Medium: A New Paradigm for the Hourly Workweek, November 11, 2015
Carrie Gleason

Walmart, Starbucks, the Gap, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Whole Foods, Toys R Us are among the growing list of major employers improving their scheduling practices. They’re ending on-call shifts, giving a few more days advance notice on schedules, and dispensing more hours. Media attention to scheduling trends, new legislation across the country, and scrutiny from regulatory agencies has put pressure on the service sector to examine the impact that unpredictable, part-time scheduling practices have on their employees’ lives and ultimately, its bottom line.

Even so, everyday hourly workers may not have noticed a difference. The next time you go shopping or buy a latte, ask the person who helped you how their workweek is going. Your barista might tell you she’s not feeling well, but had to come in because they are short-staffed and she can’t afford an unpaid sick day. Your cashier might share that the new schedule hasn’t been posted, despite company policy, and she doesn’t know if her babysitter will be available by the time she finds out. And your sales associate might say even though he can access more hours online, it’s still a juggling act to piece together enough hours each week to pay his bills on time.

Just-in-time scheduling in the service sector peaked to new levels in the late 2000s as new software systems transferred the responsibility of making a schedule away from the manager to a centralized system overseen at the corporate level. Human managers were no longer in charge of making the original schedule, but they learned quickly how to skim labor costs by shaving hours off the weekly schedule in order to stay within their shrinking staffing budgets and give the illusion of store-based growth.[i] A host of damaging scheduling practices — on-call scheduling, clopenings, short-shifting, lean staffing, and open availability — became standard and mushroomed across the country.

When workers complained, managers blamed the software. We now know it’s not the technology’s fault. Employers invested in these systems and didn’t pay attention to how they were wreaking havoc on employees’ lives and as a result, incurring newer costs like skyrocketing turnover, chronic absenteeism, lower productivity, and unsatisfactory customer service.[ii]

We know that the scheduling technologies that have helped spur just-in-time scheduling trends can just as easily deliver predictable, stable, responsive, and efficient schedules. Many industry leaders now recognize that balanced work schedules are not just good for employees, but are essential to meeting operational, sales, and growth objectives.[iii]

So why is it so hard for some of our world’s most successful retailers to do better?

The answer requires more than just new memos and new tools. A new paradigm is needed. That’s why I will be presenting at the Next:Economy Summit tomorrow to launch the High Road Workweek Partnership, a breakthrough effort by the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fair Workweek Initiative to help employers effectively transition to an approach that engages key stakeholders, harnesses the potential of scheduling technologies and establishes measurable scheduling practices. We are proposing a High Road Workweek Pledge that encompasses core values of scheduling equity: Predictability and Stability, Adequate Hours, Employee Input and Flexibility and Equal Opportunity and Mobility.[iv] Through the Partnership, we work with employers to translate those values into clear policies with measurable outcomes, ongoing employee engagement, and a research-based assessment conducted in partnership with leading academics.[v]

This is not to underestimate the role technology can play in easing workers’ lives. Emerging technologies play a critical role in creating work schedules that align the demands of business with the needs of employees. Software vendors like Kronos are developing new software tools to help employers track their scheduling practices, measure core scheduling metrics, and demonstrate how sustainable schedules intersect with staffing retention and profitability.[vi] Others like Workplace Systems are testing mobile apps that allow employees to rate their schedule, change their availability, and swap shifts.

Employers must decide how they use these tools to build the future of work, and which principles will ultimately guide their scheduling systems. Current employer scheduling practices are inconsistent with the values they proclaim.

For example, Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew announced they would end on-call scheduling but they only provide seven days’ notice of work schedules that change week to week. Walmart has implemented a scheduling software system that allows associates to access more shifts, yet workers are still calling for full-time hours because many of them go to sleep hungry. Starbucks finally programmed eight hours between shifts into its software, but workers are still complaining about clopenings because eight hours between shifts means just four hours of sleep if you take into account eating, commuting, and seeing your family. Victoria’s Secret ended on-call shifts but two-hour on-call shift extensions leave workers guessing when they’ll be able to go home that day. How companies act on their values, and how we define the rules that guide the software, matter.

For any of it to work, the very people who wake up every morning worrying if they’ll get enough hours to pay their bills at the end of the month, need to have input. To successfully identify good scheduling practices that should be scaled across the company and systemic problems that require companywide solutions, employees must have a meaningful role in assessing the practices at their store and shaping company scheduling policies. A sustainable work schedule balances critical business priorities with the needs that arise from being human; that equilibrium can only be achieved when employees have a real voice in the process.

Employers of our country’s hourly workforce are at a crossroads. As we face the future, business leaders must adopt a 360-degree view to truly understand the impact of their scheduling practices on their employees, business operations, and our overall economy.



[i] Susan J. Lambert and Julia R. Henly. “Work Scheduling Study: Managers’ Strategies for Balancing Business Requirements with Employee Needs,” The University of Chicago, 2010.

[ii] Zeynep Ton. “Why Good Jobs Are Good for Retailers,” Harvard Business Review. January 2012.

[iii] Amy Richman, Diane Burrus, Lisa Buxbaum, Laurie Shannon, & Youme Yai. “Innovative Workplace Flexibility Options for Hourly Workers,” Corporate Voices For Working Families, May 2009. Options_for_Hourly_Workers.pdf

[iv] Susan J. Lambert and Julia R. Henly. “Scheduling in Hourly Jobs: Promising Practices for the Twenty-First Century Economy,” The Mobility Agenda, May 2009

[v] Carrie Gleason and Susan J. Lambert. “Uncertainty by the Hour,” Open Society Foundations’ Future of Work Project, 2014.

[v] Susan J. Lambert and Julia R. Henly. “Work Scheduling Study: Managers’ Strategies for Balancing Business Requirements with Employee Needs,” The University of Chicago, 2010.

[vi] Ethan Bernstein, Saravanan Kesavan and Bradley Staats. “How to Manage Scheduling Software Fairly,” Harvard Business Review, December 2014.