working women

Working on Demand

Multiple, recent surveys show that flextime is a topic many people feel passionately about.  The number of angles on this topic are as varied as employees themselves: some are caretakers, others live far from offices, still others prefer the lifestyle benefits of telecommuting or just have little reason to be physically present in an office on a full-time basis, given their job function.  The topic is a lot more complicated than it initially looks.  In fact, if I were to tackle the issues around flex-time (ranging from workplace productivity, fairness, official policies versus unofficial norms, how to negotiate flextime, etc), I’d have to write a book.  So today I’m going to focus on the opposite of flexible working: completely unpredictable and inflexible working.

I’m referring to the a large number of people who hear the term “flex time” and who probably mutter that they are not able to work in any predictable manner at all.  If you think about it, this group of people is quite diverse: OBGYN doctors, investment bankers, corporate deal attorneys, certain members of the armed forces…and it turns out, a huge number of American retail workers.

Last week, this heartbreaking NYT article about a barista struggling to coordinate her part-time college courses and childcare for her toddler caused Starbucks to change its official policy and method (software and data) for scheduling shift workers.  This excerpt from the article explains:

Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.

On the one hand, it obviously makes sense for a business’ bottom line to staff efficiently.  On the other hand, no piece of software can account for the complexities of human life and all the messy issues they involve.  Moreover, giving many different human managers complete discretion over scheduling will not necessarily lead to better, or even fairer outcomes all the time. Starbucks’ reputation as a fair employer is actually better than most, and they have announced they will review their policy.  

Given there are over 100,000 baristas working at Starbucks, in some ways its surprising that this is the first times that scheduling software has received this sort of national attention.  In other industries, working “on demand” doesn’t really get a lot of press.  The exception is when something terrible happens.  For example, earlier this year, several bulge bracket banks re-evaluated their intern and junior staffing hours after the suicide of one summer intern (which was never actually linked to his work hours).  

The thing about human stories is that you can never tell what sort of impact you can make by just telling your tale.  The reason I’m writing about Starbucks is that I’m frankly reassured that one, single moving story (albeit a well-told one by a journalist working for one of the most powerful media outlets in the world) can have an impact.  I hope that Fairygodboss can be a place where people share stories (not always about excessive work, hopefully!), and where the most compelling ones find a way of creating dialogue and even change.


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