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Rethinking just-in-time staffing 

Lean staffing helped many businesses survive the 2008 financial crisis. But has just-in-time staffing become too risky?

Lean staffing models helped many businesses survive the 2008 recession. However, the impact of the pandemic and worker shortages have created challenges for companies relying on “just-in-time staffing,” a model in which hourly workers are engaged in response to the employer’s immediate needs. Many industries, including manufacturing, logistics, retail and hospitality, have depended on just-in-time staffing to meet their talent requirements while managing labor costs.

Hourly workers make up a significant part of the worldwide labor force. In the U.S., 55.8% of workers are paid hourly, while in China this number rises to 69.4%.  Increasingly, these workers are demanding better wages and more stability. 

The pandemic provoked changes in attitudes and aspirations; expectations of risks and rewards at work; and feelings on flexibility. According to the 2023 Global Workforce View from the ADP Research Institute, 39% of employees would welcome additional paid leave if employers couldn’t offer raises, for example.

These attitude shifts come amid persistent worker shortages. In the U.S., there are over 10 million job openings, with only 5.7 million workers currently searching. After Brexit, the United Kingdom has a shortfall of about 330,000 workers. European Employment Services reports that 28 occupations, accounting for 14% of the E.U. workforce, are experiencing labor shortages. Japan has the most severe labor shortage in the world; by 2030, it’s expected to experience a shortfall of 10.5 million workers, or about 15% of the overall workforce.

With labor so in demand and workers ready to switch jobs to get the flexibility and wages they want, it’s crucial to consider what hourly workers require in today’s workplace. And the first priority is to rethink scheduling.

Balancing needs

Technology plays a significant role in the staffing process, from recruitment to retirement. Workforce management (WFM) scheduling software has become essential in creating flexible schedules and managing labor resources and productivity. 

Balancing scheduling flexibility for employees with current business needs can be tricky for employers. Businesses that are prone to fluctuations in supply and demand, or that have intense cyclical or seasonal needs, have embraced just-in-time scheduling powered by WFM software. Dynamic scheduling that requires little manager intervention helps ensure adherence to budgetary restrictions and can help guarantee compliance with local labor laws for a global workforce. 

For example, local laws vary widely regarding how much notice has to be given for work schedules, and how and when changes are allowed. Local laws also may specify minimum breaks between shifts for workers to have enough time to rest. 

However, Massimo Mensi, Head of Professionals & Managers at UNI Global Union, an international organization based in Switzerland that represents millions of employees in the skills and services sectors, says the role of technology is not always positive for hourly workers.

“The introduction of algorithmic systems reduces human interaction both with peers and supervisors, creating less autonomy,” he says. However, Mensi believes technology can provide assistance to workers and identify areas where more workforce training is needed: “Technology can help enforce positive parts of workplace culture, like taking breaks and the right to disconnect.”

Scheduling as a priority for both sides 

Scheduling is equally important to workers as it is to employers, says Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of the UNI Global Union. “Scheduling is really important to low-wage, predominantly women workers in the care sector and in retail,” Hoffman said during a panel on the four-day work week at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Their work is very dependent on algorithmic management, which predicts their schedules, and many times, they don’t know their schedules. This makes it hard for them to make plans for other aspects of life such as taking their children to daycare or doctor’s appointments.”

Workers need a combination of stability and flexibility — a balance that can be tricky to achieve. They need stability so they can plan the rest of their lives around their work — whether it’s care-taking duties, university studies or juggling multiple part-time jobs — and flexibility to make all the pieces fit together. 

Mensi believes that in rethinking and addressing employment issues for hourly workers, employers must be willing to build the right relationships with employees.

“For employers to solve problems such as worker shortages and attrition, they must be willing to listen to and address the needs of their workers,” he says. “Many hourly employees or shift workers have little control over their working time and are at the beck and call of their employer. Their jobs involve irregular hours, low pay, and a complete lack of financial security. Whatever their employment status, workers today are looking for a voice in deciding their hours. They want hours and schedules that allow them to better manage their lives, so as to have a better work-life balance.”

One way managers can rethink scheduling in order to empower workers is to give employees more control over their schedules. Instead of having schedules assigned by managers, employees can choose shifts that work best for them, self-schedule and take on additional shifts if they need to. For example, in a bid to attract working parents, Amazon created certain roles where employees can self-schedule.

Companies can also consider incentivizing work better. The pandemic brought wage increases that are still growing; ADP Pay Insights showed that year-over-year pay for employees in the U.S. had increased by 7.2% in February 2023. However, in many areas, these pay increases have not kept up with inflation and rising costs of living. Many jurisdictions require higher wages for overnight, weekend or holiday work. Companies that have issues staffing certain shifts could offer dynamic pricing to incentivize workers to take them on. 

The four-day work week, or other condensed work schedules, are also worth considering. People want more agency over their time, according to the Worker Identity Research Collaboration (WIRC).

Today, workers want to build their work schedule around their lives and not the other way around.

Employers will continue to rely on just-in-time staffing for the foreseeable future — especially at a time when many fear an impending recession, and companies may want to depend more on contingent workers. Still, companies need to focus on the type of work flexibility that best suits the needs of their industries, so that employees can have the work-life balance they desire. According to Darin Pasch, a staffing consultant in Minneapolis, the increased importance of work-life balance was evident across industries during the pandemic. “People shifted their priorities as they realized what was most important,” Pasch says. “Today, workers want to build their work schedule around their lives and not the other way around.”

Adejoke Adeboyejo

Adejoke Adeboyejo is a freelance writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. Having worked in human resources for more than 12 years, she now writes about the workplace, women’s issues and the environment.