Portable Scheduling

By Bill Roberts
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At Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in New York, creating the schedule for 175 servers used to be a headache. The manager would spend several hours on it—and then more time after the schedule was posted and shift-swapping began. Written requests went to the manager, who juggled changes while tracking servers’ hours to avoid surpassing overtime allotments.

Now Del Frisco’s manager creates the schedule on a computer or an Apple iPhone and posts it to a website. The site automatically routes the schedule to all employees’ cell phones. The application is integrated with a point-of-sale system that tracks each server’s hours. When a server needs to make a schedule change, the individual sends a text message that is routed only to employees who have not hit an overtime limit. The first employee to respond gets the shift, thereby eliminating favoritism or appearances thereof.

On the Move

The mobile platform on web-enabled cell phones, smart phones and tablet computers, such as Apple’s iPad, is changing the workplace. In a survey of 230 organizations conducted last year by the Aberdeen Group Inc., an information technology advisory service in Boston, 53 percent of the respondents said they use mobile software for workforce management functions, 39 percent use it to deliver informal learning and development, and 38 percent use it for talent acquisition and recruiting.

Asked to list reasons for going mobile, 44 percent of the respondents cited the “needs and expectations of multiple generations in the workplace,” 40 percent said economic conditions demand greater efficiency, and 40 percent cited geographically dispersed workforces.

Coming to the Small Screen

James Holincheck, managing vice president at Gartner Inc., an information technology consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn., says most vendors offer support for some mobile applications, such as the ability to look things up and simple workflows. “Mobile has forced vendors to think about simplifying,” he says. “What no one has had to do until mobile forced them is to decide what they can do without and build an interface from the ground up,” he explains. “On tablets, you have a bit more latitude.”

Standard websites are friendly to notebook computers and even to the smaller iPad and other tablet computers, but they are not friendly to smart phone screens. Unless developers design web applications for smaller screens, or create native applications that download to the smart phone and run on its operating system, the sites won’t attract many users.

With more than a half dozen mobile operating systems, developing applications phone by phone will be time-consuming—but it’s worth it to some. “We’ve decided to build native applications for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones as well as a number of nonsmart phones,” says Bill Bartow, vice president of product management at Kronos Inc., a Chelmsford, Mass.-based developer of workforce management products. “For everything else, there will be a Java-based capability.” These solutions will allow the company to reach about 90 percent of the phones, he predicts.

Taking the Pain out of Scheduling

Few tasks are more painful than the gnarly process of creating schedules for shift workers. “At the New York Del Frisco’s, they’d spend hours writing a schedule,” says John Tanski, IT field support manager for Lone Star Business Solutions, a division of Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, based in Plano, Texas. Lone Star owns Del Frisco’s. “Now, it’s an hour a week.”

Tanski led the implementation of software from WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich. The developer offers web-based HR applications deliverable to computers and mobile devices. Lone Star uses the software at 166 restaurants with 15,000 employees in 30 states.

In a customer survey, Walker Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing for WhenToManage, found that more than 60 percent of managers save more than an hour each week on scheduling, more than 45 percent of customers save $100 to $500 on labor costs each month, and 95 percent of employee users say the software improves communication and they would recommend it to past, current and future employers.

In most cases, Lone Star issues each manager an iPhone because the schedule-creation application is designed for it. Lone Star does not issue mobile devices to rank-and-file employees; the very few employees without personal cell phones can see their schedules on computers.

PC in Your Pocket

Mobile scheduling is indeed gaining traction. Kronos offers Workforce Mobile Scheduler, a text-based application to help managers fill open shifts. Instead of phone calls, workers get text messages and respond if they want the shifts. “We’re just now seeing a strong growing pipeline for it,” Bartow says.

With 1,400 beds and 6,000 employees, Atlanta-based Grady Health System had a staff of six whose full-time jobs were to make phone calls to keep shifts filled. Mobile Scheduler allows those employees to spend part of their time on scheduling and part of their time on other tasks. “Now, it can take minutes rather than hours” to schedule shifts, says Donald Thomas, the company’s assistant controller.

Mobile applications are also making inroads in e-learning. Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Md., uses a mobile version of Books24x7, which enables access to the full Books24x7 platform. The platform has been available on a computer for years and now has been repurposed for an iPhone application users can download. It offers business and technical reference content from SkillSoft PLC in Nashua, N.H.

The author is technology contributing editor for HR Magazine and is based in Silicon Valley in California.

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