Historically, shift-scheduling software helped get companies into trouble regarding on-call shifts. Maybe now it can help them get out of it. Until very recently, retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap Inc., J. Crew Group Inc., and Victoria's Secret required retail employees to be "on call" to work if stores were busy and needed the extra help. As anybody who's ever worked on call knows, it's the worst. You can't make other plans because you could get called in, but you also can't count on the hours—or the pay—because they might not happen.
On-call shifts aren't just inconvenient; they contribute to unstable work schedules, especially for low-wage earners (the segment of the population most likely to have them). That instability hurts household incomes and the economy according to a 2015 Economic Policy Institute report. When parents have to work nonstandard schedules, including on-call shifts, their kids suffer according to research from the Urban Institute.
In the past six months, Gap, J. Crew Group, and other retailers have stoppedscheduling workers for on-call shifts. The change comes on the heels of a handful of lawsuits filed against companies for allegedly failing to pay employees who report in but ultimately aren't asked to work. The switch is also a direct response to a letter the New York Attorney General's office sent to a baker's dozen of retailers in the spring of 2015, warning that their on-call scheduling practices could be breaking a state labor law.
For San Francisco-based retailers such as Gap, it's also a reaction to a worker "bill of rights" measure that city supervisors passed in late 2014. The measure requires businesses to post employees' schedules two weeks in advance, and to pay them for last-minute schedule changes, on-call hours, or when they're sent home without working a full shift.
Automating Shifts Leads to "Clopening"
In recent years, the on-call shift problem was exacerbated by an abundance of software that allows companies to automate scheduling shifts. If companies didn't know what they were doing, or didn't care, employees could also wind up working a closing shift on a Tuesday night and an opening shift the next morning—a situation that's become so common it spawned the term "clopening" (pronounced CLO-pening, a combination of "closing" and "opening"). It still happens. A Twitter search on the term "shift scheduling" pulls up numerous complaints such as these two:
scheduling me for a closing shift one night and then for an opening shift the next day is just pure cruelty ????— phantom girl (@jjmathh) December 21, 2015
Hi work thanks for scheduling me 7AM-4 after a closing shift— nanitas (@_alaksey) December 5, 2015
Starbucks caught flack after a 2014 New York Times article shared stories about people working nonstandard shifts—including one single mom barista who struggled to work back-to-back closing and opening shifts—thanks, in part, to the coffee giant's reliance on shift-scheduling software from HR tech vendor Kronos. Starbucks subsequently said it would stop assigning clopening shifts and other irregular schedules, and give hourly staff more advanced notice of when they were needed according to the New York Times.
The controversy highlighted the "poor decision making or policies that contributed to clopening assignments and that software, unfortunately, made it possible," says Christa Degnan Manning, founder and Principal Analyst at workforce support service Eudemonia.
Businesses such as coffee chains that employ a lot of part-time hourly workers are more prone to running into shift-scheduling problems, says Manning. Store or regional managers at such establishments often have to meet financial goals tied to a store's performance to get paid or earn bonuses, but the only tools their companies give them to meet those goals are software. Manning says they don't get support from corporate about how to make tough decisions (such as on staffing) and end up with on-call schedules as a result.
Shift-Scheduling Software Gets Smarter
However, shift-scheduling services and other core HR tech are getting smarter. Programs with built-in analytics and reporting features can analyze staffing data against financial results, and use it to change operations and how managers motivate employees including planning better schedules, according to Manning. Much of today's shift-scheduling services have developed to the point where there are dozens with similar features and functions. This allows companies to be choosier about what they use and with whom they do business, Manning says.
Manning suggests companies that want to upgrade or switch investigate services developed for their particular industry. Scheduling software for retailers, for example, is vastly different from software that hospitals or healthcare providers use to plan shifts for nurses or x-ray techs. "A lot of smaller vendors are excited to be a start-up and fill a niche that's under-served," Manning says. "They often do have really good service capabilities because they come from the industry and know how to do it better."
One example of that is Shift Agent from Orlando-based Shift Agent Labs LLC. Shift Agent is a cloud-based shift-scheduling service that targets restaurants including multiple Chick-fil-A locations. High turnover and the nature of labor in the restaurant industry makes "the challenge and pain of scheduling greater because of the lack of consistency," says David Pezzoli, co-founder and CEO of Shift Agent Labs. Unlike shift-scheduling software for a company with mostly full-time employees, Shift Agent is geared toward restaurants that have predominately part-time workers who want flexible schedules and don't stick around too long. "There's a lot of chaos to bring order to," Pezzoli says.
By specializing, Pezzoli says he can use what he's learned with large or more established customers to help smaller or younger ones. "It allows us to hear a request from one customer and, even if another one hasn't expressed it, share it as a solution."
Look for the Service in Software-as-a-Service
A second deciding factor when choosing a shift-scheduling vendor should be service, Eudemonia's Manning says. Just because software is cloud-based doesn't mean using it is as easy as signing up and creating an account. A company owner or HR manager still needs to figure out how best to use it to suit the company's purposes, and that could mean requiring help from the vendor. Her rule of thumb: Companies should pay attention to how a vendor treats them before they buy. "If you're not getting their attention pre-sale," she says, "you're likely not going to get it after."
She also recommends investigating the online community that a vendor has built up around its shift-scheduling service. Online forums or in-person meetups are opportunities for customers to swap information and are good indicators they have bonded with the brand. Such channels could also be good avenues for users to talk about scheduling policies including how to switch away from on-call shifts.