Our head of Resource Planning, Forecasting & Scheduling Bethan Duke found herself facing her biggest challenge yet when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020...
Working in resource planning for the last 12 years has exposed me to many challenges; some significant – like the Financial Crisis of 2008, others associated with more progressive change – like emerging new technologies and the acceleration towards digital-first solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge I have faced; not only re-setting how we work as a customer engagement centre but, most importantly, our interaction with customers throughout. Establishing an effective working-from-home environment for a contact centre that had always been office based, at pace, was difficult.
The pandemic is now likely to change our working environment for the long term: we already know we can work with a greater proportion of colleagues in remote locations - there is a desire from colleagues to do that, and there is likely to be social distancing requirements within the office for some time. For this reason, and to ensure we continue to deliver for our customers, colleagues and clients, we are now constantly rethinking workforce and employee planning, performance management and experience strategies.
Our planning for a potential lockdown in response to the pandemic started before a lockdown even became a possibility - even so, the pace at which these plans had to be implemented was unprecedented. Our planning focus was:
- Understanding staffing capacity based on absence levels, and considering the increased numbers of those impacted by COVID-19
- Working with HR and IT Teams to ensure the smooth transition from office to home-based working for nearly 1,000 Customer Engagement Centre colleagues
- Deploying operational levers [shift changes, multi-skill, outbound strategies] to support customer demand throughout the period of transition - ensuring minimal service disruption
With so many unknowns, the transition period between being office-based and home-based was difficult for everyone to navigate. Our colleague absence reporting line became a hotline for questions about IT and COVID-19 more generally, so decision trees were used to support colleague enquiries wherever possible – giving clear, consistent messages to help and protect them. At times, it felt like we would not be able to supply colleagues with IT kit at the scale and pace required to support working from home. But we did it. On 30th March, just seven days after lockdown was announced, we left the office with a new way of working established.
Remote working problems exist for most organisations – equipment and infrastructure; access to applications and information; the effectiveness of working practices, and varying home circumstances; childcare, space, wellbeing and financial concerns. This is true of us, and as a planner, my focus was not only on our colleagues and their ability to work, but also on understanding the changing needs of our customers and how that related to forecasting for an extremely unpredictable demand-driven service.
Having made significant changes to our initial customer engagement strategy only a matter of days before the start of the pandemic, our usual methods of forecasting were immediately obsolete. With no historical data from previous events of this magnitude, we had to determine what demand could look like; how inbound call patterns could change; how long each customer interaction would take, and how work would flow to other areas of the business.
This type of forecasting is challenging enough when the changes are internally driven but adding an external factor, and the fact that both staff and customers are affected, makes it all the harder. Further still was the question of potential surplus capacity, both before and after furlough schemes had been floated. Our forecasts had to accurately predict future contact volumes so that we had enough to meet demand, identify when and where colleague numbers may be outside that, and allow us to build a plan accordingly.
The financial impact of businesses locking down completely, and their staff potentially losing income, saw many customers wanting to talk to us. Very quickly we established a strategy for outbound contact to create engagement and gain an understanding of customer circumstances rather than drive specific outcomes – a friendly ear and a helping hand. As part of our new way of working, this too had hurdles for us to clear in order to forecast the right numbers of colleagues to deliver an effective service: IT requirements, colleague training, higher connection rates, longer call lengths and the technical challenges of homeworking itself.
This whole period was one of learning, adjustment and patience:
- Utilising customer and agent feedback to determine the best outcome for our customers
- Developing new Management Information to understand customer journeys and provide the next best action for them
- Working in conjunction with Marketing to enhance the digital platform so our customers could utilise this channel more effectively
Listening to our colleagues’ and customers’ feedback has been integral to determining what this strategy should look like going forward and how the journey should feel for our customers.
Changing working practices has been complex to predict and to plan for but statistics, however recent or low volume, do help support assumptions made within a forecast. People are less easy to predict, and we’ve have had to become more agile and responsive to their needs. Some of the biggest successes and learnings have been in communication and leadership; both have helped maintain engagement and establish new norms for productivity and performance management, which in turn are important to understand for staffing requirements in the future.
There remain many unknowns for us all with COVID-19, so it’s difficult to say what exactly the future looks like, however we can still forecast, assess and plan based on what we do know. We can evaluate how the new ways of working will affect our organisation’s operations and strategic goals as they become embedded with our business as usual operations, and identify any areas that need immediate action, and develop forecasting scenarios. We can also model based on what degree the pandemic has changed our pre-COVID-19 goals and plans: in some instances, this could be the acceleration of initiatives, whilst some are new impacts, not previously identified as targets for future planning. In many ways, we are now in a better position to forecast than before the pandemic because we have more information, and a more dynamic approach to resourcing and planning – one that is agile enough to adapt to any challenges that lie ahead.
For me, there are 5 key themes for how we shape our future operating model:
- Resumption planning: understanding what the future looks like for our customer engagement centre – is that based from home or an agile workforce with the ability to work in either an office or home environment, where level of service and performance is not determined by location?
- Our customer base: with increasing engagement over the last few months, we understand more about the impact COVID-19 has on our customers – how we use the data to develop our strategy and engagement ethos will inevitably impact our resourcing requirements.
- Technology: do we have the right infrastructure to support a more fluid model? Is this one that supports our framework for digital growth? Are we readily available to support our customers with their channel of choice, and how can we forecast this appropriately given the level of change externally?
- People: our people are at the heart of what we do. How do we ensure their engagement in the future and support them, define their roles and foster wellbeing in times of uncertainty and rapid change? What can the pandemic teach us about the requirements of our people and their needs going forward to ensure optimal growth, development, welfare and service. How do we flex our operation based on the unpredictability of future demand?
- Redesign: resilient organisations are best placed to respond to periods of significant change. We have an opportunity to build a more responsive organisation by designing effective, fulfilling roles and structures around our customers' changing requirements. Providing colleagues with varied, adaptive and flexible roles is key to this, and engaging them to ensure their needs are considered will be imperative in supporting a robust future operating model.
For every challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us, it has also provided an opportunity to test ourselves, to analyse our ways of working and to develop new, workable solutions that deliver positive outcomes. These opportunities are not lost on me or my team, and, as we work through the next phase of this crisis (and we know it’s not over yet), I look forward to the prospect of developing an operating model complex enough that it encompasses all elements of our business, but simple enough to ensure that it’s both understood by our colleagues (ensuring their buy-in) and applied effectively by the business, so that it delivers what it needs to when we (our colleagues, clients and customers) need it most.