Bending your schedule

May 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment average in February hit 4.3%, the lowest it’s been in a generation. This tight labor market mayencourage some catalogers to try flexible scheduling-adjusting their staffing schedule to balance their needs with the availability of employees-as an incentive to attract and keep employees.

“Flex scheduling helps motivate and energize employees, which increases loyalty and retention and cuts down training and turnover costs,” says Patricia Kishel, author of How to Start, Run, and Stay in Business (John Wiley & Sons). The “one size fits all” mentality and traditional 40-hour workweek may be a thing of the past, she says. “Today’s workers have more outside demands, and they need their employers to be flexible.”

Implementing a flexible scheduling program poses its challenges, however. St. Louis-based apparel and home goods cataloger Knight’s Ltd. offers flexible scheduling throughout its operations, and vice president of operations Steve Kessler says that conflicts can arise when flex workers can’t get the exact hours and days off they request. Workers also complain if they can’t get consistent hours and scheduling from week to week. “Some workers prefer to come in early and leave early. The 9 a.m.-2 p.m. shift is real popular,” he says. “But if everyone leaves at the same time, that creates a void during the 2 p.m.-6 p.m. shifts. Someone has to be there.”

To ensure proper coverage, Knight’s uses a software system to match the reps’ work availability to the scheduling needs of the company, says Kevin Stillman, the cataloger’s director of customer service and service systems. But the system also works as an employee incentive. Each rep fills out a work availability sheet upon hire; the 230-250 customer service and telephone reps are then ranked each month based on their attendance and quality assurance scores. “The higher-ranked you are, the higher the probability you’ll get the shift you want,” Stillman says. “The only thing we require is that employees work at least a 4-hour shift per day.” And to keep even this system from becoming too rigid, “we allow employees to make schedule request changes once a quarter.”

Freeport, ME-based outdoor gear and apparel cataloger L.L. Bean offers flexible scheduling in its information systems (IS) department, which employs nearly 300 people, says spokeswoman Jolene McGowan. But before an IS employee is granted permission for flex scheduling, the cataloger considers “how the employee’s request would affect his or her ability to meet needs and objectives,” she says. Some employees work four 10-hour days, while others work four 8-hour days in the office and one day at home. “The benefits are not cost-related,” McGowan says. “But it’s a combination of lifting morale and attracting the best candidates to L.L. Bean.”

At Dodgeville, WI-based Lands’ End, work schedules vary from a few hours a day to full 8-hour shifts, says spokeswoman Anna Schryver. The $1.37 billion casual apparel cataloger offers flex scheduling across all operations, including its call center and customer service departments, which has helped the cataloger better adapt to the schedules of its part-time and “alternative workers,” such as college students and retirees.