired level of service. Scheduled FTE numbers represent the number of staff that must be scheduled in order to provide enough schedule coverage for the desired level of service.
As shown in the table, team scheduling in a contact center does not make sense from a pure cost standpoint. Particularly for a small center, any advantages gained by team scheduling are greatly outweighed by staffing inefficiencies, resulting in either excessive cost to hire unnecessary staff or, more than likely, poor service to the caller as a result of not having the right number of staff in place at the right time to handle the call. And although the results of team scheduling do improve as the size of the center grows, even in a large center with more than 100 staff, team scheduling is not an efficient practice. The numbers are higher in the team approach due to the smaller groups that would be required and the loss of economies of scale.
Team scheduling fares better when the work is made up of something other than all incoming phone calls. A large midwestern bank, for example, used to have a group of front-line representatives handle a certain percentage of calls and pass on the remainder to a second-tier group of problem-solvers to research and follow up. Reorganizing both groups of representatives into self-directed work teams with cross-trained representatives to handle all types of calls resulted in a more equitable distribution of work and a greater sense of control and ownership among the staff. In this case, the teams follow the same schedules and work identical shifts. Although this type of scheduling results in overstaffing with respect to members needed for handling the incoming phone workload, there is a near-equal amount of paperwork to accomplish each day, and during idle telephone times the staff can research and process paperwork. This is one case in which an organization managed to reap the benefits of work teams and still maintain an efficient contact center operation and scheduling process.
Certainly the practice of self-directed work teams has many advantages, including less supervisory or management time, happier and more highly motivated employees, and better quality and efficiency. As you consider the team concept in your contact center, however, it is important to keep in mind that an incoming-call center is a very different environment than its administrative or manufacturing counterpart. While many of the team concepts work well in the contact center, be careful of team scheduling that could easily wipe out any efficiency gained by teaming in the first place.
Penny Reynolds is founding partner of Nashville, TN-based The Call Center School, a consulting and education company.
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