New tech-based service will help retail managers meet employees on their own communication terms.
In a recent conversation with Accu-Time Systems' Peter DiMaria, Integrated Solutions For Retailers learned about a new company with a solution that addresses a growing trend — the plugged-in, passive communication approach taken by Generation Y, also known as the millennial generation. These are the children of baby boomers, born in the late 1980s to early 1990s. They enter your workforce with mobile communication devices firmly planted in their hands, and their social circles are often networked, as in online.
DiMaria introduced us to Laila Partridge, CEO and founder of a startup company called Cover4me. The product Partridge offers helps retail managers schedule their employees on their own terms, in mobile, digital, passive fashion. Here, we introduce you to Partridge, she introduces us to Cover4me, and DiMaria weighs in.
Explain the industry's need for a mobile, passive scheduling solution.
Partridge: The U.S. hourly workforce is undergoing sweeping and fundamental changes due to the work habits and attitudes of the incoming, millennial generation. Today's younger workers are perfectly comfortable simply not showing up for work — a common and costly occurrence for hourly employers. Technology tools like cell phones and Google shaped this generation's communication behaviors, so we believe that employers need to utilize those same technologies to reverse the rising cost of turnover and absenteeism.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2007 29 million 16 to 24 year olds were in the workforce, employed largely in hourly jobs and representing more than a third of all U.S. hourly workers. Hourly employers need to find a way to work effectively with this new generation of workers.
Describe the architecture of the tool you've developed.
Partridge: Cover4me is a communication platform between employers and their workers. The need for real-time shift rescheduling drives a requirement for multiple communications modes. We support e-mail, IM (instant messaging), SMS (short message service), and social network communications, and we use an SOA (service-oriented architecture) to integrate these heterogeneous systems using XML (extensible markup language). We chose a JAVA product platform to further address this technology heterogeneity with an n-tiered architecture that would enable us to scale to an unlimited number of users. The third key aspect is our broker architecture. All communications amongst users are relayed first to our communication hub. This serves two crucial roles: 1) ensuring meaningful, proper message content and 2) providing much-needed privacy for users. In the first instance, we avoid spamming our system users, and in the second instance, we provide employers with otherwise unavailable access to their employees.
Our research shows that employees screen calls from employers or simply don't provide them with their cell phone number or other preferred modes of communication. In the Cover4me system, employees (not their managers) enter contact information, and the system keeps it confidential. So, while managers can send a text message to their employees through the system, they cannot access the contact information itself. The same limitation applies amongst workers; a worker can send a cover request to another worker but cannot access the contact information itself. We believe this structure is critical to obtaining key contact information from workers and also in avoiding potential HR issues among workers themselves. Privacy and passive communications are key features of our system.
How does the application 'plug in' at the user level?
Partridge: That depends entirely on the user. For a college-aged worker, it would be text messaging or a social networking site like Facebook. For a high school student, it is probably IM and Facebook. However, in one of the trials we ran with a group of lifeguards, we were pleasantly surprised to see their age group frequently used the Web. For a retiree in Florida working the hospitality desk at Disney, it will probably be online or e-mail exclusively.
For someone my age (mid-40's), it probably means a Web browser and e-mail. I might also use a BlackBerry to get e-mails. However, I continue to be surprised how each month more and more of my generation is experimenting with text messaging — usually to boost communications with their own teenagers!
What are the points ofintegration (hardware, time and attendance, workforce management, payroll, etc.)?
Partridge: Our first product will showcase the Cover4me rescheduling capability in a stand-alone fashion. This product is designed to work both for retailers with no electronic scheduling capabilities and the more IT-integrated retailer with a full suite of workforce management capabilities. It does not require IT integration to immediately add value. Our next step is an API (application programming interface) that will allow software integration with scheduling systems and/or the scheduling portion of time and attendance products. We are looking at POS and time and attendance integration. Key interactions on these fronts are already under way, and we expect to make specific announcements in the first quarter of 2009.
DiMaria: The hardware pieces of the equation are many and varied, and the solution is hardware agnostic. You've got the cell phone, mobile devices, and home computers. In stores, you might have kiosks and time clocks. Those are the portals. Accu-Time Systems is presenting the solution to our business partners — workforce management software providers among them — as a value-add.
What control assurances do retailers/retail managers have?
Partridge: For a retailer, managing business risk is closely tied to the makeup of their work schedule. Getting the right people on the job at the right time is critical for both a small and a large business. It is one of the reasons schedule planning takes so much time. Unfortunately, careful planning is all too often forcibly thrown out the window when an employee doesn't show up or calls in sick at the last moment. At that point, the manager is reduced to looking for anybody to fill the spot.
We not only help find that warm body, but more importantly, we enable the retailers/retail managers to regain control in that crisis situation. With our system, the manager gets to choose the substitute. And that is very different from what happens now, even in a timely change to the schedule. For example, it is the employee's job to find a substitute. That may remove the manager from the burden of finding someone, but it also relegates the manager to a simple veto vote. By contrast with our system, the employee is still responsible for getting their own substitutes, but our system lets the manager pick and choose whom they want. It is also important to note that the system broadens the substitute pool. Simply put, more people hear about the job opportunity. I believe that this broadcast request capability will release latent worker capacity and through that, improve overall job satisfaction among workers.
DiMaria: There's a lot of cost containment activity going on in retail right now. We're seeing this play out in the workforce management/time and attendance realms in the form of changes to the shifts retailers are creating for their employees. Many are scheduling broken shifts or shorter shifts to control benefits costs, for instance. With the younger side of the millennial generation, you must also deal with the nuances of rules pertaining to working hours while school is in session. Balancing these economic and regulatory pressures with the desire to cover the floor effectively with the right employees in the right place at the right time requires a full tool set of scheduling solutions. This particular solution allows the manager to control employee schedules in parallel, as opposed to serially.
Explain the ROI. How does the retailer benefit?
Partridge: ROI is about reducing absenteeism and turnover costs. Turnover costs are fairly quantifiable (recruiting costs like advertising, credit checks, and training); research firm CCH placed direct costs of turnover for hourly workers at $7,000 per year, per employee. Assume a 30-person retail store with 50% to 100% annual turnover. If we can reduce that turnover by just 15%, the annual savings would be $15,750. The introductory cost of our product is $1.50 per employee, per month. Using that scenario, the system would pay for itself in the first month.
Is this a technology Band-Aid for a bigger societal/generational problem or trend?
Partridge: Not a Band-Aid, but rather an indication of things to come. During the 20th century, the widespread use of telephones and jet travel changed how people related to each other. In the 21st century, it will be the Internet. The millennial generation is the first to grow up using the Internet, so it is not surprising that they are driving new social interactions using the Web and cell phones. MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube are good examples of this. In the early days of the Web, Salesforce.com used the Web to enable sales force efficiency. In turn, Cover4me is using Web and cell phone-based social networks to more efficiently staff hourly jobs. So, we are not looking to provide a Band-Aid to societal or generational problems as much as a trying to fill a market need using emerging technology and communications platforms.