Flexible working* is trendy. There are countless articles telling employers that, if they want to attract millennials, they need to offer them flexibility. The reality is more nuanced. Stability is just as important for some members of staff.
In fact, an employee’s need for flexibility or stability is likely to change at different stages of their career, even within the same year. Someone straight out of university might crave the stability of regular shifts; while a parent with young children might need stability during term time and flexibility during the holidays. Employers need to accept that their staff will want to flip between both patterns.
Of course, employers also want to flex their staff numbers according to demand. That has given flexibility a bad name in the retail sector, with last-minute schedules, unstable hours and unpredictable pay packets.
The key is to make flexibility a two-way thing. Some of the biggest companies in the world are now cottoning on to the idea that they can be a considerate employer by offering staff flexible working, which in turn helps them meet their fluctuating staff requirements.
Making it work
This is not a simple task using traditional tools. Although retailers invest heavily in their front-end stores, many still do their schedules on Excel and paper. Managers simply do not have the time or headspace to match their employees’ preferences to their own forecasts of what demand is likely to be.
That’s where Rotageek’s interactive platform comes in. When you have software making decisions and calculations, there is no need for the old-fashioned, hierarchical way of scheduling.
Employees can express a preference about when they want to work, or the type of shifts they like; and can swap and pick up shifts on the platform directly, with any changes updated immediately on the rota. The technology then matches that up with a store’s staff requirements, to deliver genuine two-way flexibility.
Not everyone will get all of their preferences, all of the time. But employees know that they have been taken into account, and that the rota has been developed in a non-biased and transparent way.
Keeping staff happy
It has never been more important to have a happy and engaged workforce. Bricks and mortar retailers are competing with online by creating great in-store experiences, and customer service has become a key competitive advantage.
By giving employees control and flexibility over their working lives, businesses can help staff achieve a better work-life balance. Happier staff means happier customers. This is not just something that is ‘nice to do’, it has a real impact on the bottom line.
In the US, Gap gave staff in some of its stores more control over how many hours they wanted to work and when, and made it easier for them to swap shifts. The result? A 7% increase in sales in the stores that took part in the experiment**.
Workers themselves say they are more motivated when they are given more control over their schedule. Nine in ten employees surveyed by HSBC said flexible working was the number one motivator to boost their productivity. That research found flexible working was, in fact, more likely to motivate staff than a pay rise.
On the employer’s side, the flexibility provided by the interactive platform allows retailers to think creatively about staffing. They can look at stores in clusters to offer staff the hours that they need. If they can only offer 16 hours in one store, they may be able to offer another 16 in a store nearby.
That will help attract and retain staff, who will not be tempted away by competitors who can offer them more hours. Working in clusters also makes it easier to find cover and fill any gaps in the rota.
Retailers with national operations can be flexible about the location of their staff. So students who work in their university town during term time, could be offered shifts in their home town during the holidays.
Employers can also manage leave requirements better. Some large retailers may employ several members of the same family. With the right systems in place, they can let those employees choose to spend all their holidays together, or apart!
If they are really smart, employers could team up with other businesses that complement their staffing needs. So a tourism company that hires temporary staff in the summer could work with a retailer that needs to boost its winter workforce. Together they can offer potential staff full-time work throughout the year.
Managers still have an important role to play in tweaking and implementing the rota. They may know there is an event on, which means the store will be particularly busy.
The technology simply takes in the different constraints on the schedule and presents it in an easy-to-use way. That gives managers the tools they need to make good decisions; and the time to work with staff to make sure they are happy with the results.
*Let’s be clear that when we are talking about flexibility in this article, we mean the ability to work a set number of hours on different days each week. We don’t mean working less-than-full-time hours, flexi-hours or annualised hours. All of which can be important, but are not considered here. In addition, flexibility here is not concomitant with a lack of visibility of a work schedule for a member of staff.
**Now, this may well have been part intervention bias. As a result of being offered better control of their work hours, even if that wasn’t taken as an opportunity, the intervention by the company empowered staff and resulted in a better performance. Nonetheless, the effects of better scheduling and flexible work practices stretch far beyond the time saving from creating paper schedules.