An app that invites hourly workers to ‘co-create workplace happiness’

Jan 20, 2015

Some of this century’s most disruptive technologies — Facebook, Amazon, Uber — made their mark by straightening out kinks in human-to-human connectivity and enterprise. Workplace System’s "Workplace Mobile" app could make a comparable impact on society by upending the age-old, top-down social construct between managers and hourly-paid workers. The company’s easy-to-use app invites hourly-paid retail workers to collaborate with managers in the scheduling process — as the company says, "co-creating happiness in the workplace."

Speaking with evangelical fervor at the NRF Show on Tuesday, Workplace System’s group chief executive officer David Farquhar all but channeled Steve Jobs in introducing a product he believes will "transform the lives of millions of hourly-paid workers around the world, forever."

"This will be the world’s first employee-centric mobile scheduling tool," said Mr. Farquhar, "and it will do for employee relations what the Kindle did for publishing and what the iPhone did for the music industry. What makes it a truly compelling product for adoption is that it is beautiful and has been designed in such a way that it is highly intuitive for the users."

There is apparently a smart back end behind that sexy interface, as well, one that can, according to the company, find the best among a 100 million iterations of a schedule in under 30 seconds, a task they estimate would take a human manager seven years.

The app, and the Smart Schedule daskboard used by store managers to collaborate with workers in optimizing shift schedules, seeks to address the often devastating impact of erratic scheduling on employees’ work-life balance.

"If we ask them to work double shifts," Mr. Farquhar told RetailWire, "if we tell them to do ‘clopenings’ — if we give them highly disruptive shifts … how long are they going to last?"

[Read more from RetailWire’s interview with David Farquhar.]

The societal issue has been acknowledged in San Francisco to the extent that the city’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last month in favor of the "Retail Workers Bill of Rights." The legislation mandates, for example, that employers "provide all employees with two weeks’ advance notice of work schedules" and "advance notice of any changes." In fact, when employers fail to do so, additional "predictability pay" kicks in to compensate workers for the inconvenience.

"The fact that you have to create a Workers Bill of Rights is a consequence of having a lot of unenlightened employers," said Mr. Farquhar. "For me, this is all about business sense."

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Joining Mr. Farquhar at NRF to present a retailer story was Dawn Bernick, director of retail operations at Wireless Vision, the T-Mobile premium retailer in the U.S., currently with 200+ stores. After about 18 months using Smart Schedules, Ms. Bernick reports that Wireless Vision has pushed its in-store sales conversion rate to 11 percent from about 4 percent prior, mostly attributable, according to Ms. Bernick, to greater engagement by employees. Revenue per hour jumped from $45 – $50 per hour to $55 – $60.

Perhaps most dramatic was the impact on the composition of the staff. Wireless Vision went from a 90 percent/10 percent full-time/part-time ratio to roughly a 60 percent/40 percent split, affording them much greater scheduling flexibility. All this was reportedly accomplished while pushing the employees’ "happiness" rating to 95 percent, up from 65 percent. And employee turnover plummeted from 125 percent prior to implementation to 40 percent after.

Do you see technology playing a role in improving the work-life balance for hourly-paid workers and their managers? What cultural hurdles will worker scheduling “co-creation” applications face in retail management?

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12 Comments on "An app that invites hourly workers to ‘co-create workplace happiness’"

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Bob Phibbs

Anything one can do to deal with scheduling is good. It isn’t about bodies though but capabilities in who covers the shift. I do think it is a bit much to conclude that scheduling could increase “in-store sales conversion rate to 11 percent from about 4 percent prior” with no additional training.

Ryan Mathews

The answer is a qualified yes—the qualification being it depends on the technology, it depends how it is applied, and to some extent it depends on the retail genre and season.

In my experience companies draft these crazy schedules in an attempt to get the broadest retail coverage for the lowest amount of money. Obviously everyone can’t get all the hours they want, so there is one issue, and coverage is clearly another. Then there is the question of profitability. Finally, many retailers (think mall stores here) over-hire, especially at holidays, because they understand people will not show, won’t last, etc.

Scheduling technologies work best in solid-state retailing—where there is a minimum of peak and valley demand.

All that said, worker involvement in decision making is the first step toward employee engagement, so it’s an important area to develop.

Ian Percy

The question really isn’t about “involving hourly-paid workers in scheduling,” that is almost too obvious to even comment on. The question is HOW do you involve people? Really gets down to a couple of choices: 1. Talk with them and 2. Use an app so you don’t have to talk with them.

The evangelical pitch for the technology is somewhat misleading. While one could mathematically calculate 100 million iterations of staffing, 99.999 percent of them are totally irrelevant. There are 40,320 ways to seat eight guests around your dining room table too but somehow we work it out before the soup gets cold. But I digress.

Assuming the results the T-Mobile shop got are indeed real, it would be hard to question the use of technology. Great results indeed. But still it saddens me. Apparently the Worker’s Bill of Rights, and this innovation, came about because there are a lot of “unenlightened employers” out there. Does an app do anything about that or does it allow us to ignore them as un-fixable? And is it wise to put a people-management app into the hands of an unenlightened manager? Computational speed aside, someone has to enter the data. That would be a human.

Max Goldberg

Technology can help improve the morale, but it is just a start. Employees, particularly Millennials, like to be in control of their schedules, but scheduling alone won’t dramatically increase employee happiness. In addition to scheduling, management needs to empower employees to solve consumer issues and should provide those employees who want it a path for growth within the company. And most importantly, employees need to be paid a living wage. An app is not going to do that.

Mel Kleiman

There are a lot of scheduling products out there today and this one sounds interesting, but not a lot different than a number of them I have seen that have been out there for a number of years. For example take a look at a product called Hot Schedule. It has helped managers and employees do a better job of filling shifts not only with the right number of people but also the right people to maximize results. It also has functionality that allows employees more flexibility in finding other employees to work shifts they can’t or don’t want to work.

Every where I have seen scheduling software put into place I have seen positive results.

Give managers tools to do a better job and give employees more control over their lives and everyone wins.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Scheduling workers is hassle with the scheduler having to keep a lot of complex information (who made a special request, who is on vacation, which skill is needed at what time, what combination of responsibilities need to be covered at any point in time) in mind when creating the schedule. If all the constraints are able to be entered in a computer program and then provide individual employees with constraints for their individual schedule, then this could be a real bonus for employees, for companies and for customers.

Andy Casey
Andy Casey
2 years 8 months ago

Interesting that going from a 90/10 full-time/part-time mix to 60/40 is correlated with a “happiness” increase. It has been a few years but one thing I recall from hourly work is that part-time versus full-time meant fewer hours and fewer hours meant a smaller paycheck. That never raised my “happiness” nor that of anyone I knew.

Ed Rosenbaum

This sounds like a program designed to have the employees take ownership of what is often a scheduling nightmare. With the employees’ involvement the dedication to being where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there is almost assured. This, in many ways, will reduce or almost eliminate the “scrambling” to cover that absences create. More often than not, when this system is used, it is successful.

Gajendra Ratnavel

If this tool is dead simple to use, it can be a powerful asset to the business. The issue in my mind is this becomes another thing to train. Hourly paid employees are highly transient and training is a big problem to start.

I really like the idea though. Involving the employees in scheduling will not only improve quality of life, but also loyalty, competitive advantage, and efficiency.

Ralph Jacobson

I’m all for work/life balance, and getting staff to integrate their personal lives into their business lives, in theory, is a good thing. As a store manager decades ago, my (admittedly somewhat out-of-touch) apprehension to relying on the staff’s scheduling desires too much may literally compromise the performance of the store. I realize that staff availability has always been a part of labor scheduling, and I commend this vendor in their efforts to expand the reach of the staff within the scheduling confines. However, we need to be maniacal in the art and science of retail store labor scheduling in order to optimize store growth and profitability. I do think this is a great step in the right direction, though.

Craig Sundstrom

While I wish Mr. Farquahar and his gadget good luck—he seems to already have sufficient enthusiasm—I’ve grown dubious of these “better living through technology” claims. Remember how cell phones and laptops were going to do away with commuting? If there’s a way that a technology can make workers’ lives better, I have a sneaking suspicion it can be turned around and make them worse as well…and no amount of iterating is going to change the fact that (almost) no one wants to work Xmas Eve.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
2 years 8 months ago

Point: “…involving hourly-paid workers in the scheduling benefits a company’s performance.”

Point: “…worker involvement in decision making is the first step toward employee engagement, so it’s an important area to develop.”

Point: “…Technology can help improve the morale… Employees, particularly Millennials, like to be in control of their schedules.”

Bonus points: “… but scheduling alone won’t dramatically increase employee happiness.”

Extra credit: “In addition to scheduling, management needs to empower employees to solve consumer issues and should provide those employees who want it a path for growth within the company.”


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