Short Shrift:The threat of just-in-time scheduling


Companies can benefit when they use software to meet staffing requirements and address employees’ family and life commitments.

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Companies can benefit when they use software to meet staffing requirements and address employees’ family and life commitments

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“Clopening” is the practice of scheduling hourly service employees to close up shop late at night, only to return at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to open. This workforce management strategy attracted national attention last year as part of a New York Times exposé by Jodi Kantor exploring the erratic work schedules retailers impose on their employees.

Clopening and other work hour uncertainties are byproducts of retailers, restaurants and grocers using “just-in-time” scheduling software: programs that cut labor costs by tracking busy times and staffing accordingly. The impact on employee schedules is, in a word, chaos. Their schedules vary greatly week-to-week, even day-to-day. Workers never know if they will be working in the morning, the night or if they will be sent home midshift if sales traffic slows down.

Depending on the scheduling algorithm, such “workforce optimization systems” also keep employees from hitting 40-hours a week so companies can avoid paying overtime or insurance benefits.

Just-in-time software allows companies to optimize payroll costs. “But for the growing number of hourly, low-wage workers in our country, the rise of unfair scheduling practices is wreaking havoc on their family’s lives,” said Lili Hoag, Policy Director for the Portland nonprofit Family Forward Oregon, in an emailed statement.

“As a result, too many families have unpredictable incomes that can’t be counted on to pay the bills and schedules that make it impossible to meet their family’s needs. This is a trend we need to stop before it gets worse.”

Hoag is one of a number of labor advocates, scholars and businesses saying it’s time for shift in the way service workers are scheduled. A foundation for a new approach already exists: the “Results-Only Workplace Environment” or ROWE. Created by human resources experts Carli Ressler and Jody Thompson, ROWE stresses clear job descriptions and frees employees to set their own hours, attend or ignore meetings at their will and enjoy unlimited vacation time as long as those goals are met.

ROWE isn’t a new idea. It made headlines back in 2005 when it was adopted by Best Buy. Initially the electronics retailer reported stunning results: voluntary turnover rates went down by 90% while productivity rose 41%. 

A bill in the
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House Bill 2010
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Best Buy eventually succumbed to the Great Recession. But ROWE’s success suggests companies can actually benefit when they use software both to meet staffing needs and address employees’ family and life commitments. In the white-collar workplace, of course, flexible, worker- driven schedules are becoming the norm. There is also mounting evidence that worker-driven scheduling leads to a more productive workforce. A recent Brigham Young University study of IBM employees, for example, suggests telecommuting workers are able to work an additional nineteen hours a week before experiencing the same level of work-family conflict as employees who do not telecommute.

Growing acceptance of flexible scheduling among professional firms sets up an interesting dichotomy: The knowledge worker sitting in the local cafe to meet with her team via Google Chat, sipping a latte made by the hourly barista who doesn’t know how many hours she will be working this week or if her paycheck will be big enough to make rent this month. 

This bifurcation raises red flags: Are we becoming a two tiered system that rewards one group with autonomy, satisfaction and happiness while handing the other stress, illness and uncertainty?

To be sure, shelves need stocking, orders need ringing and pallets need moving on a reliable schedule. Some work simply can’t support a completely autonomist environment. However a flexible, humane approach to staffing could bridge the two worlds. It’s a concept that’s catching on in various forms. Portland-based restaurant chain Laughing Planet recently announced 12 weeks of fully paid family bonding leave for all new parents — full time, part time, hourly or salaried. The company doesn’t use any scheduling software, adds HR manager Sherri Griffin. Instead, Laughing Planet managers research sales statistics and take employees lives into account when writing the schedule. “It keeps our employees happier and more productive, which makes customers happy,” Griffin says.

Lensbaby, a privately-held Portland company that designs and assembles specialty camera lenses, offers flexibility to its entire staff of 22, hourly or salaried. It’s a balancing act for sure, said HR/office manager Jayne Calkins via email. “We strive to be mindful that by allowing a flexible schedule (often with less hours) to some employees, we don’t end up unfairly burdening others.” 

But the payoff for companies is less employee turnover, less stress and more productivity. “Our employees … truly care about doing their absolute best,” said Calkins. They’re hardworking and dedicated and supportive of each other.” 

ROWE, or some variation of it, is here to stay in the white collar workplace. The next generation of employees demands it. So will more of those ideals trickle down to the hourly worker? A saner approach to work, hourly or salaried, will eventually benefit us all. 

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