Flexible Workforce Management In BPOs Is Undergoing A Post-Pandemic Renaissance

Workforce Management (WFM) doesn’t appear to be the most exciting of subjects. It’s usually just another three-letter acronym that customer service specialists drop into conversation along with all those metrics they use to measure performance in the contact centre. FCR. AHT. It’s all acronyms.

But a lot has changed since the pandemic shook up this industry. The traditional idea that customer service is entirely managed from a contact centre was challenged by the normalisation of work-from-home (WFH) options that have persisted long after the crisis.

But many companies use WFH as if people are still in the office. They are working a full shift all day from their home office. What if the location could become more flexible, but also the working hours too?

This would introduce more flexibility into scheduling for the employer and it would create more flexibility around working hours for employees – a smart WFM system should be able to match up what employees want and the flexibility that employers need.

This does make WFM more interesting. It’s at the heart of a more flexible future for work where employees can choose their own working hours and employers encourage flexible shifts that meet the demand from their clients – especially important in customer service as demand is not uniform through the entire day.

Many analysts now argue that this is the real future for business process outsourcing (BPO). Contact centres require agents to commute and then work a full shift, but WFH allows a more flexible approach to managing when people are available to take calls. We may not see a complete switch to WFH, but there is a good reason why the post-pandemic customer service environment is never going to be 100% all back in the contact centres again.

I talked to Steve Mosser, the Group CEO and Chief Innovations Officer at Sensée to understand some of his ideas on this subject. Sensée has always been a 100% WFH customer service specialist, but they recently acquired The Contact Company so they now have a 1,000-person contact centre in Liverpool in addition to their network of home-based agents.

Steve calls his own WFM strategy ‘Total Footprint Optimisation.’ I asked him to explain the approach: “When you bring people to the workplace, you have these blocks of time that you stack against the demand as best you can and within the budget you have. It’s quite a clunky model. It’s very rigid. You are typically dealing with 8-hour blocks of time. We operate using a model we call micro-staffing where the blocks of time are 30 minutes each, so all of a sudden your resource planning has 16 times more flexibility.”

I asked Steve how this flexible approach, where the day is divided into 30-minute chunks, compares to Gig CX. In the gig model agents are typically only paid when they help a customer so there is no wasted time or payment for time when agents are just waiting for calls.

Steve said: “Gig CX is not sustainable, because ultimately who pays the price of waiting for the call or accepting ‘we don’t need you today’? It’s not a good engagement model. I have worked on some of these models in the past so I really have seen that if you do this well and apply the total footprint model, optimisation, and micro-staffing, then everybody wins.”

Steve is referring to the agents, who all have employment contracts and all the benefits that come with this. The agents feel supported and invested in by their employer, but they also have the ability to work flexible hours.

I suggested to Steve that WFM has been around for a long time – much longer than the period since the Covid pandemic – and he agreed. He said: “I call our approach WFM 3.0, it’s a next generation approach to WFM. It allows decisions like what is best for our business? What is best for our people? How do we build WFH and hybrid into the model? All the big BPO players out there are trying to catch up, but they need to fundamentally rewrite the foundations of their WFM systems.”

Steve is arguing that traditional WFM is all about getting the most from office-based resources and this is not how a modern organisation looks or operates. People might be at home, in the office, or working on the road.

Many employees that want to work from home specifically look for jobs that allow it because they need flexible hours. They simply cannot commute and then spend a long all-day shift in an office. Steve believes that many BPOs were awakened to all this untapped talent by the arrival of the pandemic.

He said: “Many BPOs suddenly realised that they can send people home and then never bring them back to the office because they can start using flexible hours from home. However they did disengage a lot of people because they didn’t have the right toolkit and systems and in many cases this triggered what people called the Big Resignation – people just looking for something better. People said that I need the right work/life balance to continue working like this.”

What Steve is really suggesting is a partnership approach. The GigCX model is an ideal in some ways because the client only ever pays when an agent is active, but if an agent is waiting for calls then they are not being paid. Plus, nobody is investing in their career. It’s usually not ideal for the agents and they are at the frontline – the client depends on skilled and experienced agents being available.

Steve is saying that you can design more agile solutions that embrace flexible hours but also give people employment contracts and rights. He said: “There’s a better way. It’s like we’re going to partner with the client -it’s all about partnership. Let’s work together to understand the key issues, the pinch points, the peaks, the troughs and work together holistically.”

Steve and the team at Sensée call this total footprint optimisation. To most of the industry it is workforce management or WFM. It really seems as if there is a pre and post-pandemic approach that embraces a new era of flexibility – working from home is not just about agents avoiding a commute, it’s also about improving agent lifestyles and letting them choose more flexible hours. The real magic here is matching what the agents want to what the client needs.

Let me know what you think. The entire conversation with Steve will be featured on the CX Files podcast in May 2024 – subscribe so you don’t miss it.

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