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Automated scheduling programs & the remote workforce

May 26, 2023
For onsite jobs, scheduling automation gives workers options they’ve never had before.

By Joe Jensen, director of solution architecture at Indeavor

It’s no secret that putting life first, and work second, became workers’ default choice during the pandemic. Work from home, the Great Resignation and quiet quitting conspired to put employers on notice that they could no longer impose rigid requirements on when and where employees did their jobs.

Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, 61% of employees who work from home now do so by choice, rather than due to the inability to go to the office or a fear of getting sick at work. Even though the worst of the pandemic is over, people are still demanding control over their work lives.

But in the industrial, manufacturing and public-safety sectors, work from home often isn’t an option, even as jobseekers make it a top priority. As with frontline workers during the pandemic, these employees need to be onsite to get the job done.

That doesn’t mean onsite employers can’t offer more flexible options, however. Scheduling-automation solutions now give organizations the ability to provide a spectrum of flexibility that puts shift workers first while making schedulers’ jobs easier. The result can improve worker satisfaction and retention, reduce absenteeism and ultimately increase productivity.

The old way

Yet, employers or the unions they negotiate with are often resistant to implementing these solutions. The dirty secret in the shift-work industries is that while processes and operational needs have evolved, scheduling rules have not.

For example, in today’s 24/7 world, many shift-based enterprises work around the clock, but their scheduling rotations are still dominated by eight-hour, Monday through Friday shifts that inevitably result in involuntary OT needs on weekends. 

This resistance is understandable. Introducing flexibility into the Tetris-like challenge of filling all shifts—while ensuring any substitutions are qualified to perform a given task—can quickly become overwhelming. This is especially true for centralized scheduling approaches carried out on spreadsheets (or worse...on paper).

Give a concession to one worker for a preferred shift, OT or PTO, and a floodgate of similar requests can barrage the scheduler into a frenzy of substitutions that rapidly devolves into herding cats. The result is having to choose between a production gap when a shift goes unfilled, or a dissatisfied worker when the request isn’t met.

Under this antiquated paradigm, it’s much easier to eliminate choice to reduce the number of variables in the scheduling matrix. But this approach eliminates something else: the ability to attract workers who value flexibility in today’s tight job market.

A better way

Today’s automated scheduling solutions untie the Gordian knot of these competing desires, while giving workers more choices and removing complexity for employers.

For example, by inputting skill requirements for each shift, paired with certifications and shift preferences in each worker’s profile, these tools recommend the best combination for filling production needs with compliant workers who want those slots. This alone can reduce scheduling clashes while limiting disenchantment among employees.

But the real advantage of scheduling automation comes when organizations empower employees to build the schedule themselves, while freeing managers from acting as go-betweens for mundane requests such as shift swaps. For instance, under a traditional scheduling paradigm, a worker who wants to swap shifts need to find a suitable, qualified replacement—almost always someone they already know—to sign off on a swap sheet and get approval from her manager. Scheduling automation, however, enables that employee to broadcast their desire for a swap to the entire plant’s workforce, increasing the number of potential replacements right from their phone.

On the receiving end, only qualified workers can see and respond to the request—also from their phones—while managers are automatically notified for approval when a compliant match is made. The scheduler, meanwhile, has a base foundation of shifts pre-populated on the calendar so they can apply their expertise to more complex needs.

Solving the overtime riddle

The overtime challenge, which employees love when they want it and hate when it’s forced on them, can be solved in a similar, employee-centric way. Employers can broadcast the availability of OT broadly, while workers can set preferences to automatically volunteer for or decline specific time slots. Hard-to-fill shifts—Friday evening and Sunday afternoon come to mind—can then offer incentives such as increased pay, PTO bonuses or other perks to reduce the scheduler’s burden further.

While scheduling is not rocket science, it does have an art and science to it. By giving schedulers modern tools and employees more options to meet their preferences, frontline employers can take part in the flexible workplace revolution and attract workers, even when those workers can’t work from home.