Finding a Balance Between Workplace Efficiency, Flexibility

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We often hear how employers will need to offer more flexible work schedules to attract cream-of-the-crop workers. While that may be true for high-skill, salaried positions, some companies are adopting work force management systems that impose structure -- and lots of it -- on their hourly workers, to boost productivity and reduce payroll costs.


They appear to be especially popular in the retail industry, which has been hit hard by the slumping economy. AnnTaylor Stores, Limited Brands, the Gap and Williams-Sonoma are among retail chains that have recently installed them, according to a Computerworld article.


Vendors of such systems claim they increase productivity by at least 15 percent and can shave labor costs by 5 percent or more. Walmart, which uses a computerized scheduling system for 1.3 million workers, gave the system a shout-out when reporting financial results for the fiscal quarter ended Jan. 31, crediting it with a 12 percent gain in productivity.


The goal of these systems is to ensure that the most productive sellers are scheduled to work during a store's busiest hours. John M. Gibbons, a senior research adviser at The Conference Board and former director of human resources at the Gap, calls it "a natural transition" for companies to apply the just-in-time delivery model used in supply-chain management to their human workers.


Not surprisingly, many employees are not fans of these systems, saying they damage morale, don't account for the fact that employees have lives outside of work and ultimately hurt customer service by not rewarding sales tactics built on developing long-term relationships with customers. One Ann Taylor employee quoted in the article says its system "dehumanized the managerial process."


Pete Reilly, a senior vice president at RedPrairie, which developed the Ann Taylor system, acknowledges that retailers can become overly aggressive about modifying work schedules to promote sales. He says it "is really up to the retailer" to find the appropriate balance.


Speaking at a May event for RedPrairie software users, which was attended by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Knaul, Ann Taylor's director of store operations, said:

Store managers have to talk to [employees] and tell them, this is about the business needs and not about the associate needs. You anticipate the avalanche of complaints and that a lot of people will quit. But then people just go on ahead and change their availability.

Seventy-six percent of Ann Taylor store managers say the system is better than creating schedules with spreadsheets, pretty close to the 80 percent satisfaction rate the retailer hoped to achieve with its managers. Knaul says the company is considering adding other features to the system, such as the ability to rank employees on skills other than sales proficiency, such as their ability to operate cash registers.


This type of technology-fueled management sounds a bit draconian to me. For the opposite extreme, I went back to my June interview with Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, creators of the Results-Only Work Environment and authors of "Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It." They explained:

A ROWE actually deconstructs the way the culture of work operates -- the deeply held beliefs around where, when and how work should happen no longer hold true. So managers have to let go of a number of beliefs about work, such as people have to be scheduled, or face-time and long hours are necessary in order to be considered for a promotion, or relationships and teams are strengthened by physical proximity, and so forth.

The two claim good results, noting that productivity is up as much as 40 percent and voluntary turnover rates down as much as 90 percent at retailer Best Buy, which uses ROWE principles. While ROWE was designed for traditional offices, the two say they "believe that many of the foundational elements of ROWE -- giving people more control over their time, and infusing a foundation of trust -- would and will work in other types of work environments such as retail stores, hospitals and manufacturing plants."


Are either of these approaches desirable? I think most employees appreciate flexibility and tend to perform better in a positive work environment. No one likes to be treated like a commodity. Concerns over turnover of hourly employees may be lessened in an economy where there will likely be another warm body waiting to fill a spot, making work force management systems seem like a no-brainer. But employees will likely only do the minimum required to keep their jobs, and customers may sense the poor morale and stay away.


On the other hand, the ROWE approach seems a little out there, with its 13 "guideposts," one of which is Every Meeting Is Optional. At least some employees may find it tough to know what's expected of them in an environment where, as Ressler and Thompson say, "each person can literally do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done."