Who Benefits From Workplace Flexibility?

A new study tackles schedule instability in retail jobs.

Gap employee Shinju Nozawa-Auclair folds clothes at a Gap store on February 20, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Gap employee Shinju Nozawa-Auclair folds clothes at a Gap store on Feb. 20, 2014, in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There’s a lot of talk these days about the benefits of a flexible work schedule. Setting your own hours and working from home are perks that many companies offer to attract and retain top talent. But this is a benefit that is really only useful for salaried professionals. For hourly workers, especially those in retail, there is such a thing as too much workplace flexibility, and it goes by a different name: instability. It’s not uncommon for retail workers to be unsure of what their schedules look like just a few days or even a few hours out, which makes it difficult to plan child care and schedule doctors’ appointments, much less rely on a stable paycheck.

Take Aneya, a part-time employee whose story is documented in a 2006 study by Julia R. Henly, H. Luke Shaefer, and Elaine Waxman. Aneya discussed how she has been forced to work extra hours unexpectedly. She states, “We’d have to stay late and clean up the store and they schedule you to 11 … but after two, three hours go past … I think that’s too much because I have a child to go home to, and so does everybody else.” Or take Francesca, who showed up to work one day to then be told that she was not needed. She exclaimed, “I came all the way down here and I stay so far! Then you tell me to turn around and go back home? … I don’t have money to be wasting like that!”

Aneya and Francesca are not alone. Unexpected changes and on-call shifts, in which employees learn at the last minute whether they will be needed that day and for how long, are widespread in retail. Studies after studies show that these and other sources of schedule instability disrupt many workers’ lives. In a case study of a national women’s clothing chain, 47 percent of employees could not easily anticipate what days and times they would work week to week, and 45 percent agreed that last-minute adjustments were often made to their work schedules. Well over half of both part-time and full-time employees reported that they had to change plans outside of work because of their jobs at least some of the time. For low-income families already struggling to get by, this is no way to live.

In a first-of-its-kind study released Wednesday, we partnered with the Gap Inc., a global apparel retailer with six clothing chains and 135,000 employees, to try to tackle this rampant schedule instability. Our goal was to develop and evaluate a multicomponent intervention targeted at improving multiple sources of schedule instability. What we found is that shifting to more schedule stability isn’t just good for associates—it’s good for business too.

Our intervention targeted four dimensions of schedule stability: consistency (increasing the consistency of schedules from week to week), predictability (improving the ability of employees to anticipate when they will work), adequacy (giving more hours to employees who want them), and input (enhancing employees’ say as to when they work and when they don’t). The Gap stores in Chicago and San Francisco (28 in total) were randomly assigned to either the treatment (multicomponent intervention) or control (similar to other U.S. stores) condition. Just as we were implementing our experiment, the Gap rolled out two practices to all of its locations in the U.S., including both control and treatment stores:

• Two-week advance notice, in which stores were required to publish their schedules two weeks ahead of time

• Elimination of on calls, which required stores to stop the practice of scheduling tentative shifts that could be canceled only a few hours before the scheduled start.

The 19 stores in the treatment condition also saw five other changes implemented:

• Tech-enabled shift swapping: an app that allowed workers to swap shifts and allowed managers to post shifts.

• Stable shift structure: Managers made an effort to increase the consistency of shift start and end times.

• Core scheduling: Managers aimed to improve the consistency of associates’ shifts from week to week.

• Part-time plus: A core team of associates were offered a soft guarantee of at least 20 hours per week.

• Targeted additional staffing: Some stores were given additional staffing hours at consistent specified times with the aim of increasing sales and hours for employees.

We found that over the course of our 10-month experiment, this five-component intervention increased schedule consistency, predictability, and input. Quantitative scheduling data and employee surveys suggest that shift times, start and end times, and the numbers of weekly hours were more consistent in stores implementing the intervention than in stores in the control condition. Associates in stores implementing the intervention reported greater predictability in how many hours they worked and fewer shifts that were changed unexpectedly from the original schedule. Associates in treatment stores used the shift-swapping app to gain more control over their work schedules. Although the intervention does not seem to have improved the adequacy of hours for most associates, those given the part-time-plus designation did see an increase in hours.

These results are promising, and mirrored what we heard from associates and managers, who saw the benefits of these new practices in their daily lives. One associate said that because core scheduling meant she could expect when her shifts were likely to be scheduled, she realized that she “could really have [a second] job and make more money and have the flexibility that I need to do the care that I do at home.” Previously, her schedule’s “flexibility” favored her employer, which could make demands of her. With the intervention, the flexibility now worked in her favor, as she herself began to have more control and predictability with her schedule. The increased predictability allowed her to start planning her life outside of the job. Another associate remarked that the shift-swapping app “has made things better, with getting shifts covered and picking up hours.” The extra input that she had in her schedule because of the app allowed her to have more control over her paycheck and personal life.

One manager noted that before stable shift structure was implemented, associates weren’t sure what time they started work the next day. In implementing this component of the intervention, the manager had moved from having employees start work at several different times during the day, which also varied from day to day, to setting standardized start times—for example, morning shifts begin at 9 a.m., afternoon shifts at 1 p.m., and evenings at 5 p.m., with some exceptions based on employee availability. The manager remarked, “It helps with stability for them because they can remember what time to leave [home] to get here on time with public transportation, knowing that shift is going to be the same week to week.”

Businesses might look at our intervention and think that the practices would be too costly to implement. Conventional wisdom holds that unstable scheduling is inevitable in retail because of fluctuations in customer demand. The thinking is that unstable scheduling is driven by customer demand—that schedule instability occurs as managers staff up and down to match surges and lulls in store traffic, in order to save costly labor hours. Sure, it would be nice to give workers more stability, but instability is just a necessary evil of the business, many might say.

But, as our study clearly found, that’s not true. Variation in store traffic only accounted for 30 percent of the variation in staffing levels. Managers we surveyed reported that most of the instability in the retail business, especially in last-minute schedule adjustments, stemmed instead from headquarters itself in the form of leadership visits, inaccurate shipment information, and last-minute changes in promotions. Workers are added or cut from the schedule on short notice when company leaders drop by a store and expect the store to look impeccable, or when a shipment is scheduled to come in on Thursday but comes on Tuesday instead, or when a 30-percent-off promotion changes to a 40-percent-off promotion and all the signage needs to be changed. These are problems that come directly from headquarters’ decisions, not customer demand.

But no one loses in the move toward stability. The Gap saw a 7 percent increase in sales and a 5 percent increase in labor productivity in treatment stores due to our intervention. Our experiment shows that not only is it possible to offer more stable schedules, but it can actually be in businesses’ self-interest to do so. These workers aren’t asking for the option to work from home or for unlimited snacks. What they need is for their employers to realize that they have lives outside of work that they need to plan for and pay for. And if employers do, they will reap the benefits of having a happier, more stable, and more productive workforce.