Featured Image for the blog: How to Avoid Scheduling Snafus as Holiday PTO Requests Flood in (While Still Showing Empathy for Your Call Center Agents)

For many companies, the holidays mean extra days off and hours spent with friends and family. For others, it’s the busiest time of the year. Hiring and training seasonal workers ramps up and everything is go,go,go. In fact, many contact centers see up to 10x the typical call volume during holidays, events, and vacation seasons.

No matter your industry, your job as a manager is in hyperdrive this time of year. You’re either juggling complicated schedules and loads of PTO requests, or you have a swarm of new seasonal agents on your watch.

It’s important to have empathy for call center agents during every season, but the holidays bring that to a new level. Some agents may be pining away for extra time with their loved ones while others may be depending on some extra cash to keep up with expenses. And in light of the events of 2020 (read: all the things), agents are more stressed and more vulnerable than usual. So, give your agents some extra care and attention this holiday season.

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Consider these tips for how to avoid scheduling conflicts and care for your team this holiday season.

1. Plan ahead

If you’re expecting your agents to submit PTO requests all at once, plan for it ahead of time. It may sound simple, but floods of time off tickets can often catch managers off guard. Look at your schedule now and measure your expected workforce needs. Think the end of November and all of December will be slower? Consider more flexible work hours around the holidays. Give your agents enough warning so they can space out their PTO or stagger schedules with co-workers.

If you’re in an industry that requires loads of seasonal agents, you’ve likely already put out hiring calls and started onboarding. Now, you have to train your seasonal team to make sure they’re ready for the holiday call influx. Look to your historical data to determine how many agent hours you’ll need to staff for at your peak. And, start your training efforts now to make sure you have ample time to get agents up to speed and comfortable with your systems before interaction volume skyrockets.

If your agents don’t feel supported and prepped for a hectic season, they’ll end up frustrated and cynical. Then, your customers will feel the pains.

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2. Take advantage of remote work (but set reasonable expectations)

Many agents are already working from home this year because of the pandemic. By now, your agents have found a routine and a favorite work spot. They’ve also proven they can work pretty much anywhere and still be productive.

But the holidays will likely throw that routine off. Kids are home from school or daycare (again), close relatives might stop by to say hello, and extra to-dos always sneak onto the calendar. These changes will make your agents stressed and less productive. (And let’s be honest, you’re probably in the same boat.)

But remote work can still be an asset this holiday season if you let it. Remote agents will appreciate no commute and the added flexibility. When you can, grant your agents their time off requests or, at least, offer more flexibility with work hours. If you can’t give out extra PTO days, encourage breaks to disconnect during the day. Offer shift bidding so your agents can practice some give-and-take with their co-workers. That way everyone can enjoy the holidays in their own way.

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It’s also important to listen to your agents’ individual concerns. Some agents will be in tough spots during winter break–with finances, cramped spaces, or distance from loved ones. Others will be pining away for some time with family after months of shutdown. This holiday season, consider an extra dose of empathy for your call center agents. We all need it. And your agents will thank you if they can still have the time to celebrate their favorite traditions.

Remote work is also helpful if you’re hiring seasonal agents. You’re no longer confined to hiring locally if everyone will work remotely anyway. Expand your hiring scope to other parts of the country if you haven’t already and are struggling to find help.

3. Make training an ongoing priority

If you’re expecting a seasonal spike in customer interactions, prepare your agents. The more training you deliver to agents, the more confident they’ll be to handle a higher customer volume. Start by looking at your historic data to see what kinds of questions customers might ask.

Seasonal agents especially drink from the firehose. They’re trying to remember call greetings and answers to customer questions. They’re learning a new phone or online system. And, they’re learning a new industry with new lingo and unique customer questions. Taking on seasonal call center work can be stressful. And no matter how much time you spend on initial training, you can’t account for everything.

That’s why you need to focus on ongoing training. Send out quick, microlearning lessons to help your agents learn your platform, understand your customers, and handle seasonal spikes. Check in with your call center agents – both new and existing – in 1:1s to give feedback on specific interactions. Make sure your agents feel confident and comfortable with their workload. Confident agents lead to happy customers.

4. Set deadlines for PTO requests

Because of canceled vacations and trips this year, it’s likely your agents have a bigger stock of PTO piled up. And though you may want everyone to have some time off, you do need to be reasonable with yourself and your team, so you can keep up with customer volume.

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To avoid any scheduling snafus with your team, set deadlines for PTO requests. And send out reminders to your agents of any impending deadlines. This way, everyone will be on the same page and no one can complain if they snoozed a little too long.

5. Create incentives for extra shifts

Worried about that last point? Don’t want your team to resent your snooze-you-lose policy? Encourage your agents by creating incentives for taking on extra shifts. The shifts right around or on a holiday are usually harder to fill. So incentivize agents to work an unwanted shift by giving out bonuses,  overtime, or extra PTO days–as your budget and schedule allow.

If your agents have to work on actual holidays, make sure they know you care about them. Deliver a gift to their door. Check in with them during the day with an encouraging word. Send them coupons for a free lunch. Your agents will be more likely to take holiday shifts in the call center if they know you have empathy and care about them.

Get creative and offer up fun ways to engage your team if they get stuck with the unwanted schedule.

6. Listen to your agents

Lastly, it’s most important to listen to your agents’ needs and concerns. This year hasn’t gone how anyone hoped, and your agents are probably worn out.

Carve out extra time in your schedule to check in with your agents 1:1. Give them space to share how they’re doing and see if they need guidance or support. Set up extra time for your teams to celebrate together, whether in person or online. Make team meetings both instructive and fun during the holidays. Empathy is the name of the game this year.

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