Developing your systems to stay open 24 x 7 – ‘always open’

I have been lucky to have been a director for businesses that moved from a 9 to 5 operation to one that was effectively 24 by 7, i.e. ‘always open’ – these were software development and support based companies). Also I have worked with owner managers who have stumbled into this growth scenario, and paid a very expensive price because they did not plan for this new way of doing business. The next set of blogs shows some ways for this growth not depressing underlying profits and keeping a productive team.

For companies that develop an international business or that provide a business service via the telephone, email or other electronic channels, there usually comes a time when they ask themselves 3 questions, namely:

– Do we really need or want to go to be always open or even extending our business day?
– Do we need to do this by using existing staff and facilities?
– Can we afford to do this or more likely can we afford not to?

Moving operations from the normal working week is a big jump in terms of logistics and costs, luckily for cash strapped small businesses, there are a now many companies that can help you give the impression that you are “always open all hours”.

Call centres and virtual assistants are a cost-effective method of filtering calls and taking messages outside working hours. They answer the phone using your business name, and most call centres can even follow a pre-defined script to identify the nature and urgency of the call. If you have fewer than 20 support calls during evenings and weekends, this can be an excellent interim solution.

For companies that need to be physically always open, 3rd party security guards can also act as receptionists. However the main business concern is one of liability (both yours and the security company’s) as the type of work that guards can engage in is usually quite limited. For example, you would not want an untrained security guard rebooting some technical equipment if they do not know the difference between a server and a PC.

There is a tipping point at which the cost of switching from outsourced staff to an employee based team is relatively negligible, but the operational benefits are significant. It is at this point that you need to look at the timing and costs associated with a transition; not least budgeting the time to train new staff while still paying for outsourced services.

To help reduce the time that you are paying twice, consider the following:

Staff location:  Often not all your employees need to be physically onsite – use of technology can mean some levels of support for customers and onsite staff can be done remotely.  Staff who may normally work day shifts can be incentivised to provide a level of support from their home, e.g. if provided with technology, financial compensation, time off in lieu.

Shift schedules:  Decide what hours you want your new team to work – there are lots of different options available, depending on the shift pattern that suits your business and employees.  Research the advantages and disadvantages of each type and, if you can, try to find out what kind of schedules your competitors use to give you an insight into an approach that works well in your industry.

Health and safety: Before settling on a final shift schedule, consider the health and safety aspects of night and weekend working, especially if you’re going to have people in the office by themselves.

Hiring staff:  Working nights and weekends puts a strain on employees’ personal lives and can be physically and psychologically draining.  You do not want to move individuals between day shifts and night shifts too often as productivity is dramatically reduced. Psychologically, night working can take its toll, so ideally give the individuals additional interesting work to carry out and offer to rotate them on to a day shift occasionally.

Once you have picked your new shift workers, it is important to provide them with concise, well considered and fully documented training.  Good training not only instils confidence in employees (making them happier), but it also means you’re likely to avoid big mistakes and midnight phone calls asking for advice.

Continuous management and incident reporting is essential.  Give employees forward notice of new shift schedules to help them balance their personal lives outside work. Spend a few nights with a new recruit, or get them to shadow someone who is experienced before asking them to work alone.

Think about what can go wrong, from operational issues to major failures.  Make sure employees are aware of potential scenarios and role-play with them how to deal, including who to call and when.  Create an incident report database to track and manage any issues, regardless of size – minor issues have a habit of growing quickly, so over-reporting is to be encouraged.

When problems occur, tell the rest of the team what lessons were learnt, ideally through regular group training sessions, but otherwise through an incident report memo and short hand over documents.

Making the decisions required to grow your business is never a simple set of choices – it takes hard work and can cost your business is done badly.   If anything in this blog resonates with your own experience, feel free to make a comment below or call Phil

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