Flexibility has become essential for employees as workplace expectations continue to shift due to ongoing pandemic uncertainty and increasing choice driven by the Great Resignation. Organizations that employ office and white-collar workers have adopted more flexible practices for where, when, and how employees work. Industries that rely on shift-based employees and “gray-collar” workers, who exist at the intersection of tech and service roles, have been slow to evolve. But that is changing.
Amid widespread staffing shortages and burnout, industries that rely heavily on hourly employees, such as retail, manufacturing, and healthcare have recognized the need to get creative and provide people with greater flexibility and control over their work. Schedule flexibility for these roles is long overdue, and it’s become essential in order for businesses to attract the talent they need. In fact, Amazon, Starbucks and Walmart are the latest companies to adopt job flexibility for their employees to attract more working parents. Organizations that lag in this area will face a competitive disadvantage.
Here are a few ways organizations can rethink traditional shift scheduling to empower their teams and attract the talent they need to be successful.
Redefine traditional shift types
The first step in making shift scheduling more flexible is to retire traditional shift types and lengths that may no longer be serving the company or its employees. Key to this is breaking out of the rigid five-day, forty-hour workweek mindset, while keeping burnout at bay. Industries employing white-collar workers have started to do this by adopting a four-day workweek, which has been shown to increase productivity and employee wellbeing. Meanwhile, many frontline and gray-collar workers like nurses, manufacturing employees and first responders already work three- and four-day weeks. But these are not the only options.
Related: Poor scheduling costs hourly workers sleep and happiness
One alternative is a split shift— four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon with a flexible gap in the middle— that enables employees to spend lunch with their families, care for loved ones or have greater life-work balance. This option has the added benefit of offsetting exhaustion-induced mistakes.
The right shift types will emerge for each company depending on unique roles and customer needs, but requires management to rethink shift requirements and best outcomes. For example, one of our large retail customers recently started to shorten the shift length for traditional “greeters” to just thirty minutes. These shifts have traditionally been two hours long, but employee feedback brought to light the fact that it’s hard for employees to stay upbeat and greet customers endlessly.
Give employees real-time control over their schedules
Organizations looking to adopt greater flexibility for shift-based employees face a significant roadblock: rigid scheduling systems and processes. Today’s scheduling tools must be dynamic and have the ability to pivot in real-time. Having the right tools in place is key to giving employees real agency and control over their schedules.
One modern improvement for shift scheduling is creating a “shift marketplace” that allows employees to pick up or swap shifts right from their phones without needing a manager’s oversight. And for large retailers with multiple store locations, this can extend to empowering employees to pick up extra shifts at different locations based on where the employee may be located on a given day— close to a doctor appointment, for example, or when they travel for the holidays. Both options can be unlocked with the right technology.
Enable employees to self-schedule
Traditional shift scheduling started by mapping demand (such as patient or customer density), to determine the right type, number and location of shifts across an organization. The next iteration of scheduling saw optimization engines become adopted. These tools were used to create schedules based on employee availability and skills, as well as demand. But employees were still left with rigid just-in-time schedules that managers spent too much time updating because it was outdated as soon as it was released. Now, advances in technology can open up the shift scheduling process entirely to employees. Rather than assigning shifts, companies can enable employees to share their preferences (different from availability), self-schedule, and pick up additional shifts when it meets their life and work needs.
The concept of self-scheduling is gaining traction. The consulting and staffing agency Robert Half found that 41% of managers in the U.S. are allowing staff to set their own hours. One of our large U.S. retail customers made this transition after experiencing employee engagement issues. Company leaders were nervous they would see major gaps in the schedule, particularly on days they thought no one would want to work like the day before Thanksgiving or the week leading up to Christmas. But the result was just the opposite— there were no gaps in the schedule. On top of that, employee engagement increased and there was a decrease in employees calling out sick at the last minute.
A win for companies and employees
The convergence of technological advances, hiring challenges and business model changes have created the ideal moment for schedule flexibility— not just for white-collar workers but for everyone. The benefits of this approach extend to both employees and companies.
A report from the Workforce Institute found that only 30% of people feel heard by their companies when it comes to their work schedules. Providing greater flexibility and choice can make all the difference between engaging or discouraging employees, who are increasingly leaving rigid jobs with poor workplace experience for those providing flexibility and balance. Giving employees control over their schedules is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative. Most companies I speak with list employee experience as a top-three priority, and schedule flexibility impacts that directly.
Shift scheduling is not a math problem, it’s a human problem. A more flexible system will put employees first and give them the agency to work how, when, and where they want.
Cecile Alper-Leroux is vice president of research and innovation at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group), a provider of HR and workforce management solutions.