Let’s sort out service

Getting the right people working at the right time to meet customer needs is a headache in the UK service sector. But Alan Erskine writes that technological advances in human capital management provide a valuable key to help organisations build a flexible and efficient workforce.

Our politicians are praying for a manufacturing renaissance to lift the economy out of recession, but is it really going to happen and if so when? Maybe it is time to accept the facts of life – the UK is a service economy and it is our service industries, including the transport sector, that will generate employment and drive the recovery. There is only one problem – if the UK is going to be a world leader in service, we have a long way to go.

The human resources challenge

Look behind the scenes in service organisations and one thing becomes evident: human resources is the key to service quality. Managers responsible for all types of front-line service operations say their biggest headache is getting the right people working at the right time to meet customer needs. Even when people are contracted to work shifts, it can be difficult to cover certain times, such as weekends and school holidays.

This was evident in a recent Government report which identified that, despite the demands of the job, there are more police officers on duty on a Monday morning than on a Friday night! The railway industry has similar challenges, as highlighted by Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail Value for Money Study.

Until now, one of the main problems has been in scheduling the hundreds, sometimes thousands of staff. The sheer complexity has tended to result in a ‘keep it simple’ approach with all staff scheduled to cover all times of the day on a rotation or roster basis.

This produces a situation where employees have different start and finish times every week. While suiting some, it causes difficulties for a great number of people, such as parents who end up requiring highly flexible childchare provision.

Technology holds the key

Fortunately, a new breed of workforce management applications that enable organisations to up their game, are now available. Paper-based systems, still used by many organisations for scheduling and allocating staff, can be replaced with software that allows more complex work patterns to be managed.

The software integrates seamlessly with finance and payroll systems, providing a comprehensive and data-rich picture of human resources. This enables organisations to take a more holistic approach to the way they contract with and optimise the time of their employees.

Another key factor is how we manage change. Issues concerning working hours, productivity and efficiency are emotive ones which, if handled badly, can rapidly bring employers into conflict with their workforce. Recent media coverage suggesting that Government and unions are on a collision course on working practices is unhelpful in this regard.

Industrial unrest is the last thing our beleaguered economy needs and would be a backward step for the reputation of our service industries. Yes times are tough and working practices must be aligned with the needs of a modern society. But with the right approach and armed with accurate data and modern management tools there are win-win scenarios available.


The service sector has a key role to play in our economic recovery but there is a lot of room for improvement. The way service organisations manage their human resource is key to improving service quality. Achieving a flexible, efficient workforce in line with customer needs is a long-standing challenge. But ideas are changing and there are win-win opportunities for managers and employees who have the courage to embrace change.

Alan Erskine is the Managing Partner of Adventis Consulting. He works with human capital intensive organisations from various business sectors who want to achieve a more flexible and efficient workforce. This article was originally published in ‘Railway Strategies.’