February 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Keeping Time

(Page 2 of 3)

The right projections

While other earlier computerized systems could support more advanced analytics, having the computations done at a central location, rather than in silos, allows changes to be made and sent out more quickly, Jones says. For example, she points to the ability to factor in up-to-the-minute weather forecasts that could affect sales levels and then communicate the immediate need for schedule changes. If a retailer knew that a heat wave was predicted for certain regions where it had stores, headquarters could immediately communicate the need for additional employees in the appliance departments for air conditioner and fan sales.

Also, many retailers experience higher sales right after the 15th and 30th of each month because that is when many people get paid. Some of the more sophisticated systems take that into consideration when setting work schedules as well as factor in the dates when Social Security and government checks arrive.

"For example, a store might base projections for sales during a holiday on last year`s performance, but if this year`s sale is right after pay day and last year`s sale was not, you may be comparing apples to oranges," says Randy Park, vice president of Tomax Corp. In addition to the payday factor, Tomax`s workforce management program factors in higher sales for the 23rd of the month only for stores located near military bases because that is when military employees get paid.

And just looking at projected sales dollars may not be enough to consider when determining schedules, Park says. Often the number of transactions may be a bigger indication of labor requirements. The Tomax system allows the manager to view sales dollar projections, but then considers other anticipated business factors, such as transactions, when determining labor requirements.

Also task-based jobs can be factored into schedules. Task-based jobs include such things as taking inventory or moving around merchandise to reflect the change in seasons. In these cases, employees are required to perform a number of tasks unrelated to selling and these tasks are often left out of the equation when scheduling employees. "What happens then is that either the tasks don`t get done or you have employees performing these tasks when they should be waiting on customers. With the right system, the corporate office can approve what tasks really need to be done and make sure there are sufficient resources to do them without interfering with the ability to assist customers," BlueCube`s Reilly says.

The early computerized workforce management systems did not generally give corporate management the ability to monitor whether stores were providing enough staff to ensure that the tasks that management wanted completed were getting done without interfering with sales.

Faster dissemination

An executive with a regional supermarket cooperative of 200 stores says a web-based program in use for the past two years has been much better at determining each store`s needs and is easier to use than previous computerized programs. "The web makes it easier to get the information out to all our cooperatives. At the same time, the system allows the store owners to distribute their employees better," the executive says.

While the chain had used computerized systems before, the earlier systems were not as effective at looking at the unique factors at each store, while providing consistency across the chain. And more important, the web facilitates the ability for the corporation to communicate staffing concerns with a large number of independently owned stores in a real-time manner.

But aside from better utilization of employees, web-based systems are expected to improve upon employee and management satisfaction.

In terms of management, web-based systems free up store managers to spend less time developing and copying schedules and allow them to concentrate on efforts to improve sales. But headquarters must resist the urge to exert complete control, vendors say, by building in provisions to allow store managers to make adjustments to fit last-minute changes or store-specific requirements.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems with centralized systems is that store managers feel that control is shifting to headquarters. "Managers often feel that control is being taken from them," says Tomax`s Park. Allowing management to have access to the systems via the web and then making the systems flexible enough for them to make necessary changes should help acceptance, he says.

Indeed, getting all employees behind the programs is essential. "Some of the early projects failed because store managers and employees saw them as Big Brother dictating how they should schedule their stores," says Garf. "Key to getting the staff behind this is educating the staff on how this can help them and how employees are more empowered. Employees like the fact that they have easy access to their schedules and it is easier for them to switch shifts."

Employee satisfaction

Parsippany, N.J.-based CyberShift Inc. initially promoted the benefits of its workforce management system to corporate management. Over time, it also began pitching its program as a means to improve employee morale. "Employees in the retail sector often struggle with work and life balances," says Robert Farina, CEO. "This gives them the flexibility to manage that better. Being able to go online to request schedule changes and enter into the programs any scheduling conflicts they might have is a big plus to most employees."

Indeed, employee satisfaction is a big concern to many retailers. A recent study by CareerBuilder, an online employment service, noted that 47% of retail employees say they want a new job. Giving them more say and better information about their schedule will go a long way in improving job satisfaction, proponents of workforce management systems say.

Another aspect that employees often like about web-based workforce management programs is the objectivity. Because the schedules are being set at a centralized location rather than by managers at the store level, employees are less likely to feel they are being discriminated against by managers who play favorites. And thus are more likely to be satisfied with their work. "You need to be careful, however," Garf cautions. "You don`t want to take management input completely out of the system and you have to program the system so that your best employees are rewarded with the best schedules." Indeed, most developers of workforce management technology say management can set the programs to reward tenured and high-sales employees, but within an objective framework.

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