May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Letting the web do the administrative chores of managing workforces

The web plays a key role in keeping a fluctuating and widely deployed staff under control.

Living without a web-based workforce management system was like living in another world for Scott Campanella, director of operations for Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events. His Los Angeles catering division of the trendy restaurant company must routinely gather hundreds of freelance waiters to staff celebrity affairs. But with competition from scores of other eateries and catering companies to schedule the best of L.A.’s waiters, who tend to also be busy actors and grad students, Campanella’s staff was constantly hitting the phones in a feverish dash of calls and repeated call-backs to reach its best performers.

“We have multiple events, sometimes seven in the same day, so we may have to get 500 to 700 people,” Campanella says. It would take his former staff of four job schedulers several days to forge a list of waiters, resulting in a trail of voice-mail-clogging messages and, too often, missed opportunities to put together the best event staff. “Whoever calls first gets the best people, but for us it’s hard to stay ahead because we’re so busy,” Campanella says. “So often we had to work with B-level waiters while a mom-and-pop restaurant got an A team.”

Slashing costs

But that was last year. Now, with the web-based STAFFeasy employee scheduling application from Principal Decision System International, Campanella says he not only gets the A team, but he’s also benefiting from happier workers and managers, better planned events, and a nearly 50% drop in costs related to scheduling workers. Campanella declines to give the cost of using STAFFeasy, which PDSI hosts on its own servers. But he says it has let him replace his staff of labor schedulers, whose combined annual compensation was $150,000, with a single labor specialist who is free to analyze the costs and efficiency of each event. Wolfgang Puck now pays about $85,000 a year for both STAFFeasy and its staff labor analyst.

“The big question I’m left with is what did we get for $150,000 compared to what we now get for $85,000?” he says. PDSI says the price to run STAFFeasy, which is based on the number of positions filled per month, varies according to a company’s size and type of business, and ranges from $50 to $5,000 a month.

While Wolfgang Puck and its Hollywood clientele may be a unique combination, the company is not alone in its attempt to use the web to get control of managing employees. “This is a growing area where there is room for a lot of payoff and ROI within 12 months,” says Katherine Jones, managing director of enterprise business applications for researchers Aberdeen Group Inc. “A web-based system helps orchestrate an entire workforce. For a retailer that means looking at the system to see if she has enough staff to run a store.”

In addition to scheduling and managing a staff, other retailers are saving administrative time by having employees enter much of their own personal information into web-based human resources applications, such as when they change home address or phone number, and by having employees directly access a web-based application for information such as vacation policies and work schedules, Jones says.

Employee self-service

One of the significant benefits Wolfgang Puck derives from the STAFFeasy system, is the self-service ability the web-based application gives freelance waiters to check for upcoming events. Instead of playing phone tag with human schedulers, and often at the last minute to confirm assignments, the waiters can view an entire month’s schedule and sign up for the days that suit their availability.

Managers then electronically sort the names by whatever attributes they need for a particular event, such as years of experience or particular skills like operating cash registers or serving as a maitre d’. After selecting the best people for an event, managers use the STAFFeasy system to notify the candidates through e-mail or other electronic means, such as text messages to cell phones. The chosen workers then reply to the e-mail or other electronic message to confirm their acceptance.

The result is that workers, especially those most qualified, have a better chance to work their preferred schedules. “We have more contented employees, because they have more control over their lives,” Campanella says.

Hourly employees can be particularly difficult to manage, a point amplified by the fact that retailers employ a large number of them. The U.S. Department of Labor says hourly workers have an average turnover rate four times that of salaried workers.

The decrease in the cost of managing hourly workers with a workforce management system can be substantial, Aberdeen says. It figures a retailer with a before-tax profit of 4% can double its bottom line profits by implementing a web-based workforce management system for hourly employees. This improvement calculates only the direct cost savings; Aberdeen estimates a retailer with $500 million in annual revenue could save $9.5 million in a reduced workforce, $14.5 million from lower turnover, $350,000 in less shrinkage and $335,000 in a reduction of unemployment claims, for a total of more than $24 million.

In addition, it figures a retailer could improve its bottom line even further through related cost savings and productivity increases. It believes retailers can expect increased sales and customer loyalty stemming from a higher concentration of skilled employees, and less administrative time spent by managers, who can instead focus on sales and other management strategies.

Three weeks ahead

At Wolfgang Puck, managers used to take days to build a staff for a particular event, often running into the final week before the event. Now their web-based scheduling system enables managers to build staffing for an entire month of events within a few hours. “We’re three weeks ahead of anyone else in town, giving us a better chance to get A waiters,” Campanella says.

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