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By Stuart Pugh, ActiveOps

Are you tired of feeling like you never know what’s coming tomorrow? Or even after lunch? Despite a sense that this turmoil has been a constant in the financial world since the pandemic; our new report, Are you recession ready? How to do more with less, reveals that 54% of operations staff still feel their operations aren’t flexible enough to handle unusual workload variations.

If all that feels like nothing new to you, then this blog should be an interesting read. In this post, we’re going to discuss how you can get on top of unpredictable workloads by increasing your operational agility and resilience, so you can not only weather the upcoming recession – but get some control back over your operations, moving from the back foot to the front foot.

The link between fluctuating workloads, resilience, and agility

Broadly speaking, there are three different ways workloads can fluctuate:

  • Volumes may shift suddenly, with demand spiking for a particular service – or falling off a cliff, for instance is a service is paused temporarily or shut down.
  • Resources may change – the most notable recent example being team members falling ill with Covid – leaving teams suddenly short-staffed.
  • Work may become more complex – for instance, more customers may fall into debt as they struggle to keep up with repayments on loans or mortgages, requiring repayment plans to be created.

Even in the connected, hybrid working environment that many organisations find themselves working in, it’s difficult to know who is available to help with spiking workloads or short-staffed teams. If it takes too long to find that support, then – as you’ll no doubt have experienced in your time – a variety of things can happen that ultimately put customer satisfaction, employee retention, and revenue at risk.

Operational resilience and agility combat this situation. A more agile operation can respond faster to changes, and more resilient operation can work more effectively around roadblocks such as short-staffing or spiking work volumes. The more agility and resilience you can build into your operation, the less fluctuating workloads will affect your plans and your teams.

Four tips to increase resilience and agility in your operations

Here are some good places to start when looking to improve how your operations handle fluctuating workloads.

1: Prioritise cross-training and up-skilling

You know that responding to the unexpected (and clearing the backlogs the unexpected can create) requires a culture of cross-team collaboration and support. That’s why upskilling and cross-skilling your employees is a vital part of boosting your resilience and agility. Broadening and deepening the skillset of your employees makes it possible to borrow and lend resource across teams, making it easier to handle whatever work comes in, and eliminating bottlenecks caused by a need for specific skills. A third of our survey respondents said that this would be a priority for their organisation in the event of a recession – though it was the least popular response organisations are considering. To effectively conduct this activity, you need:

  1. A clear picture of capacity in your organisation, so you can identify time that can be spent on upskilling without impacting operations.
  2. A clear picture of the existing skills in your organisation, so you know what to prioritise.
  3. An idea of any employee aspirations in terms of skills development, so you can match those with what the business needs and keep employees engaged in their work.

As John Ainsworth, an ActiveOps industry expert we interviewed for the report, says: “there’s always a skill shortage, an employee shortage, and many people looking to hire your key talent.” With this in mind, cross-training is even more important. It helps keep employees engaged with you and less likely to leave for a competitor, and means that if you should lose key talent, then you won’t lose skills that are vital for the running of your operations.

2: Facilitate borrowing and lending resource across teams and departments

Do you find in your operations that some teams are swamped while others are quiet? If you do, you’re not alone – 30% of our respondents said that they lack opportunities to better balance workload between people and teams. Part of that is to do with how work is assigned in the first place, but if you’re thinking about how you can respond when unexpected and urgent work comes in, the dream is for your teams to be able to pull in people from other parts of the business who have both the time and the skillset to help handle the work. To make this a reality in your operation, you need to consider three key requirements:

  1. You need to know exactly what work everyone is busy with, in real time, so you can identify who needs resource and who can lend it to them.
  2. You need to get team leaders talking so they can arrange the borrowing and lending of resource themselves, with no organisational roadblocks.
  3. You need to understand the skills of your employees, so that you aren’t assigning people to work they can’t do. Ideally, over time you’ll focus on upskilling employees so they can handle a variety of different work.

3: Get visibility of your peoples’ availability to take on new work

Let’s say that an urgent job comes in at 3pm that needs a same-day turnaround. Who is around to handle that? Do you know who has had to leave early for childcare (and so might be back online later), who is working in a different time zone and therefore could turn the job around without working late? 1 in 4 of our respondents don’t have this information – and if you don’t either, you probably find that every time an unexpected piece of work comes in, there’s a mad scramble to find someone to handle it which derails everyone’s day. To get past that and to a truly accurate picture of who is best placed to take on unexpected work when it comes in, you need:

  1. Historical and real-time data on the hours your team members work – both what they are contracted to and their actual working patterns.
  2. To get that data in the hands of team leaders so that, when work comes in, they can instantly see who is best placed to take it on without creating undue stress or overwork.

Additionally, seeing the hours that your team members are working can help you identify those who might be burning out. If you notice team members working long hours, logging on late at night, or working outside their contracted hours, they might need support.

4: Identify the patterns in work and how your people spend their working time

The more you understand about how work gets done, how long it takes, and what activities and tasks your teams spend their days doing, the easier it is to facilitate lending and borrowing of resource, create plans that play to all your team members’ strengths, and spot when someone might be struggling and in need of support. 1 in 4 of our respondents lacked visibility in this area, meaning they couldn’t say who is doing what at any given moment. To set up this capability, you need:

  1. The ability to quickly and instantly track what people are working on in the moment, so you can see what work is happening now in your organisation.
  2. The same information over a period of time, so you can get a clear picture of what individual working patterns – showing you whether you need to help some people stay on task, whether someone is showing behaviours consistent with burnout, and more.

The common thread? Turn real-time data into capacity and productivity.

To create a resilient organisation, it’s vital that you and your team leaders know exactly what’s going on in your operations, right now and in the future. You also need to put that information at the fingertips of those leading operational teams to ensure they can respond in the right way when the unexpected happens – anything else risks decisions that have major negative consequences for your customer and employee experience – which, of course, have material impacts on your bottom line.

If you can get that information, then you should find that:

  • Your employees can handle unusual work volumes and variations while maintaining their wellbeing.
  • The correct work gets prioritised each day so that operational objectives are met even when emergencies crop up.
  • Managers are laser-focused on supporting and leading their teams instead of wasting time delving into data to try and fight fires.

Will it make work less unpredictable? Probably not, sadly (although advanced forecasting capabilities may help you remove some of the surprises). The upcoming recession mean that workloads are likely to remain volatile for a while yet.

To survive the stresses that can put upon your operation – both in terms of performance and everybody’s wellbeing – it’s vital to take control of how you respond to that stress. Hopefully, this blog has shown you that a data-led approach can help you react to unexpected work in ways that protect the health of your organisation.

Interested in more insights like this?

Our new report takes a deep dive into how organisations are preparing for recession and gives expert guidance on how to come out ahead. Download a copy here.

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