Wal-Mart Pushing Flexibile Worker Shifts
Ezra Klein has an interesting discussion of a subscriber-only WSJ piece on a growing trend of major retailers including Wal-Mart, Payless ShoeSource, RadioShack, and possibly Target (which is mentioned in the WSJ subhead but not in Klein’s post, so I’m not sure if they are following or bucking the trend) toward flexible scheduling in retail.
[S]oftware tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each one. Moreover, it also creates a range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. All sounds routine enough, right?
But pity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, “experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule…That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings.
Other potential drawbacks mentioned by Klein or his commenters include pushing out older workers and making holding a second job more difficult. Ditto, presumably, going back to school to improve one’s employability so as to move beyond having to work for an hourly wage.
On the other hand, as Adam Herman observes, “the service economy has to give, um, service. If schedules are inflexible, customer service will suffer.” It’s quite annoying to have to stand in a long line to check out because the manager did a lousy job of scheduling cashiers.
Not having access to the whole article, I’m not sure exactly how Wal-Mart and the others are implementing the system. It strikes me that the software would allow for advanced scheduling. By combining trend analysis from past years at the same store with the seven week numbers, managers should be able to predict scheduling needs with some accuracy weeks and even months into the future. That would be good for customers and employees alike. Conversely, if the idea is simply to have workers “on call,” with the ability to send them home if the store isn’t busy and to make them come in on short notice to handle surges, there’s no need for software at all.
Presumably, advanced scheduling could still be fair to workers. One would think evening and weekend hours would be more attractive to younger workers, especially students, whereas daytime hours would be best for those with kids in school. There would still be need for people to be flexible in handling holiday and weekend surges, of course, but it could be managed reasonably.
Still, if one needs to work only regular hours and simply can not work nights and weekends, they should seek employment in something other than the retail sector. My dad spent a few years as a retail manager for a regional drug store chain and a local home electronics chain after he retired from the Army. The hours were ridiculous and he needed to be flexible in working at different stores as much as an hour further away from home. He routinely worked 60 hours a week and sometimes as many as 90, not including commuting time.
That’s simply the nature of a low margin, high volume, customer oriented business. After four years or so, he got out of retail and found a job more conducive to the lifestyle he wanted.
In the past, store managers for Wal-Mart and other huge retailers, including Sears Holdings Corp.’s Kmart, Payless and J. Crew, scheduled workers based on store promotions and weekly sales figures from the previous year. By comparison, the software systems created by workforce-management software companies such as Workbrain Inc., Kronos and CyberShift Inc. rely on real-time data feeds, such as sales rung up at the cash register and customer traffic.
The systems can boost productivity by freeing up managers. While it can take managers an entire day to create schedules for several hundred workers at a single big-box store, staffing can now be drawn up across an entire company in a few hours. Workbrain says it generates schedules for Target Corp.’s 350,000 U.S. employees at 1,500 locations in less than six hours. Target declined to comment on its scheduling system.
Store chains spent $55 million on licensing fees for work-force-management software in 2005, up from $44 million in 2004, according to AMR Research Inc. in Boston. AMR analyst Robert Garf estimates revenue for these systems grew by 15 percent to 20 percent in 2006. ‘‘We’re really at this tipping point today,’’ he says.
Wal-Mart is rolling out the new ‘‘optimizer’’ system from an outside vendor in all its stores and for all employees this year. Wal-Mart asks hourly employees to fill out the hours they can work on ‘‘personal availability’’ forms. A copy provided by WakeUpWalMart states that all full-time cashiers and customer-service workers are encouraged to consider including ‘‘if at all possible’’ a weekend shift every week. ‘‘Limiting your personal availability may restrict the number of hours you are scheduled,’’ the form reads.
It looks like a mixed bag: Workers are under more pressure to be flexible but are at least given the option of setting their availability times.