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24/7: A Round-the-clock headache?

This article orginally appeared in Support World Sep/Oct 2008

Running a 24/7 operation is great customer service. But it can be challenging, expensive and call for complex management skills, as Guy Fraser reports

The phrase ’24/7′ is part of modern newspeak, of course, signifying efficiency and conjuring up images of ground control for space missions, zero defect and the ‘you can reach us at your convenience in the middle of the night’ syndrome. In other words, 24/7 is ‘the business’.

However, the realities of running a 24/7 operation pose a number of issues and questions, all of which need concrete management. Some of them are complex, all of them expensive.

There are 168 hours in a week – 120, if you exclude weekends. A typical extended-hour day – providing services from, say, 7am through to 6pm – covers 55 hours of a five-day week and 66 hours of a six-day week. Normal office hours in most countries cover a period of around 7.5 hours per day and a total week of 37 .5 hours.

In most countries there are, quite rightly, laws governing how many hours people can work per week – in France, it is as low as 35 hours, while in the UK it is legally much higher, although in practice a ‘normal’ working week works out at between 37 .5 and 40 hours.

From these simple calculations, the cost of running a 24/7 operation – in terms of hours alone – is three to five times that of running a service revolving around normal, or even significantly extended, office hours.

This also means that, for a full night shift operating 24/7, it takes five employees just to provide continuous cover equivalent to one person over the 168-hour period. There then has to be cover to allow for holidays and illness, so normally the minimum size of team to guarantee one continuous cover is seven or eight people.

Clearly, staff cannot work alone, so a night shift team needs to contain at the very least three people at anyone time, for health and safety reasons. Moreover, in order to provide some contingency in the event of absence, four is a normal operating minimum. Night shift staff are entitled to charge a premium for their services, usually between 1.5 and double the normal rate. So, although the staff required to run a night shift may be three to five times that of a normal or extended day, in terms of man hours, the costs often work out at anything between five and eight times the budget of a less comprehensive operation.

Standing back from this vast array of numbers, the key point that comes across is that running 24/7 is only viable where teams of this size are needed. If three to four people is sufficient to meet peak demand, then a five-shift team will contain between 15 and 32 people. If your support desk entity cannot justify this, then delivering a 24/7 operation is unlikely to be viable. This is the point where a large number of companies – having thought about 24/7 as being a great idea – stop and think things through. Because there are a number of ways of skinning the same cat and a number of criteria worth looking at to help you decide whether you need to be going 24/7 at all.

Organisations which need 24/7 fit into four main groups: core and emergency service providers; global financial and trading companies; capital-intensive producers; and certain companies providing 24/7 service to the public at large. The first group includes organisations such as hospitals, police and fire services, telephone and other utility companies, and the forces; the second, banks and global trading entities; the third, factories; and the fourth, 24/7 call centres. These entities themselves must operate 24/7 and failure to have prompt support at all hours threatens lives, chaos or massive financial loss.

Of course, in the external support world, customer service is the key to retaining and winning customers – no service, no business. So companies can easily be pressurised by clients, or their sales and marketing teams, into believing 24/7 support is essential.

And yet this also applies to the internal support desk. To someone who has not had to run a support desk team themselves, demanding 24/7 within an organisation (that might on the face of things seem to warrant that) can glibly enter the planning – and even the execution – phase before anyone realises the cost and management implications.

Ultimately, human activity is cyclical: most organisations have a clientele whose internal support demands vary with the seasons and even the time of day. Some entities require the availability of 24/7 service and support, but do not need more than someone being available at about an hour’s notice – and perhaps records may show that such a person is unlikely to be needed more than once a month. Under these circumstances, putting a full team in place to cover this eventuality is clearly excessive, unless they can be given something else to occupy most of their time productively, and which justifies the cost and inconvenience. In this case, a stand-by roster with an on-call system is probably the most economic option. A great deal of support desk work relates to software or advice, of course, where the support desk does not need to be in the same location, or even same time zone, as the ‘customer’ or user. One option is to have a 24/7 shift operating at one place, with associated costs. This is justified, if hardware support is required, or software or security considerations are such that remote linkage is impractical.

This option also needs to be pursued, if the systems are highly customised and tied in with other issues in the building, which may not be visible over a remote connection. Another imperative might be where the support desk is obliged to operate in several local languages – in which case providing support in, say, Italian from the Far East, is just not practical.

However, where support is entirely dedicated to software and the systems are reasonably standard, then location hardly matters, especially for a global organisation with a highly centralised system. Here, one obvious solution is to give all support desks a global support mandate.

This keeps costs down, in that all support teams work a normal office day. However, it does impose rigid demands for a highly effective and transferable management and case structure, so that cases aren’t lost in handover, and urgency and understanding are retained, despite changing support desk case ‘owners’.

The bottom line is that all management and teams must also be wholly committed to following rigid and clear global SLAs (service level agreements) and have the support of a good case management system to enable them to do so. Else there is the temptation to give local ‘customers’ priority – or for service to be confused by regional SLA differences.

There are other key management considerations, of course – one of which is the presence of management itself! If there are only three people in the building, this hardly justifies the presence of a manager on site.

However, if the team is on its own and not that busy, there comes a tipping point when people start to find themselves other things to do. In the best circumstances, night-shift staff use surplus time to do desk-based training or clear up various backlogs.

Yet, in other situations, they may resort to desk-based (or even physical) moonlighting, or start surfing the web, etc. So, before setting up the system, it is essential that staff are properly briefed, with adequate work and clear guidance as to what is expected of them – and with proper records kept of tasks assigned.

Managers should also maintain a steady habit of turning up without warning, both to support their staff and ensure that the team is indeed working as it should be.

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