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Crafting the No-Chaos Workweek

University of Chicago labor expert Susan Lambert on how stabilizing employees’ hours can help retailers

Photo: Lucy Hewett

Erratic scheduling is obviously rough on workers. But why is it not good for employers?

When you have unstable and unpredictable hours for employees, you have an unstable and unpredictable workforce. Many firms think that keeping labor outlays low translates into keeping overall costs low. But research suggests that at some point, that interferes with your productivity, your performance, your ability to make sales.

How so?

Retailers track staffing levels very closely to measures of demand, such as how many people are in the store at a time. But they don’t have good ways of measuring the back-end costs, which are when customers such as you and me — certainly me — walk out without buying something because they can’t find it and can’t find a salesperson or the salesperson doesn’t know that the merchandise is in the back because they haven’t been there since Monday.

So how should employers better approach scheduling?

It’s not rocket science. I helped develop an intervention for the Gap with several components, such as eliminating on-call shifts, posting schedules at least 14 days in advance, and scheduling workers for the same shifts from week to week as much as possible. And we increased labor productivity by 5 percent and sales by 7 percent.

Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco have fair workweek laws. Will Chicago be next?

An ordinance has been introduced into the City Council. The requirement would be to provide certain scheduling standards to all hourly workers and also lower-paid salaried workers. In other places, they’ve focused on retail, fast food, and hospitality. Chicago is going for pretty much everybody right now — all different industries. It will be a much more comprehensive ordinance than in other municipalities.

Have you ever worked an hourly job?

I worked my way through college at Sears, Roebuck. I was always worried about whether I was going to get enough hours. The younger workers were treated as though we were just kind of working on the side, but I really needed that money.

When you have a bad day in academia, do you ever think, I can always go back on the sales floor?

No, I do not.

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