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Almost every major retailer and restaurant chain uses software to help schedule its workforce. Software vendors claim that their technologies “eliminate manual scheduling and ensure optimal labor coverage for every shift, every day.” But this automation can come with a heavy human cost.

A recent New York Times story, Working Anything but 9 to 5, told of a woman’s struggle with extreme and fast-changing Starbucks shifts. She was scheduled, for example, to work “until 11 p.m. on Friday, July 4; report again just hours later, at 4 a.m. on Saturday; and start again at 5 a.m. on Sunday.” Experts are concerned that these schedules are “injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families.” The Times also collected more than 300 reader responses, many of which told of similar scheduling stresses.

In some cases, corporate policies are not reflected in scheduling software’s output. For example, Starbucks told the Times that its policy is to give all employees a week’s notice regarding their work hours. But of employees interviewed at 17 Starbucks across the country, only two said they’d received such notice.

A solution requires that enforceable corporate policies be properly reflected in scheduling software. For example, one popular software suite, Kronos, claims that it will strictly adhere to an employer’s “scheduling-related rules and policies.” But what are the applicable rules and policies? How well can they be understood by the software? Can managers override the rules (and when allowing this discretion be desirable)?

Scheduling software is just a tool — but it must be well-designed and carefully used. Employers should redouble their efforts to be attentive to the needs of their employees.

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