Workforce Management – the Squandered Strategic Asset

If I am being brutally honest, I am often sceptical when a CEO declares that he wants to follow a customer centric strategy. I should be delighted in my line of work – so why?

Well, normally what attracts the CEO to improving the customer experience is a laser-beam focus on the benefits enjoyed by well-loved companies – sticky customers, that buy more products and services and tell all their friends to buy from you. Often, the desired outcomes are thrashed out around the boardroom table and then the operational execution is left to the CEO’s lieutenants at their discretion. The reason that I am sceptical are that these intents are often what I would call a “yeah, but……” strategy as they move from the whiteboard through to execution.

What we know about the most loved brands, the Zappos, the Ritz-Carltons and the John Lewises, is that they put the customer at the very heart of their ethos, they are single minded in their culture and their execution, they empower and back their employees to deliver a great customer experience and they ooze consistency. Their customer-centricity extends way beyond a plaque in the lobby or even the laminated photocopy on the back of the toilet door. By contrast, what we see with “yeah, but…..” strategies is that there is generally good intent but things get in the way – short term profit statements, efficiency measures, egos, and silos. Employees feel the reflexive, knee-jerk changes in direction, feel let down, become cynical, and disengage. And a wonderful opportunity to change direction is squandered.

I have a similar feeling about workforce management – a term that strikes fear into the front-line in call centres, field service and retail. Let’s pause for a moment for the uninitiated – workforce management (WFM) is typically a system used by big people businesses to maintain and manage their workforce. It is most often used to optimise productivity through forecasting demand, scheduling the workforce, and monitoring adherence to that schedule.

WFM is the system that most front line employees in people intensive businesses interact with every day – often more than their enterprise HR system. They book holidays, they follow their roster, they apply for overtime and more often than not, because the system schedules them and monitors their adherence (an awful word trumped only by compliance), they hate it and try to break it.

Commonly the “yeah, but…..” with WFM is that the initial intent when purchasing the system was to plan a more stable service level for the customer, however, as the short-term obstacles get in the way the tool is asked to provide the minimum staffing that the business could get away with - efficiency over customer. The result being that every bump in the road is felt by the customer in response time and the front-line staff are over-worked, usually over-managed and frazzled. Leaders, planners and accountants, zealously focussed on efficiency, will use WFM to squeeze the efficiency balloon from both ends - they will plan to resource aggressively and aim to deliver a decent service level by the skin of their teeth whilst also micro-managing their people to ensure that every moment of their time is with the customer (often at the expense of coaching and training). When the balloon bursts employee engagement will be the price. Customer satisfaction will inevitably follow.


This “Big Brother” approach to workforce management will disengage the most loyal of employees but, more worryingly still, is ignoring a generational timebomb.  Employee turnover in most front-line roles is a concern and it will, at least in part, be due to the adherence and efficiency management culture (we touched on this in Are Your Metrics for Your Customer – or for You?).  However, Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 1988) will considerably up the ante on this issue.  Generation Y are the most demanding generation yet in the workplace - they see it as essential that in their work environment they have flexibility, they have high expectations of what workplace technology can offer them, and they want a coach or mentor rather than a micro-manager.  These expectations are the antithesis of a command and control, efficiency led culture policed by the blunt instrument of a monitoring system.  The crunch point, most critically, is that Generation Y witnessed the end of lifetime employment during their formative years and as a consequence they owe no loyalty to their employers and are prepared to negotiate for their most favourable terms.  In the most simplistic terms – if you impose a command and control culture on Generation Y they will leave you for someone that offers something better.  Inevitably, you will be left with the poorest performers and be caught in a perpetual maelstrom of recruitment, training and turnover.

As the main touchpoint for any front-line employee, WFM has the opportunity to be your key strategic asset to engage your employees to engage your customers.  So, why has this asset been squandered?


  1. The tender process – traditionally WFM systems have just been about the planning algorithms and the stuff that the techie guys love.  As a consequence the highest weightings on the procurement scoring matrix have been on the proper geek stuff – multiskilling, scenario planning, bulk edits of rosters – not on the front-line user experience.  So, ultimately you get what you want and the software vendors have focussed on meeting these needs.
  2. Silos – the tender is normally flawed because the requirements have been drawn up by the planners, probably with a large interest by finance to deliver a quick Return on Investment.  From it's genesis a world-class WFM deployment requires engagement from stakeholders from the whole end to end people management process – planners, finance, operational leaders, front-line staff, training, HR, recruitment and the real-time response teams.
  3. Command and control culture remains prevalent in large people businesses.  In the absence of a consistent, empowering culture, command and control will fill the vacuum.  WFM is the dream tool for those that love vice-like control and as a consequence the micro-managed front-line disengages.
  4. Vendors have been slow to embrace the opportunities.  I don’t think that it is unreasonable to say that, in the past, the product roadmap investment in WFM vendors has been on fine-tuning the planning algorithms.  The mobile workforce is forcing the pace of evolution rather than the vendors seizing the opportunity.  

However, it is within the control of leaders in people businesses to change WFM from a “necessary evil” to your most powerful asset.  As Wayne Dyer said “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”.  And there lies my mea culpa.  I have done two WFM implementations, 10 years apart - the first through the finance lens, loving the control and demanding an RoI that would stretch the operation too thin; and the second looking through the customer lens and seeing the opportunity for employee engagement and enabling a new, more positive culture.  I am a big enough boy, with enough hindsight, to admit that I got it very wrong the first time.


  1. Engagement – why should the WFM system be just one that says “no!”.  Why not allow flexibility in shifts, allow the advisor to choose shift preferences, even allow the advisor to identify additional skills and pull down the training?  There is no reason why not, but we know that if people feel empowered and trusted, they take more responsibility and they become more engaged.
  2. The mobile workforce – most people are comfortable with the smartphone and the tablet now.  There is no reason for them to be at work to feel that they have control of their own diary – they should be able to view and manage their annual leave and roster changes whenever they want.  There are huge benefits for the company too – for example, matching a surge in demand with a plea for help with overtime on mobile devices.  The connected workforce allows the company to get rapid response to real time problems before they spiral out of control.
  3. Skills – skills management and management of the workforce are disjointed in most organisations because systems don’t talk to each other.  Integrating, skills management with WFM like the recent NICE – Silver Lining collaboration opens up fantastic benefits to both the company and the individual – dip testing of skills, targeted push training based on need or assessed competence rather than mass re-training, and skills based routing.  

Thankfully, our business moves on and more companies are seizing the opportunities. Vendors are now building functionality for Generation Y and beyond into their products.  As Henry Ford said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”  Let efficiency be the horse and engagement be the Model T.  We will get to the same outcome - shareholder value will be delivered - just through a more positive and sustainable route.

We would love to hear how you have used your workforce management tool to take engagement to the next level!