Work-Life Balance for Everyone

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 10:46 AM EDT

A new study from the Center for WorkLife Law looks at the impact of so-called just-in-time scheduling on absenteeism and turnover among hourly employees, and makes some creative suggestions for getting more flexibility to those who need it to be productive employees.

Just-in-time scheduling requires managers to maintain a fixed ratio of hours worked to sales, foot traffic, inbound calls (at a call center) or other measures. This means managers often post schedules at the last minute, because until then they're not sure how many hours they have to give out, and they know employees will be upset if their hours are cut. Hotels often post schedules on Thursday or Friday for the week beginning Sunday, while retail establishments often post schedules on Wednesday or Thursday.

A Changing Schedule is as Good as None
The result is a huge amount of unpredictability for employees, making it extremely difficult to arrange reliable childcare an increasing the chances that an employee won't be able to show up if a child or care-giving relative is sick.

  • In one study, 47 percent of workers said they had three different end times in the previous week
  • That same study found that 60 percent of low-wage workers said their schedule changed "a lot" or "a fair amount" from week to week.
  • One retail store said that 80 percent of its employees were on probation because of attendance problems. The study authors point out that it's extremely unlikely that 80 percent of the store's employees are unreliable--instead, the store should re-examine its scheduling policies.
How to Reduce Absenteeism and Turnover
Yet there's a surprising amount managers and supervisors can do to both make life easier on their employees and, of course, to increase the odds that they'll actually be able to work their scheduled shifts and stay in their jobs. Among the report's recommendations:
  • Embrace online shift swapping. These systems let employees swap shifts, often without having to consult a manager. One person can go into the system and say certain hours are available because they're unable to make their shift, and another can simply pick those hours up.
  • Find stability in the schedule. In one study, some two-thirds of retail stores found that 80 percent of the scheduled hours actually stayed the same week in and week out. In another example, a manager would hold up the entire schedule because he didn't learn about the availability of the final three hours until the last minute. The study authors say it's far better to schedule the hours that are definite well in advance, and then come up with a decent system to deal with changes.
  • Figure out the right mix of full and part time employees. Some managers prefer giving more hours to fewer people, but people who don't get enough hours are more likely to leave. Turnover rates among part-timers can be double that of full-time workers.
  • Use floaters who are qualified to work a variety of jobs. One consumer manufacturing plant realized a return on investment of about 130 percent when they started using floaters. The investment in additional training and staffing was more than made up for by decreased overtime.
  • Overstaffing. Some companies staff two extra people per shift, so if someone needs the time off, they can get it. If no one needs the time off, workers can volunteer for a day off.
  • Reschedule break time. One factory shifted its break time from 2:45 to 3:15, since at 3:15 work pretty much stopped anyways as everyone called and texted their kids to make sure they got home from school okay. Only 56 percent of low-wage workers get to choose when they take their breaks.
  • Flexibility in sick leave. Since FMLA can only be used for serious illnesses, allow workers to use their own sick time to care for sick children or other family members.
  • Partial vacation days. Let workers take their vacation time in hourly or partial-day increments.
  • Leave banks. Leave banks allow workers to donate unused leave time to a colleague, usually when the colleague is seriously ill or caring for someone who is.
  • Telework. When it makes sense-maybe for customer service representatives and reservation agents-allow employees to work from home. This eliminates problems caused by unreliable and time-consuming public transportation.
Does your company offer flexible scheduling or other work-life benefits? Who is eligible to use them, and do they face a stigma for doing so?
RELATED Photo courtesy of flickr user richardmasoner
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.