Your team knows more about your customers than anyone else. Organize regular time out of the queue for them to work on long-term support projects that will benefit the whole company.

Guest post by Sarah Chambers, Founder, Supported Content

Every support team has the same goal: they just want to do their best by their customers. They want to have the best documentation, the most up-to-date saved replies, and a product that’s designed with customer feedback at the forefront. But, how will any of those things happen if the people best equipped to do them are constantly mired in a full inbox?

Instead of implementing designated “out of the queue” (OOTQ) time for employees, many support team managers try to find time “during low periods of support.” However, this casual method of workload management does not set your customers up for success, nor does it help your employees feel like they are making any real impact or contribution to the company. Without designated time to work on long term projects, emptying the inbox always seems critical. Your list of doc changes gets longer, your feature request Trello boards get deeper, your ideas for “someday projects” get farther and farther away. Something has to give.

Why it’s valuable to have time out of the queue

Your support team members know more about your customers than anyone else at your company, yet are so often relegated to using that knowledge to quickly answer questions instead of embracing projects with more of a long-term impact. While the immediate fire-fighting skills needed in support are, indeed, what you likely brought your employees on board for, there are so many other things that they are capable of that you could be harnessing, if you just gave them the opportunity.

It may sound strange to encourage someone away from doing one of the main things that you hired them for, but it can open up a number of opportunities that they and your company might not otherwise have. When you offer OOTQ time to your employees, you are:

  • Giving them the opportunity to decompress from the queue and take care of projects that would otherwise just sit on the back burner. Not only does this help to empty out your To Do lists, but it also helps to reduce the possibility for burnout: people are able to focus on things that fill their cup.
  • Offering the opportunity for people to make a meaningful contribution to the future of the company with projects that have a higher-visibility impact.
  • Providing larger-scale projects with more long-tail timelines (with other teams, for example) that can move long term goals of the team forward.
  • Supporting the people who know the most about your customer to share those insights with other teams who may not have the same insights.

Great, you’re probably thinking. So, how do I do it?

When are you busiest?

Your helpdesk system likely has reporting built into it that will allow you to see when all of your tickets are coming in. While you are probably already familiar with this report as it relates to staffing concerns, it will be equally important to you when determining how much time you’d like to give your team members out of the queue, and when it makes the most sense.

Take a look at the way your tickets map out, and start to form a plan for any days that will absolutely not work for your team to be out of the queue. For example: generally, support queues are busiest on Mondays. It might be a good idea to keep that as the one day that always has all hands on deck. But, if you have 24/5 coverage or weekend support staff, there may be other days or times that are high-stress and busy outside of the typical restraints of smaller 9-5 teams. Take a look at where the tickets are, and start to make your plan around that.

How much can each person on your team handle?

To set yourself and your team members up for success, you need to make sure that you are amply staffed to cover all of the time that you are about to be losing from the queue.

Communicate to your staff that having OOTQ time may mean that there will be occasions when they’ll need to soak up a little extra in the inbox in order for this new plan to work: everyone will need to take their OOTQ time every week in order for it to work as expected. That means that, sometimes, things might get tossed back into the inbox, or someone might need to pick up a bit of slack for their teammate who is stepping out to work on their project. Set expectations clearly to ensure that everyone is onboard before figuring out how to make sure all the puzzle pieces fit.

Once you’ve got your team on board, it’s time to look at the data. During some of the highest stress points that your team has had, how many tickets were they able to handle? Obviously, we don’t want your team to be reaching burnout levels of output, so drop the numbers slightly and then add them into your calculation. Here’s a spreadsheet that you can use to calculate the number of employees you’ll need, by taking into consideration their output, the amount of time they’ll need for out of the queue time, and the potential for vacation and illness. Feel free to make a copy of it and input your own numbers. (Original credit of this sheet to Bill Bounds). Once you’ve gone through that process, you know what you are set up to handle and if you’re staffed appropriately to make this dream come true.

How much time can you give them?

Based on the above calculation, you should have a picture of how much OOTQ time you’re able to give your employees. You may even have had to massage the numbers slightly to make them work for the number of employees you currently have. If you are unable to hire, recognize that any time you offer out of the queue will still be good. If you are able to hire, and it works for your team, start your out of the queue time at four hours per teammate per week, and then shift as needed.

You can certainly shift to longer periods in times of low volume, while maintaining a four hour benchmark that you know you can always hit, even when the queue gets stressful. Having a benchmark minimum is important both for maintaining the trust of your team, and continuing to let OOTQ be a staple every week. One way this can be structured is splitting up four hours before lunch for one employee, and four hours afterward—this can be especially valuable if you have a small team that will really feel the heat of even one employee being gone from the queue.

In the beginning, try keeping those four hours in one chunk, rather than breaking them up over a course of days. Context switching is incredibly difficult for any employee, but especially those who are conditioned by the day-to-day expectations of their role to shift from one question to the next in a matter of minutes.

It will take your team members a little bit of time to adjust to their out of the queue time and start to be truly productive, especially without the constant dopamine hits of clearing out their queue. Giving them a large chunk of uninterrupted time will give them the best shot at success and focus before returning to their regular duties.

That being said, after some time you may notice that certain members of your team perform better under certain constraints. For example, they may want two hours on one day and two hours on the next. After you’ve had a bit of practice, you can start to play around with scheduling—keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be the same for every person, as long as they’re all being granted the same amount of time. Maintaining the same schedule each week is the most important thing, because it allows the employee to mentally prepare themselves, and set expectations for getting all of their other work done. It also gives them something to look forward to!

Measuring and maintaining performance

As with anything, you need to have a way to measure that your OOTQ time is working successfully. Having specific projects that each person has agreed to tackle over a set period of time is a great way to set benchmarks and have a concrete method for knowing if things are being accomplished and how successfully.

Encourage communication about these projects amongst your team members. No one should be working in a silo, especially because it’s likely there will be cross-over and you want to avoid doing double work! There’s nothing more discouraging than having worked on a project for a quarter only to discover that another team, or another person on your team has already done the same work.

As your employees are setting out their projects, try to pick metrics that you can use to measure success both at the end of the project and as they are working through it. A good question to ask yourself here is, “What am I trying to impact by doing this thing?” Then, every week in your stand-up or team meeting, ask your employees to talk about what they’ve done to move their project forward and measure them against the metric that you set together.

Lastly, make sure that people are actually taking their out of the queue time. You’d be surprised at how many people are so excited to get going on projects outside of the queue, but when the time comes really struggle with leaving the inbox. It’s a comfortable space where they know what the stakes are and, ostensibly, are already doing an excellent job. Similarly, many people who work in support get “inbox guilt”. It can be close to impossible to focus on anything else when there are still tickets to handle.

Empower your team and let them know that taking their OOTQ, and the percentage that they actually take, is a success metric in and of itself. Then, make sure to follow up with them about when they are (or aren’t) taking it.

Out of the queue time can have an immense impact on your team. Once you can get a handle on the specific scheduling logistics for your support organization, and can set up a schedule that your staffing can handle, you’ll be up and running in no time. Set projects that align with your company or team-wide goals, create metrics that allow you to measure the success of them and create some wins for your team, and then let your team use their knowledge and skills to do what, ultimately, they do best: help the customer.


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