Published in the Fall 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Giving retail workers ‘predictable unpredictability’ in scheduling could ease employee work/life conflicts

In the retail field, employers frequently use “just-in-time” scheduling practices: setting hourly workers’ schedules with limited notice and making last-minute schedule changes. these practices introduce unpredictability into workers’ schedules, making it difficult for many to count on reliable earnings or plan for family responsibilities.

According to the findings of the University of Chicago Work scheduling study, led by SSA associate professors Susan Lambert and Julia Henly, work schedules have important social welfare implications, creating challenges for a range of employment and family outcomes. the findings also suggest that there may be ways to lessen the impact of unpredictable scheduling on hourly retail workers.

Funded by the Russell Sagee, Ford, and Annie E. Casey foundations, the Work scheduling study is being conducted at a nationwide women’s apparel chain. “The employer was interested in participating in the study because scheduling can be a source of stress for all involved,” Henly says. “Managers often hate making schedules. employees get frustrated with the unpredictable nature of them. [the topic] really resonated.”

The research to date has been broad and deep, including using granular recordkeeping at 19 stores on when schedules were posted, when individual employees clocked in and out, and information about turnover and retention in 151 stores over time. In addition, they conducted surveys of managers and employees about work and family domains, as well as psychological and economic well-being.

The hourly retail workers Lambert and Henly are studying are not just college kids working during school holidays: the women have a median age of 47, about one-third have childcare responsibilities and 40 percent have a second job. “At SSA, a lot of our students end up dealing with the consequences of workers’ unstable schedules, working with families trying to manage the demands of work and child care, families experiencing the vagaries of the labor market,” Henly says. Whether interfering with clients’ ability to keep appointments or contributing to economic hardship and instability in family life, work schedules are a critical social welfare issue.

The study found that job turnover for the hourly workforce is high, particularly for part time sales associates, younger workers and recently-hired workers. But it also found that the more hours employees work and the less their hours fluctuate, the longer they remain employed at the firm, even after taking into account factors such as age, race and job status. In particular, Lambert and Henly found that stores with smaller staff size and more hours per employee have lower turnover and higher retention. Because managers often have control over the number of employees on their payroll, maintaining a small staff size can pay off in terms of employee longevity.

The study also found that the rationale for just-in-time scheduling— the need to be flexible because of enormous variability in sales and in other staffing-related needs—often doesn’t pan out in reality. “Somebody has to open the door every day,” Lambert says. “Somebody has to close the cash register. There has to be a certain number of employees at all times for safety.”

In fact, although individual employees frequently find their schedules varying quite a bit from week to week, overall store hours fluctuate much less than is commonly believed. “Although there is variation in expected demand at the margins, week to week and day to day, we find that managers might be able to take better advantage of the stability that’s there,” Lambert says. “For example, if 80 percent of the hours are always the same, a manager might be able to give employees a stable schedule for 80 percent of their hours, and then tell them to expect that 20 percent may vary week to week. such a practice would give employees ‘predictable unpredictability.’” employee survey findings suggest that employees with more predictable schedules report less work-to-family conflict, lower stress and fewer interferences with nonwork activities such as scheduling doctor’s appointments, socializing with friends, and eating family meals together.

Lambert and Henly are currently analyzing the impact of a workplace intervention designed to build greater predictability into employees’ hours through greater advanced notice of work schedules. They hope that the Work scheduling study will increase understanding of the connection between work schedules and individual and family well-being and contribute to employer and public policy initiatives to increase workplace flexibility.

“As researchers, we can step back and look anew at how employers might manage the scheduling process in a way that balances their frontline employees’ needs with broader business goals,” Lambert says. “As social work scholars, we are uniquely positioned to consider how workplace flexibility can be extended to low-wage hourly jobs in ways that benefit both employers and employees."