Can Technology Push Workers over a Workplace Cliff?

By Rachel Disselkamp

Introduction from Jodie Levin-Epstein, Deputy Director at CLASP:

I’m a Susan Lambert groupie.  Susan’s at the University of Chicago and a leading researcher on low-wage worker scheduling issues.  A news clip quote from Susan led to the guest “In Focus” below, which is based on an interview with Lisa Disselkamp, a time and labor management specialist and advisor to the Workforce Educational Organization (WEO).  I can’t put my hands on the clip any longer but I remember well that Susan said a new certification program related to workforce assessment management would likely make an important and positive contribution to improving schedules for low-wage workers.  I called Susan, and she confirmed that she was part of an advisory group to WEO and was hopeful that workers’ needs will be better understood and met as a result of the certification program.  We thought CLASP readers would like to hear more about this development as it is unfolding…  Jodie


Technology holds remarkable promise for simplicity and efficiency, but also introduces some important dilemmas, particularly around low wage hourly workers.  Labor costs are well-known as one of the largest expenses for an organization.  Clearly there is incentive to optimize labor scheduling and time reporting systems.  However, optimization – an effort by employers to schedule workers with a high level of precision so their staffs are fully utilized — may enable unintended consequences just as easily as it can serve as a model for balancing employer and employee needs and budgets.  In today’s tenuous economy with fiscal cliffs and other dramatic metaphors, employees fear falling off their own cliffs.

Increasingly, intelligent systems are being allowed to replace managers as decision makers when it comes to aspects of business – including staff scheduling.  There are painful gaps in both understanding and practice with workforce management (WFM) technology.   Who, or what, is managing the workforce? How are these powerful workforce asset management (WAM) tools being implemented? Bridging the gap between understanding and practice requires professionals who take ownership of the WFM systems and manage or configure with intent.  That means actively working to balance employer and employee requirements, constraints, and objectives. 

So why are workers pushed to the edge?  Workforce technology disharmony.  Systems are being used without alignment and harmonization of worker, employer, and technology.  Workers can feel over-worked and under-appreciated, while employers rack up costly pay or shift premiums and unnecessary overtime payments.  Disharmony can manifest in several ways:

  • Schedule Deprivation. Over-optimized schedules can be unpredictable and vary week to week. Sometimes an employee might receive shifts that conflict with schedule requests or desired work time. This leads to high turnover, absenteeism, and lower productivity.
  • Wage insufficiency. Schedule assignments may not adequately provide low wage workers with enough hours to support themselves and their families, or allow them to qualify for needed employee benefits or job stability.
  • Over-utilization. Persuaded by paycheck or schedule requirements, people can end up over-working. Fatigued workers may cause more accidents and decreased product or service quality.
  • Work-life imbalance. Today, there is a growing need for job flexibility and a schedule that respects employees’ constraints outside of work. Those who feel that their needs are not consistently met may choose to work elsewhere.
  • Schedule favoritism. Sometimes the schedule can favor certain employees (either through manager discretion, seniority programs, or poor schedule configuration) by continually scheduling them for more desirable shift times or pay, leaving other workers feeling unfairly treated.

These issues have not gone unnoticed.  A group of leaders in the industry, ranging from academics and policy advocates like Susan Lambert, Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, and Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, to WFM technology specialists and small business owners, have recognized the problems and worked together on a solution.  Coming in spring 2013 is a guidebook and certification program on workforce management issues.   The Workforce Asset Management Book of Knowledge (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) empowers anyone involved and interested in how to properly engage technology to manage people in the workplace.   Certified Workforce Asset Management Professionals (WAM-Pros) will be the real “architects of change,” bringing measurable impact to the workplace through all-win mentalities and actionable solutions.  Customizable job and system designs will allow more user input and autonomy; and properly automated processes will standardize pay practices and policy enforcement for fairer and more consistent treatment. 

Workforce scheduling has changed drastically with more 24/7 operations, more single heads of household, increased family budget needs that demand two jobs, greater difficulty of juggling child and eldercare.  All the while the workplace is growing even more competitive, and even more pervaded by technology.  Yet, highly sophisticated WFM systems are only part of the solution for making mutually beneficial gains for employer and employee.  Quick fixes like layoffs, reductions in benefits or hours, or reconstituting the workforce may seem like solutions, but they may push employees closer to the edge of the cliff.  To bridge the gap, organizations should critically assess their situations and be willing to tear down existing models that are unable to keep up with current circumstances.  Scheduling should no longer be viewed as a last-minute, random task.  Schedules do not need to be overly complicated, but need to be carefully designed and strategically configured to appropriately account for organizational requirements and employee needs.  WAM-Pros could become the builders of a new era in workforce management, able to skillfully use the tools already at our disposal to address these dynamic workforce issues and keep workers at a safe distance from the cliff.