In 50 cities across the U.S., Amazon is supplementing their USPS deliveries at times of peak demand using drivers contracting directly with Amazon in a program called Amazon Flex. Tapping for-hire drivers, each batch of deliveries is essentially a “gig” in the quickly growing trend of the Gig Economy. Popularized by Uber and Lyft, the Gig Economy pairs independent, on-demand contractors with organizations for short-term engagements. With Amazon Flex, the company uses a mobile app for drivers to post their personal preferred schedules, which can include very short availability windows. Amazon then displays available “blocks” of time for making deliveries. The driver selects a block, and at the designated time, goes to the local pickup location to start deliveries.
Other industries are quickly catching on for services such as furniture moving, dog walking and at-home makeup styling and the contact center isn’t far behind.
In the contact center, you can think of customer contacts as representing the work to be done (or the packages to be delivered in the case of Amazon). The times when customer contacts arrive and are completed create the opportunities when Gigs are available for contact center employees. Historically, most contact center agents have been employed as regular 40 hour/week full-time employees, even though their schedules might be erratic as call volumes rise and fall throughout the week. However, that history is yielding to pressures from many different directions that point to a very different future for a sizeable percentage of the agent population. Consider the following factors that make the Gig Economy attractive for agents and businesses.
Mutual Benefits of the Gig Economy
- Businesses Reduce Expenses – Using independent contractors in the contact center or any other type of business, can reduce the cost of employees by 30% because the employer is not required to pay benefits such as payroll taxes, worker’s comp insurance, unemployment insurance, vacation time or health benefits.
- Employees Can Work-at-Home – The Gig Economy is already in full swing in some segments of the contact center industry. The 25% annual growth of work-at-home (WAH) agents is nothing short of spectacular and is a bellwether for the future of the contact center industry. Offering both the ability to work remotely and part-time, WAH could be the future of the contact center industry. With the growing adoption of telecommuting in many businesses, why not for agents? WAH also creates part-time work for a whole segment of the population with physical disabilities, childcare issues or poor commuting options. With more part-time workers, contact centers also have a more agile workforce that can ramp up and down quickly, matching contact center staffing to call volumes WAH has huge momentum, and its growth will help make part-time contact center work commonplace.
- Businesses Can Access Specialized Skills – In the past few years, technology has finally advanced to the point where it is a good substitute for a human conversation. And since 81% of customers prefer self-service to agent assisted service, the simpler work will eventually go to automated self-service, and only the more complex tasks will go to agents. Studies show that 95% of agents are only willing to drive up to 30 minutes to work. For more specialized skills, contact centers may need to reach out beyond that current geographic boundary, further stimulating the need for part-time work-at-home agents.
- Employees Get Flexible Schedules – Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, and contact centers are rife with them. It’s well known that Millennials dearly value their work-life balance, and that means that they want to easily flex their work schedules around their personal lives. Many value complete control over their work schedule above a higher income and/or benefits, and that’s the perfect profile of an Uber driver or part-time contact center agent.
- Businesses Can Manage Volume Spikes – Millennials are also, “always on”. They literally sleep with their cell phones, and their need to be always connected makes them perfectly accessible for notifications about unpredictable contact center “gigs” when volumes spike. The contact center can reach out to them anytime concerning a few hours of potential work with a good chance that the receiving Millennial got the message on his or her cell phone and read it.
Implications for Workforce Management Software
To empower agents with this flexibility and control while still meeting the needs of the business, the contact center needs to adopt new WFO tools, training, infrastructure, recruiting and management practices. This new model for labor participation especially requires a new set of contact center workforce management processes and associated technologies optimized for the quality of the service you want to deliver to customers.
The forecasting portion of WFM remains essentially the same in the Gig Economy. We still need to accurately predict the level of demand for staff for each type of work. But scheduling of individuals for the work predicted is quite different. We need new work rules such as:
- What is the minimum length of a work session? It takes a few minutes to connect to contact control and CRM and other necessary systems, and some amount of time to successfully resolve a customer’s contact as well as do any wrap up work. For example, if your average contact handling time is 14 minutes, you won’t want to allow employees to end up with a work session that is only 10 minutes long.
- How much time-off must be allowed between work sessions? There is a cost to disconnecting from systems and connecting again and mentally getting up to speed to successfully work with customers.
- What is the maximum allowable time that can be worked per day and week? In the Gig Economy, we must manage this issue as well based on regional employment limitations.
These rules then determine the inventory of blocks of time (or gigs) that can be offered to each agent.
In the traditional world of agent scheduling, agents have wanted predictable schedules with fixed shifts. Schedules would remain the same every day for a known period of time. Usually, customer volumes would change faster than the ability of these inflexible blocks to adapt, so contact centers would often need to overstaff to preserve SLAs. In the Gig Economy world, the workforce management system makes available shorter schedule blocks with a wider range of start times from which agents can choose. An agent can likely find some blocks that work well for his or her desired flexible schedule. On the flip side, if an agent wants a full 40 hour week, he or she will likely have to pick schedules from some unpopular times. Likewise, if the business allows agents to work shifts that are irregular and unconventional, there are likely to be gaps in coverage that will need to be filled by requiring inconvenient shifts to be worked by some agents. Of course, these unpopular times could be more highly compensated if labor laws allow, or they can be gamified, awarding tokens that can be traded in for vacation days or other awards. Also, peak times may be a target for incentives, and some companies may even require some selection of peak times before selecting other more flexible gig times.
In the traditional call center WFM world, the scheduling of breaks for agents is an important part of the WFM function. Historically, the system automatically ensures that breaks are spread across time, so there is no major staff shortage that could be caused by many simultaneous breaks. In the Gig Economy contact center, the WFM system would not schedule breaks. Rather, the scheduled short time blocks for which agents sign up assume that the necessary break was outside their working time period at either the beginning or the end of the block. There’s a benefit to the business here, since breaks would no longer be paid time.
Most contact centers do not want to make a flash conversion to Gig Economy scheduling, but rather phase in a portion of the agent base that prefers this highly flexible scheduling. The WFM software then must blend the traditional 8 hour/day regular schedules with these highly flexible schedules to find the optimum blend. This requires new mathematical models that can optionally give preferential treatment to the businesses KPIs or the agents’ desired schedules, as is currently the case with Aspect Workforce Management.
The Gig Economy is ushering in a brave new world for many industries, and certainly, the contact center business is one of them. Although it’s not for all employees, companies like Uber, Lyft and Amazon have legitimized an employment model that gives high flexibility and easy part-time employment to those who want it. Contact center workforce scheduling software needs to adapt, and Aspect is building great new features into its Workforce Management Solution to enable the new Gig Economy.