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Managing the New Normal Workforces

Managing the New Normal Workforces

Managing the New Normal Workforces

Automation, new channels, WFH, and the Great Resignation are shaping workforce management.

Providing excellent customer service, support, sales, and billing relies on having the right numbers of the skilled contact center agents at the right times.

But ensuring that critical task is accomplished successfully appears to be challenging in today’s new normal.

For insights, we reached out to the suppliers of workforce management (WFM) solutions. Here are our conversations with Trudy Cannon, Director of GTM Strategy for WFM, Verint, Daryl Gonos, CEO, CommunityWFM, Dave Hoekstra, Product Evangelist, Calabrio, and Dana Shalev, WEM Product Marketing Director, NICE.

Q. What are, and rank, the top trends impacting the demand for, use of, and features sought in WFM and their drivers?

Trudy Cannon

Trudy Cannon:

Most brands and their contact centers are struggling with the same challenges. Namely addressing the explosion in digital channels to deliver customer service and meeting employee expectations for work schedule flexibility as they increasingly choose to work from anywhere.

These are the key trends impacting the demand for WFM solutions. In fact, according to our research 42% of companies identified WFM as a key investment to better manage a disconnected workforce and improve customer engagement.

Digital customer engagement channels have existed for decades. Before, you could get away with smaller teams using one-off tools to handle customer inquiries via phone, chat, and email. The challenge is that organizations lose efficiency when actively going outside the broader engagement platforms to access each tool.

Today, the rise in digital channels and the exponential increase in customer interactions are forcing companies to retool their customer service strategies to take a unified approach to customer engagement channels via a single platform.

In addition, work from home (WFH) is here to stay. Initially, businesses made accommodations that enabled a work-from -anywhere approach out of the COVID-19 pandemic necessity. Today, with the many upsides to WFH, employees feel it is a disruption worth embracing.

In response, organizations are leaning into digital tools to make the transition a long-term success. This calls on the power of an integrated WFM solution to satisfy today’s default remote digital-first culture that both employees and customers have come to expect.

WFM features, such as omnichannel forecasting and flexible scheduling, are critical for organizations to ensure adequate shift staffing while meeting these new workforce demands for non-traditional work schedules.

The key is a WFM solution that naturally pairs with your customer engagement platform for a unified approach to customer service. Removing workforce and customer data silos helps provide better visibility and efficiency for customer care, so that any agent anywhere can assist customers quickly and efficiently.

Brands can then consistently deliver great customer and employee experiences with a unified approach.

Daryl Gonos

Daryl Gonos:

1. Workforce management is no longer isolated to forecasting, scheduling, and agent adherence. WFM technology has expanded to help organizations improve the customer experience (CX), provide operational efficiencies, and improve agent engagement.

One of the biggest trends is giving agents more control of their work schedules. The number of scheduling options has increased to include new choices such as split shifts and self-scheduling.

“Workforce management is no longer isolated to forecasting, scheduling, and agent adherence.” —Daryl Gonos

2. Automation is another big trend with WFM. More WFM analysts insist on having automated systems to manage intraday scheduling adjustments and process time-off requests.

They are also looking for an integrated communication platform to engage with agents directly from within the WFM platform. Executing WFM optimization without automation and embedded communication is time-consuming, error-prone, and ineffective.

3. WFM technology customers are demanding integrations to other systems so that data can be shared across the enterprise. While ACD integration is critical for acquiring historical call data, having integrations to CRM and payroll systems is also very important.

Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra:

With the dynamic changes in customer service, true omnichannel forecasting, scheduling, and management is now the leading feature in today’s WFM solutions.

However, we can’t forget to mention artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as the driving forces behind this trend. A very close second would be agent empowerment features, such as self-scheduling, PTO request automation, and true Gig Economy scheduling.

Dana Shalev

Dana Shalev:

1. Heighted customer expectations

Customer expectations for instant gratification have soared in the last few years, and with them has come the age of hyper-personalization.

Customers expect information and service on demand—whenever they need it, wherever they are—which has dramatically expanded the use of asynchronous channels that let customers reply and engage on their own schedules.

This also has increased the need for omnichannel support, as customers want the flexibility to leave one channel, like phone, and continue the same interaction in a more convenient environment, like email or chat.

2. Employee attrition

The transformation of the workplace over the past two years is contributing to employee restlessness and the Great Resignation.

These changing work-life preferences are placing significant pressure on contact centers to improve the employee experience. Recent adjustments include flexible shifts, hybrid or remote work models, ease of resource access, automation of redundant tasks, and a focus on career advancement.

3. A digital-first world

A driver of the first trend, rapid digital adoption has drastically increased the number of available communication touchpoints between brands and their customers.

The expansion of digital channels as a result of the pandemic means contact centers must optimize their omnichannel approach to effectively support customers and allocate employees across a wide variety of platforms, whether social media, apps, email, web chat, or traditional phone support.

4. Need for sophisticated agent support

As agents take on increasingly complex customer interactions that cannot be resolved through self-service, brands must support them with advanced tools and solutions necessary to prepare them for success.

Q. Has anything changed in these factors between 2019 and now, and why?

Trudy Cannon: Most people are under the impression that the emergence of technology enabling digital work reared its head in early 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.

But email and chat channels have been a part of WFM solutions for decades. What has happened is the dramatic increase in interaction volumes that made it feel like a net new need.

The pandemic has most certainly changed employees’ need for schedule flexibility, and innovations in technology empower their choice to design their work schedules: some across a wide range of jobs.

The growing Gig Economy significantly impacts innovations made to WFM solutions to assist organizations in managing modern employment models that don't adhere to the traditional 9-to-5 workday.

Daryl Gonos: Agent engagement and schedule flexibility accelerated during the pandemic. While WFH agents is not a new concept, the scale and speed at which companies adopted this style of work increased dramatically.

Because of this transition, companies had to accelerate moving their networks and platforms to the cloud.

Dave Hoekstra: Agent empowerment features have changed significantly. The rise of remote and hybrid work, combined with the reshuffling of talent in the industry, underscored the importance of employee autonomy and providing more flexible methods for WFM.

The good news is there are tools available to transform how agents work and give them more control over their daily work lives.

Dana Shalev: The increased digitization across the globe is driving demand for more digital channels. While digital transformation was already in motion in 2019, no one was prepared for the rapid acceleration of digital and virtual expansion since March 2020.

Brands have been updating their technology stacks and exploring omnichannel customer communications. However, those nice-to-haves became must-haves when contact centers began receiving an unprecedented volume of customer requests, combined with burgeoning consumer demand to expand digital channels and entry points.

As the number of possible customer channels continues to proliferate, agents must develop more specialized skills that help them master multiple channels simultaneously—many of them asynchronous. Combined with other workplace shifts, these challenges are contributing to a higher demand for more complex work experience.

Further, the pandemic further heightened employee desire for flexibility. Many agents now crave remote or hybrid working environments and are reluctant to return to an office full-time after maintaining and often exceeding their performance goals while successfully working from home.

In short, today’s trends result from a reimaging of the ways we work, interact, and socialize with others—as opposed to meeting and leveraging evolving technology before the pandemic.

Agent and customer expectations have both shifted, and brands must pursue WFM solutions that help them adapt to the new reality.

Q. There are many conversations about the Great Resignation, among other staffing issues. But what are the actual critical forces shaping the demand for, and the availability, quality, and loyalty of contact center workforces?

Trudy Cannon: It's undoubtedly a challenging job market, which makes it crucial for organizations to attract, nurture, and retain quality talent.

With the Great Resignation, we saw people change their type of work solely because it wasn't their passion. Others were seeking companies that satisfied their need for choice and flexibility, especially in the world of contact center work.

Today’s contact center agents want to establish themselves with a company culture. One that gives them greater autonomy to choose their shifts for better work-life balance, not the job itself.

An organization that allows its employees to work from anywhere, and in many cases in microshifts, is critical to driving workforce loyalty, particularly customer service.

Intelligent hiring solutions are becoming fundamental to contact center talent acquisition strategies. Especially given that customer service often struggle with high turnover.

At the core of intelligent hiring applications are virtual candidate screening and skills assessment solutions. These are designed to elevate candidate quality and customer engagement, accelerate speed-to-hire, and enhance employee retention through automated, analytics-driven candidate screening.

Using advanced predictive modeling and analytics, these solutions help assess the skills needed and promotes engagement with candidates earlier in the hiring process to gauge aptitude to ensure job success and satisfaction.

These attributes are critically important to contact centers that require language proficiency, engagement, enthusiasm, empathy, and alertness among other soft skills needed to deliver exceptional CX.

Daryl Gonos: Let’s face it, the Great Resignation did and still does have an impact on the contact center. Companies did everything they could to retain employees, but in the end, there was still a lot of turnover.

What was unexpected is that when companies started hiring back, employees didn’t rush back to obtain jobs.

Instead, the Great Resignation allowed employees to re-think where, when, and how they want to work. Employees wanted more control of their work and personal lives, which is making it more competitive for contact center managers to hire and retain employees.

It all ties back to flexible scheduling and creating the right work/life balance.

Dave Hoekstra: The elements of a workforce that equate to job quality are strongly linked to a fulfilling workplace. However, contact centers have historically been underperformers in this area.

By focusing on schedule flexibility, job variation, and appropriate pay levels, contact centers can make great strides in improving the workplace.

Dana Shalev: In an industry plagued with above-average turnover, the pandemic not only offered agents flexible work-life environments, but it also increased burnout.

Over the last two years, agents have been on the front lines fielding an increased number of customer frustrations due to widespread issues our world hadn’t dealt with before.

Extreme supply chain disruptions and product shortages—on top of dealing with customers who are struggling with their own burnout—has made managing contact centers more challenging than ever.

“Agents have been...fielding an increased number of customer frustrations...”
—Dana Shalev

Nevertheless, contact centers can thrive by addressing three major drivers:

  • Workplace flexibility. After successfully adapting to remote work with few options, minimal support, and expedited timelines, agents have embraced the same benefits of WFH as other employees: the lack of commute, minimal distractions, and enhanced work-life balance.
  • With customers needing 24/7 support, companies must leverage WFM solutions to address the needs of the business while enabling the flexibility their employees crave. Like other remote workers, contact center agents want to be able to make a quick grocery trip in the middle of the day or pick their children up from school.
  • Better WFM solutions can help contact centers permanently adapt to hybrid or remote working models to meet agents’ needs through adaptive scheduling or even split shifts.
  • Agent experience. Being a contact center agent is a fundamentally stressful job, complicated by technological barriers, siloed systems, and inefficient resources. Upgrading your technology stack to support unified, integrated systems means happier and more efficient employees.
  • Similarly, task automation can prevent employees from performing excessive, repetitive tasks that often lead to burnout.
  • Utilizing machine learning and AI to automate redundant, mundane tasks and deploying self-service technologies that empower customers to resolve simple issues on their own can shift agent work from task-based to solutioning. This leads to an increased sense of purpose and decreased boredom.
  • Supportive employers. Enabling career advancement by streamlining feedback and performance review processes helps agents gain a clearer picture of metrics, KPIs, and expectations, preventing surprises during the yearly review process.

Realistic goals, hands on coaching, and real-time feedback all provide a supportive, transparent environment for growth and improvement.

An encouraging and constructive workplace environment breeds goal-oriented employees and empowers them to address issues and improve in real time—all of which decreases employee attrition and creates confidence at work.

Q. What are your recommendations to enable contact centers to maximize their workforces and optimize their use of WFM applications?

Trudy Cannon: Brands can optimize their workforce and improve customer and employee engagement by taking a unified approach to WFM systems.

This means one workforce using an integrated set of WFM solutions and processes on one platform that allows employees to access the same tools and knowledge to support their customers without going outside the solutions: which lead to customer data silos and inefficiencies.

This approach orchestrates all aspects of digital-first engagement and WFM under one platform roof, helping brands create positive and personalized experiences for their customers and employees.

Daryl Gonos: Choose a WFM provider that focuses on training, education, and production. Applications like this aren’t a minor widget or add-on.

WFM is the engine that powers your entire contact center. With the expanded footprint of modern WFM, it has an impact on efficiency, productivity, agent engagement, self-service, and reporting on key metrics.

The importance on successfully adopting this technology can’t be overstated. Ensure the provider and platform you choose offers a legitimate path to success.

Dave Hoekstra: It’s important to remember that maximizing the workforce does not necessarily translate to increased efficiency in the contact center.

An engaged workforce is the key ingredient to improving the quality and efficiency of contact centers. You must strike a healthy balance between efficiency, attrition, and occupancy that is good for the organization, not just the service level.

It can be difficult to keep up with today’s fast-paced, multichanneled, and demanding workload. However, self-service functions will better equip agents to handle unexpected disruptions throughout the day without compromising their quality of work.

Dana Shalev: Automation. Leveraging automation can not only improve ROI but can ultimately create a happier and utilized workforce.

By identifying and resolving schedule gaps ahead of time and managing staffing volatility, a contact center will run more efficiently, with increased agent satisfaction.

An automated WFM solution can also better harmonize many different schedules across shift swaps, PTO requests, overtime, and more.

Furthermore, AI and data tools leverage analytics to help managers more precisely identify employee needs and resolutions in real time—enabling in-the-moment training and rapid response to performance issues.

Agent engagement strategy. In the age of burnout and an applicants’ job market, agent engagement is crucial.

It’s imperative for contact centers to foster a culture that encourages employee feedback, making feedback easy for agents to give and for employers to collect. That way, agents feel comfortable sharing negative feedback, and it is acted upon to create organizational changes.

Next, providing employee support through hands-on coaching provides higher agent satisfaction—reducing churn and turnover and creating happier agents and customers.

Lastly, creating an atmosphere of trust and flexibility turns contact centers into more desirable employers and strengthens every employee’s sense of belonging and engagement.

WFM With New, Evolving Channels

There continues to be an evolution in contact center channels, such as with the coming of age of video and the advent of asynchronous chat apps. So how do they impact workforce management?

Trudy Cannon, Verint:

The massive increase in digital channels and its impact on customer service have influenced significant innovations in WFM solutions in a positive way.

For example, leading WFM solutions harness the advent of private messaging channels that consumers are increasingly using to engage with brands.

“Private messaging channels allow brands to offer seamless CXs.”
—Trudy Cannon

This is due mainly to the asynchronous nature of messaging a customer service representative via apps that consumers are already familiar with, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Private messaging channels allow brands to offer seamless CXs centered around asynchronous conversations between consumers and brands.

With asynchronous messaging platforms, a customer can start, pause, or resume engagement with an agent online over a more extended period – sometimes hours or days.

Satisfying this customer expectation requires true innovations in WFM solutions to enable customer service representatives to engage with customers on their channels of choice and at the customers’ pace, not the businesses’ pace.

In addition, the onset of video-based customer service is another emerging digital channel that brands must embrace and enable their workforce with the right technology, training, and quality assurance to deliver excellent visual customer support.

Daryl Gonos, CommunityWFM:

This technology impacts WFM software because it will provide additional information to further improve forecasting accuracy.

Through integrations it will be possible to see which type of issues take teams more or less time to resolve with asynchronous chat apps so you can staff your contact center accordingly.

The nature of these apps and video content mean that the actual conversations are less restrictive but also the handle times can vary wildly depending on the issue.

It’s all about adding yet another component into your forecasting capabilities to control costs and manage shrinkage.

Dave Hoekstra, Calabrio:

Asynchronous chat apps have wreaked havoc in contact center occupancy and KPI management, specifically in terms of predictability in WFM circles.

However, contact centers can minimize unpredictability by setting concurrency levels to a manageable number and using a realistic approach to agent performance coaching and continued upskilling/reskilling.

Dana Shalev, NICE:

Asynchronous interactions can raise questions on how to best manage and staff your team, especially as handling time and the different types of interactions are inconsistent and in constant flux.

With the lengthier periods in between communication and responses, businesses need to reevaluate how they calculate AHT when an interaction has been interrupted, when it switches channels mid-interaction, or when there are significant time lapses between responses.

Asynchronous interactions can have a significant impact on staffing and planning, specifically when it comes to data integrity and acquisition, staff requirement calculation, schedule optimization, and change management.

Complexities posed by asynchronous CX brands must be prepared to embrace WFM technology that can tackle these challenges by using machine learning to best predict the nature of these interactions across a variety of digital channels.

The Canadian Differences

Canada has a distinct set of laws, regulations, and practices from healthcare to language, measurement, and to privacy, to name a few.

The country also has labor laws that vary from province to province; the federal government sets them for those industries that are under its jurisdiction, like air and intercity rail, communications, and financial services.

So, what are, if any unique characteristics of Canadian contact centers as compared with their American counterparts that affect their needs and challenges of attracting, training, retaining, and optimizing contact center workforces?

And how best should Canadian contact center decision-makers respond?

Trudy Cannon, Verint:

Most contact centers face the same workforce challenges in the U.S. as in Canada.

Among commonalities is the business need for real-time forecasting to ensure adequate staffing while offering schedule flexibility to agents.

The difference is the need for tighter schedule adherence and enforcing rules within the WFM system to comply with regulations that may vary by region or country.

Daryl Gonos, CommunityWFM:

There is a strong emphasis right now on WFM in Canada. A study last year from Ernst & Young mentioned around 80% of Canadian executives were planning to increase their investment into WFM and it was a top priority for their businesses.

Contact centers in Canada cost more to operate than in many parts of the U.S. The minimum wage is at least $2 higher in Canada, which means forecasting and staffing mistakes are more costly for contact centers in this country.

It’s also important to be aware that Canada does not have “at will” employment like some areas of the U.S. This means contact centers need to get creative with agent productivity, such as reskilling a poor phone agent to email or chat.

Modern WFM software can easily track all agent skills so changing what an agent does is an easy process from a staffing perspective.

The last thing is to choose WFM technology with flexible overtime capabilities. Agents in Canada don’t start earning overtime until 44 hours are worked in a week, not 40 hours like the U.S.

Dave Hoekstra, Calabrio:

Canadian contact centers have a unique set of challenges in comparison with their neighbors to the south — especially when it comes to scheduling.

Rule sets, labor laws, and scheduling requirements are more stringent in Canada, so a good rules-based engine for scheduling is a must!

By incorporating robust schedules with built-in flexibility, Canadian contact centers will have a competitive advantage when retaining top talent.

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

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