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Shift Worker Productivity Need Not Be an Oxymoron

Of course, what’s good for one group of shift workers may not be desirable for another, as was evident at an insurance call center we recently worked with. Call centers are notorious for their fluctuating pace. The phones ring off the hook at certain times of day and are much less active at other times. In this company’s case, most of the customer service agents were single parents. They told us they’d be receptive to the idea of working split shifts. The unusual schedule served these workers’ needs because it let them take several hours off in the middle of the day to pick their children up at school and drop them off at a care center. They then returned to work to complete their shift. It so happened that the hours when these workers were with their children coincided with a period of low call volume. At the same time that managers were accommodating the workers’ scheduling preference, they were reducing idle time and making the operation more productive. The lesson: Although it is useful to know that shift workers are generally satisfied with their jobs, such knowledge tells management little about the needs of individual employees or departments. To get a sense of these needs, management must survey shift workers directly.

When it comes to scheduling, perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is that paying shift workers overtime is proof of poor management. I’d be rich if I had a dollar (or more appropriately, a $1.50) for every time I’ve heard a manager express a desire to limit overtime pay to some predetermined percentage. The truth is that paying overtime can be sound economic practice; it depends on what alternatives are available. Overtime can be cheaper in cases where companies routinely hire additional workers to cover break times or deal with issues like seasonal increases in demand or vacation relief. A worker logging overtime doesn’t cost the company more in terms of benefits, because that burden is already covered. And by asking existing workers to do more, management avoids the risks of overstaffing and increasing the amount of idle time, which is the real source of wage inefficiency.

As with a lot of things in life, you just have to do the math.

Author Profile:

John Frehse ([email protected]) is chief strategist at Core Practice Partners, an international consulting firm that specializes in workforce optimization. He has lectured around the world on labor management strategies.

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  1. Awake in Philly Community Education Group, “Shift Work Sleep Disorder Fact Sheet”: Details the degree that sleep disorders can jeopardize the health and safety of shift workers and undermine employers’ profitability. PDF Download.
  2. Mike Noon and Paul Blyton, The Realities of Work (3rd ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2007): How the rank and file view their jobs — and what gives rise to morale problems. Click here.
  3. Harriet B. Presser, “The Economy That Never Sleeps,” Contexts, vol. 3, no. 2 (Spring 2004): The role of policy in a world where two in every five employees work late shifts and weekends. Click here.
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