Is flexible work killing innovation?


(MoneyWatch) According to the New York Times, many businesses have, over the last six years, made a giant leap from permanent to part-time employees. In retail and wholesale, a million full time jobs have been lost, replaced by half a million part-time positions. Taking retail and hospitality together -- both places that have always used a high rate of part-timers -- the number of shift workers had more than doubled. Moreover, the use of new time-tracking software now allows shift leaders to more finely tune staffing to customer traffic, resulting in shorter shifts.

All of this probably looks just fine when it comes to cost reduction. For employees it's disastrous, leaving more people near the breadline, working erratic shifts that turn the word "flexible" into an Orwellian euphemism.

But what bothers me most about this trend is the attitude which it implies. Part-time, irregular shift work gets people on the floor when you need them, sure. It also guarantees partial commitment and erratic engagement. Fundamentally, scheduling people like this treats them as a cost, not a resource. It ensures that they'll turn up but not that they will tune in.

Every company head I talk to complains about their workforce: They're not smart enough, energetic enough, they never have ideas, just complaints. But what do they expect when they schedule people like widgets? Treat people like machines and they'll behave like machines: Doing the work but offering nothing in terms of creativity, imagination, innovation.

When I read about companies like Jamba Juice (JMBA) that uses software to schedule people into 15-minute increments so that they aren't paying for a minute extra, I recognize a company that has completely lost the plot. Want a friendly face behind your juice bar? Give your workforce something to smile about. Want new ideas about how to delight your customers? Then treat the people who deal with them like people.

I'm sure the retailers like Express, Fresh 'n' Easy, Bed, Bath and beyond, Nine West and Abercrombie & Fitch think they're being terribly clever when they so minutely schedule their shopfloor employees. That's because they're in their full-time offices, staring at screens. What they don't see is what I see every time I enter one of these stores: Staff that couldn't care less what happens to products, that never lifts a finger to help customers, that exudes anger and resentment and create a miserable, ugly experience. After a century of management research, we know better than this. We just apparently don't do better than this.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on