Workforce Management Software Brings Innovation to Shift Scheduling

By Dave Zielinski June 26, 2018
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Workforce Management Software Brings Innovation to Shift Scheduling

​When Chris Mullen was looking to implement a new management philosophy in his human resources department, he used an atypical catalyst to help drive the change: a workforce management (WFM) technology system.

WFM technologies help companies manage employee schedules, labor budgets, time worked and payroll tax compliance issues.

Mullen, director of HR for housing and dining services at the University of Colorado in Boulder, wanted to use the flexibility and efficiency of WFM tech to boost employee engagement, automate routine management decisions and encourage more data-driven decision-making at the university.

"We used our new system as an impetus to examine everything from pay codes to time-keeping to every aspect of our workforce management practices," Mullen said. "We also wanted to improve the employee experience by bringing new flexibility and fairness to our shift-scheduling processes."

Using vendor Kronos's Workforce Dimensions product, Mullen has given university workers more say into when and where they work shifts, the ability to swap shifts with little or no manager approval, and faster responses to their time-off requests. He views these new capabilities as recruiting and retention tools in a market where competition for hourly workers is fierce.

The WFM platform also automates routine decisions for line managers, Mullen said. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) automatically approves or denies employees' time-off requests with no need for manager intervention. AI learns a company's business rules and then acts as a manager would in making time-off decisions by reviewing accrual balances and checking on other team members who've requested time off.

"Line managers can use the time they save from having to do such tasks to build better relationships with their employees, which is an important goal to me," Mullen said.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

New Generation of Platforms

Vendors in the WFM technology market are releasing cloud-first platforms designed to go beyond just compliance to help organizations improve efficiency and productivity. Labor scheduling tools are assuming new prominence as companies acknowledge the importance of placing the right workers in the right place at the right time.

A 2018 study from research and advisory firm Gartner—Prepare Yourself for the Future of Workforce Management—found that many existing WFM vendors are upgrading their platforms, new providers are innovating and workers are expecting consumer-grade applications to support scheduling flexibility.

Time and attendance tools, once heavily used only by industries with large numbers of hourly and part-time workers like health care and retail, are attracting buyers in high-tech, consulting and financial services, according to the 2017-2018 Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey. Those industries have significant project-management billing requirements and need to accurately track traveling salaried employees' hours for payroll tax compliance purposes, the Sierra-Cedar survey found.

The Gartner study also found that the tightening labor market has helped push WFM vendors to improve employee scheduling flexibility in their self-service applications to attract and retain workers.

The growth of the contingent workforce also has placed new demands on WFM platforms, according to the Gartner study. Leading providers are beginning to address that challenge with upgrades like real-time integration to freelance management system platforms and by creating analytics that measure contingent workers' performance.

Innovations in WFM Capabilities

Some WFM vendors are investing in increasingly sophisticated predictive capabilities and embedded analytics, the Sierra-Cedar study found.

Vendors like Minneapolis-based Ceridian have combined their time-and-attendance and payroll systems on a single engine to meet new client needs and better address compliance requirements.  An ability to process time and pay together helps support frequent business travelers, said Andrew Shopsowitz, director of product management for Ceridian.

Ceridian also has made improvements in its WFM tools to create labor forecasts based on historical data so managers can create schedules that have the right people working at the right time. The application also ensures managers stick to budget guidelines by using warnings to flag labor costs like overtime that are outside of the budget.

"We give managers an interactive labor demand curve to guide in the scheduling of employees," Shopsowitz said. "It provides an efficiency score that automatically updates as employees are moved around and added to schedules. Managers have immediate visibility as they create a schedule into what their labor costs will be compared against their defined budgets for their location for that day."

Some WFM platforms also now have features to help HR deal more proactively with compliance issues. For example, these functions can alert users if minors are approaching a legal threshold for the number of hours they can work daily or weekly and if rules dictating how much rest certain employees need between shifts are about to be violated. 

Workday is another vendor that has recently upgraded its WFM platform. The provider redesigned its time-and-absence analytics dashboard to be more intuitive for managers to use in monitoring employee hours worked and overtime, giving them the ability to see summary information on employees' timecard submissions and approval status.

Workday also built a new team absence calendar that allows employees to see when their team members will be out of the office so they don't overlap with time off, said Mariana Santiago, Workday's vice president of product management for workforce management and payroll. 

"Hourly employees today expect flexibility and simplicity in their work schedules, and they expect to be able to communicate with their employer and colleagues to adjust work, demand and availability on an ongoing basis," Santiago said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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