Is agility a new topic for workforce management?

by Dr. Jörg Herbers

Agility is a current hot topic, a cause of much heated debate. But does that also apply to agility in workforce management? Is an agile staff scheduling even possible?

Agility is essentially nothing new, but has been known since the 1950s in various shapes and forms. The origin of the concept can be traced back to the system theory of organizations. The current agility trend is linked to the rapid progress of digitalization.

Even if the term “agile” is imprecisely used, according to a recent Institute for Personnel Research study there is, in practice, a broad consensus that it is primarily concerned with rapid and dynamic adaptation to changes. Of particular importance is the ability to punctually and directly react to customer requests and to establish an agile attitude within the organization and its processes.

The focus of current discussions about the relevance and feasibility of agile methods are mainly software development, management principles and project management; topics which, at first glance, have little to do with workforce management (WFM).

Agility has always been essential in WFM

In the context of agile planning, WFM topics appear to be largely unnoticed. Workforce management has always been particularly confronted with the special challenges of an agile environment. By nature, this ultimately results from the conflict between the predictability of working time requirements and the care obligations of a company for employee protection. The latter requires compliance with sufficient notice periods, even if the working time requirements cannot yet be assessed.

New challenges due to agile markets and cost pressure

In principle, the conflict has always been there, but in times of ever more agile markets, it has intensified dramatically. Due to organizational and social reasons, staff deployment decisions typically have to be made earlier than would be desirable from a purely economic perspective. This is connected to ever stronger and more dynamic fluctuations in working time demands.

Previously, the fluctuations in demand were usually less pronounced and the operating hours, within which to perform the work, were shorter. An example of this is the significantly extended opening times in the retail industry, but also in call centers and other service providers. Both factors make demands forecasting difficult.

The cost pressure was also lower so that it was easier to provide a reserve planning to cushion the impact of demand fluctuations and unexpected events. From the employees’ perspective, this led to more stable schedules; the demands on employee flexibility were lower than is usual these days.

The cost pressure has been increasing for years, which has dramatically changed the everyday WFM for all involved. Companies, as well as employees, are confronted with high requirements for working time flexibility. Additionally, in many places, the staff scheduling is determined by an increasingly reduced reserve planning and the speed with which the requirements change.

However understandable the need for company agility is, it is also important that there is no one-sided implementation, at the expense of the employees. A schedule that, in the name of agility, offers no reliability and is constantly “hacked about”, leads not only to employee dissatisfaction, but also causes high planning overheads and thus costs.

WFM software specialized for agile optimization is essential

In order to find the right balance in planning, specialized WFM software is required which, using agile optimization methods, can handle the requirements of all planning phases.

Due to the necessarily long planning horizon, for example when recruiting staff or creating a shift pattern, workforce management takes place in several different phases, each with a different planning horizon and focus. Even if the terms used are not clearly defined, it is often differentiated between strategic, tactical and operational planning phases.

In all planning phases, there are numerous external factors beyond our control that are relevant for planning (such as business drivers development or sick leave rates), that directly affect WFM. Their foreseeable development must be estimated on the basis of assumptions. Since these assumptions are generally more uncertain the greater the planning horizon, changes in downstream planning phases are unavoidable, or even desirable, in workforce management.

In principle, an optimal solution is only optimal with respect to a specific planning situation. If there are major changes to the assumptions about the working time supply or demand, a previously optimal solution quickly becomes suboptimal. Then you need WFM software, which masters agile optimization methods, to find the best possible solution for the current situation and quickly adapt the planning.

Special requirements following schedule publication

What is "optimal” also depends on the respective planning phase.

Once the schedule has been made available to the employees (operational planning phase), the remaining optimization potential is reduced, compared to the upstream tactical planning phase.

Usually, there are company agreements that regulate if and how schedule changes can be made at this point in time. A decisive factor is usually the extent to which an agreed notice period is adhered to. This is often at least 48 - 96 hours before shift start, but can also be longer or shorter.

If the notice period is not respected, the employee is not obliged to accept the employer’s request – even if the current working time demand is an economic necessity.

Agile optimization procedures - also in the employees’ interest

The extent of a company’s ability to quickly adapt to a new planning situation is again restricted by employee protection provisions. This makes the use of agile optimization procedures in workforce management essential, as well as challenging.

Regardless of the legal requirements, it is necessary to reduce changes to a published schedule to an absolute minimum, both for employee satisfaction and to reduce planning expenditure. The employees’ needs to be able to reliably plan their working time should not be underestimated.

Despite the need to quickly adapt a published schedule to new circumstances, the fact that schedule stability is an important goal of WFM should not be overlooked - even if it sometimes competes with the company’s desire for agility.

Finding the best possible solution to this conflict is the job of WFM systems, using powerful agile optimization methods.

And how does your company handle agile workforce management?



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About the author

  • Dr. Jörg Herbers

    Jörg Herbers is Senior Vice President Workforce Management at Inform GmbH. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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