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The Wall Street Journal reports this morning in a front page story on Wal-Mart’s roll out of a computerized system designed to allow the company to optimize its employee scheduling. The system, according to the WSJ, “promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees,” who suddenly may have to deal with less predictable schedules and paychecks.

Wal-Mart’s motivation is fairly simple: it wants to save money and be more efficient. By using the scheduling system, it is able to make sure that there are more employees working when there are more customers in-store…and, conversely, fewer employees when things are slow. However, it often requires that employees be “on call” just in case things get busy – time that they are required to be available but for which they are not being compensated, a notion that unions and anti-Wal-Mart organizers find disturbing.

“A company using these fine-tuned programs might start the day with a few employees on hand at many stores, bring in a bunch more during busy midday hours, and gradually pare down through the day before bulking up for the evening rush,” the Journal writes, noting that in some cases, employees “may be asked to be ‘on call’ to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule. That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.”
KC's View:
This is a tough one, because we’re sympathetic to both Wal-Mart’s and the employees’ concerns.

We don’t think that it is too much for an employer to want to schedule employees so that they’re in the store when there actually are customers. At the same time, we agree with employee concerns that suddenly they have to be available without actually getting paid – or risk having their hours reduced.

This isn’t a fully formed idea yet, but we wonder if there is a different way to position this, to find a way to sell this to employees as a benefit. After all, a more productive Wal-Mart conceivably should result in a company that is able to hire more people for more hours over the long haul. The key, it seems to us, is to make employees feel like they have some skin in the game…and not just are pawns being manipulated by some computer system somewhere.

For example, could there be a way to offer better health benefits or even store-based profit-sharing bonuses to the most flexible employees? Or find a way to help them out with day care costs?

There’s a way to position this scheduling program as having employee benefits. It’s harder, but we think in the long run it would be worth it.

And, by the way, there’s a message here for Wal-Mart’s competitors. You can become a preferred employer by structuring your programs in such a way that gives employees a stake in the business. “Stake” can mean a lot of things, but in the end, it all comes down to shared success.