Can the Inmates Run the Asylum? A Case for Associate Self-Scheduling.

by | Mar 4, 2014

If you’re like many retailers, your managers spend too much time scheduling.  Even if you have a sophisticated workforce management system, they spend too many hours editing and tweaking the schedule every week. But, how do you fix that? 

One answer may be to change who is responsible for writing the schedule.  No, I’m not suggesting that you hire a schedule administrator.  I’m suggesting something more radical: why don’t you let your associates write their own schedules?  Does that sound crazy?  It may be not be as far-fetched as you think.

Let’s start by looking at the scheduling process.  Most store operations and finance people believe that they – or their sophisticated forecasting systems – can create accurate driver forecasts . A ny WFM system that is properly configured with labor standards, minimums and maximums, and hours of operation can produce a decent workload.  This same WFM system can also produce a collection of shifts that adequately cover that workload.  The challenge – and this is where managers spend too much time – is determining which associate gets assigned to each shift. 

Of course, your scheduling system can do this work for you.  After all, didn’t you buy a WFM system to auto-schedule or optimize the schedules of your staff?  The problem is that this sophisticated engine it is dependent upon having enough staff, accurate availability, and correct job qualifications.  Without this information or with inaccurate information, even the best scheduling system will produce bad schedules. 

Making matters worse, many store managers have personal preferences as to what makes a good schedule (i.e., “I like Colleen to open on the weekends”, “Kris and Liz make a good team and I want them working together”, or “Scott and Paul don’t get along and I cannot have them scheduled at the same time”). When you factor in last minute requests for time-off, no-shows and shift-swaps, it becomes easy to see why your store managers spend too much time scheduling.

You can easily fix this dilemma by making sure that all of that data – availability, qualifications, etc. – is in the system before the schedule gets generated.  However, I’ve been trying to get store managers to do that since the 1990s and I’m still trying.  You can tell store managers to leave the schedule alone or to limit the number of edits that they can make.  But, that’s a sure fire recipe to keep people from using the system. There has got to be a better way, and based on conversations with a number of retailers, I’m not the only one looking for a solution . 

Enter employee self-scheduling. Allowing workers to write their own schedules is not a new idea.  It happens in many industries.  Certain airline crews, factory workers, and nurses do it every schedule.  It is not unheard of in retail, either.  Several large grocers offer self-scheduling to certain groups of unionized associates. 

With self-scheduling, demand is forecasted, workload is generated, and shifts are created by someone centrally or, more often, by a WFM system.  Once that’s done, employees pick the shifts that they want to work.  The order in which employees pick shifts can be based on seniority, full-time/part-time status, performance, preferences…just about anything.  The self-scheduling system needs to be sophisticated enough to know which shifts employees are qualified to work, prevents them from picking up too many hours, and alerts them when they are scheduled for too few.  When employees are finished picking-up shifts, managers work to staff any unfilled shifts which requires considerably less time than they spend endless editing their schedules today.

What do your managers do with this time that they get back in their day?  Anything!  They can spend more time on the sales floor.  They can coach, manage and lead the staff.  They can focus on the improving the performance of their stores.

Self-scheduling has benefits beyond saving managers time.  When associates pick their own shifts, they are more likely to show-up for work. Their level of engagement increases because they have more control over their work-life balance.  Customer service and productivity improve because associates are more actively engaged.

Now that I’ve got you all hot-and-bothered about self-scheduling, let me throw a little bit of cold water on this idea.  We – as an industry – are at the beginning of our journey to self-scheduling.  Work needs to be done to turn this idea into a reality.  The mindset of our associates and store managers have to change.  Your peers at corporate HQ and in the field need to be educated.  Thought has to be put into how self-scheduling could be implemented, and this could be challenging because most WFM systems do not have strong retail self-scheduling functionality but seeds are planted with mobile WFM and other forms of employee self-service.

The opportunity for self-scheduling is great, and I am convinced that we will see several retailers start down their self-scheduling journey in the next couple of years.    These retailers will forge a new path of WFM innovation and be the first to achieve the benefits.  Will you be one of them?

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