What are Retailers doing with Mobile Workforce Management?

by | Sep 9, 2014

It’s hard to have a conversation with a retailer these days and not talk about mobility.  While much attention has been placed on m-commerce and other customer-facing technologies, many retailers have quietly equipped their field and store leadership with smart phones.

A recent survey by the Axsium Group’s retail clients showed that more than 50 percent of them provide their store leadership with a cellular phone.  More than half of those are providing managers with smart phones.

All of this leads to one of those questions that I hear frequently which is the title of this blog post: What are retailers doing with mobile workforce management?

Execution Management Leads the Way

RIS News recently published a study focused on this topic called “Mobile WFM Comes of Age”.  It showed that the top uses of mobile WFM are for execution management and communication.

The results are not particularly surprising. They reflect the relative maturity of mobile WFM solutions. The two major execution management vendors – RedPrairie and Reflexis – were early adopters of smart phones and other wireless devices in the store.

Today, both vendors continue to invest in mobile applications and make use of other wireless technologies.  For example, RedPrairie demonstrated an iPhone application prototype that gives field managers a map-based view of their stores from which they can view which stores are in or out of task compliance.  Inside the store, RedPrairie has developed a speech-based interface prototype that allows associates with a wireless headset to interact with tasks assigned to them.

Untethering the Store Manager

Getting your store manager out of the back office and putting him on the floor can have a powerful impact in your store.  Not only is your store manager often your best salesperson, but he also acts as a mentor, motivator and coach to your associates.

In fact, I know of several major retailers that have built their entire business case for a new WFM system based on that system on “redeploying labor” by reducing the amount of time he needs to spend writing schedules, approving requests and managing associates’ time, and getting him on the sales floor.

Don’t expect major functions to be smart phone enabled.  No matter how high the resolution of an iPhone or Blackberry’s display is, it’s hard to imagine a store manager writing a schedule on a 4 inch x 6 inch device, for example.  Time-intensive functions or those that require a lot of detail will still need to be done on the back office PC for the foreseeable future.

Still, mobile WFM can take this concept further by allowing the store manager to perform many simple and mundane WFM tasks such as approving time-off requests or finding a replacement for a no-show from their mobile phone or wireless device.  He can track payroll costs or other key labor metrics without needing to be sitting in front of his computer much less being in the store.

Speaking of activity outside the store, retailers need to be cautious.  Non-exempt managers can start racking up overtime by using their mobile device outside of scheduled hours.  Such usage is considered by most states to be “working time” for which non-exempt employees – whether salaried or not – needs to be paid.

What about the Associate?

It seems that everybody has a cell phone these days.  For many – especially younger workers – their mobile phone is as important as their wallet or house keys.  More and more often, these devices aren’t just simple cellular phones but smart phones capable of running applications and browsing websites.

Mobile WFM sounds like the perfect interface between the retailer and their associates.  Giving access to their schedule, the ability to review and submit time-off requests, set availability, and other self-service functions empowers associates and helps increase job satisfaction.

Kronos was the first major workforce management vendor to release this kind of functionality.  It’s Workforce Mobile Scheduler allows store managers to send text messages to their associates when shifts become available.  The first qualified associate to reply is automatically given the shift and receives a second text message to confirm.  Very cool!

Unfortunately, there are a few roadblocks that stand in the way of adoption.

As with non-exempt managers, state wage and hour laws require that associates be paid for any work done for the company.  Most employment lawyers interpret that to include accessing tools like employee self-service.  This is why many retailers have not enabled web-based self service to their existing WFM systems.  The same applies to cell phones.

The Workforce Mobile Scheduler example above probably doesn’t constitute work that requires pay.  After all, you probably do call-ins today, and the only thing that differs in this case is the medium (and efficiency).  However, anything beyond a call-in may cross the line.

Beyond the question of working time, there are potential issues with fairness and cost.  For example, could an associate claim that he is discriminated against if extra shifts are provided via text message and he doesn’t have a cell phone?  Also, who’s liable for the cost of the text message?  Even unlimited text message plans have a cost.

These issues can be overcome with planning today, and as the US population shifts its view of a cell phone from a luxury to a necessary utility, some of these issues will dissipate.

What are you doing with mobile WFM?  Are you ready to jump on the bandwagon or are you taking await-and-see approach?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please comment below or email me.

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