How can we make fair rotas? 

Gaëlle Zair, Business Development Manager


At Rotageek, we create scheduling technology. Importantly, we’re trying to figure out how to make shift work fairer for employees (which will benefit employers, too!). In this article, I take a deeper look into what schedule fairness truly means. I also speak to Dan Chamberlain, Rotageek’s Head of Data Science, because really, fairness in scheduling is a delicate balance of logic and humanity, held together by data science.

My first job - the summer before I started university - was as an Ops Admin at Abercrombie & Fitch in Paris. Full time for the first two months, and then 10 hours per week or however much school allowed once the semester began. I loved it. I stayed for three and a half years, and only quit because I moved to New York.

It was the flexibility of this job that led me to stay for so long. The company let me put my grades and my own life first. I knew this arrangement was unusually good - most of my university friends were job hopping and getting frustrated when shift planners didn’t accommodate.

But it gets worse. An article written by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times talks about the horrors of shift work that some people have to live through. Jodi talks about the life of Jannette Navarro, a Starbucks worker who struggles to make ends meet for herself and her son Gavin. Unpredictable hours, “clopening” (closing late and opening early), and really late notices on shifts mean that she puts her employer before herself. It means she can’t make any medium-long term plans, because she doesn’t know if she’ll have the time or the money to do so. 

Jodi’s article is about scheduling technology, and how it puts the employer ahead of the employee when setting hours. But it’s not only tech that can make rotas unfair - for decades, managers have struggled to balance the needs of the business against the needs of its employees while solving the complex mathematical problem of scheduling. Is it possible to use technology to accommodate both employee and employer needs?

What does Dan think?iStock-902300180
The first step to improving the status quo is to recognise that technology is not a panacea. The rules and norms that can be encouraged and enforced by algorithm must be first defined by the people in charge of scheduling. But, once these rules are defined, algorithms can be used to ensure consistent enforcement that minimises the effect on schedule efficiency. These algorithms can think outside the box, finding solutions that would not occur to managers and result in better overall schedules.

Why should we make rotas fair? 

This is probably the first question to ask, but the UK is already well on its way to understanding how employee wellbeing links to engagement, retention, and overall organisational performance. We won’t go into it too much in this article, but we have a few pieces of content on the topic. Here’s one on how rotas that respect work-life balance can increase employee retention, and engagement. And here’s one on the why we need to create rotas that consider the needs of individual people, as everyone is different. 

The bottom line is that happy employees make up strong businesses.

How can we make fair rotas?

This is the interesting question.

In many ways, it’s about balance. I speak to retailers about this often, and I think businesses are genuinely interested in this topic. The concern, if any, is around compromise. If we make things fairer for employees, if we accommodate too much, do we lose out as a business?

Here’s what Dan has to say:
Creating fair rotas is all about giving businesses the tools they need to understand and specify trade-offs. At Rotageek, we have developed a number of different methods of measuring fairness that can be custom-fit to the unique views on fairness of each of our customers. Then, these fairness measurements can be ranked against other business objectives, such as contractual work requirements, relative importance of different types of work employees can do, and even employee preferences on when they wish to work. This ranking allows a business to specify that ensuring a key holder is in is more important to them than ensuring a fair split of weekends, while at the same time saying that fairness is more important than ideally staffing the tills. This customisability allows the Rotageek’s solution to be used by any business to enforce consistency and fairness within a single location and across their estate.

So what is a fair rota?

It’s a rota that won’t give you advantages just because you’re friends with the manager, for example. That’s not to say that managers consciously treat people differently - not at all. At Abercrombie & Fitch we had 2,000 colleagues working at the Paris flagship. Imagine the nightmare that it must be to schedule these by hand, and take all their preferences and availability into consideration. It’s difficult. It’s genuinely a mathematical problem.

A fair rota is one in which quiet and busy times are distributed equally across employees. It’s one in which no one works every weekend of the month (unless they specifically said they want to). A fair rota is also one where open shifts are made available to all employees who say they can work at that given time. And, importantly, it’s one that is not shared last minute but rather as far in advance as possible.

In short, a fair rota is one that is accommodating and non-preferential.

Dan: However, a fair rota is not necessarily an equal one. In our early implementations of fairness, we thought that all we had to do was ensure an equal number of hours worked during undesirable working times. However, we quickly learned that employee constraints like unavailability make equality of undesirable shifts the incorrect goal in many cases. For this reason, our thinking on fairness has become more nuanced and focuses on minimising the amount of time any employee spends working undesirable hours, while still meeting business requirements (but more on this in an upcoming post!)

Scheduling technology has a lot of power to do the right - or wrong - thing. We could optimise our algorithms to consider only business factors, but that would lead to terrible consequences such as asking team members to come in for one hour shifts during peak times, etc. But the truth is, looking only at business needs is not sustainable - you’d be left with no team, and no customer service.

Fair rotas lead to engagement, wellbeing, and retention. Not only are they the right thing to do, they’re also business-critical.

And for us at Rotageek, making fair rotas is one of our founding motivations. We’re leading the journey towards creating more sustainable shift work, and I’m so excited to see the impact this mission will have.