This weekend, an article in Washington Monthly about the impact of shift scheduling work on today’s retail associates made its rounds throughout the company and stirred up a lot of discussion in our company Slack channels. As the article explains, today’s scheduling software has been optimized for efficiency and cost savings. It reads, “The algorithms use big data—previous sales trends, weather patterns, consumer preferences—to predict how many customers are likely to be in a store at a given time, and then assign staffing levels to match that expected demand.”
Efficiency is great for business, but optimizing entirely for savings leads to some terrible consequences. You just have to look at the airline industry for proof. When airlines started charging extra fees for baggage, early boarding, aisle seats and more, consumers lost trust. It became obvious to them that their satisfaction wasn’t the priority. Rather, the airlines were optimizing for profits.
When scheduling becomes all about efficiency, workers suffer. They wind up with unpredictable shifts, which means they can’t adequately plan for childcare or classes, which is why many of them take retail jobs in the first place. In addition, they can’t accurately plan for how much income they will make month to month, since their employers can’t guarantee them a fixed number of hours. For most retail workers, the situation is frustrating, depressing and completely avoidable.
To help explain why the shift scheduling software itself isn’t to blame, the president of Axsium Group, global workforce management consultants, explains, "The retailer is really responsible for the configuration, which is going to refine or drive the software." In other words, the software isn’t bad for employees but it’s up to brands to ensure it meets their needs.
Clinton Judy, a Senior Software Engineer at Zipline that read the article had a strong reaction to that statement. He said, “As a software engineer, I feel really responsible for setting the right mindset through healthy defaults and the appropriate workflows. We don't get to completely abdicate all duty to morals on our end.”
His point of view is in line with our mission of being in service to stores. Every product decision that we make takes into account our key constituents at headquarters, but also those in the field. Our end users work tirelessly on the front lines to represent their brands and provide customers with a great experience. If we can make their jobs easier and more meaningful, by streamlining and personalizing their communications and ensuring they have the context behind the asks, they will be more successful in their roles and in their career. This is especially important to us because the people who work in retail need someone pulling for them. Despite making up half of all consumer spending, retail jobs tend to be low-wage. Retail workers are disproportionately women (48%) and disproportionately people of color (33%).
Meagan Sobol, Zipline’s Head of Product Management agrees. She says, “I think it's important that we never lose sight of how our software affects employees at every level. It can be really easy to build a requested feature that negatively affects the lives of people, because we haven't thought twice about unintended side-effects.”
For example, Zipline recently rolled out Field Publishing, which enables District Managers to publish communication out to the fleet. The team could have simply emulated how Headquarters publishes to the field but instead spent significant time thinking through the implications for our end-users in stores: How do we prevent them from getting "spammed" by their DM? Is a message from your DM as important as a message from HQ? Is it more important? Less important? How do we ensure DMs who don't have formal publishing training aren't going to ruin the experience for their teams? When you’re in service to stores, you think about these things.
As another example, Zipline recently rolled out an auditing feature, which will help retailers ensure compliance, something top-of-mind in the Covid-19 age. Rather than calling it Audits, we called it ‘Assessments’. Clinton explains, “The word ‘audits’ carries a negative connotation and puts people on the defensive. (No one sees a letter from the IRS and thinks, "I hope we're being audited!”) We wanted the feature to have a positive name. Assessments leans more into figuring out what stores are doing well, versus just focusing on what's not meeting standards. And we also put a lot of energy into ensuring that Assessments wouldn’t hurt store teams.”
In Zipline, every time an auditor submits a result, they're asked (in order) what the Wins, Opportunities and Action Plan are. Wins comes first by design. Clinton explains, “If a store or individual is getting a lower score on an assessment, it's important to first look at what they're doing right. That drives the auditor to look for reasons why the system is failing, not the auditee, and possibly discover very valid reasons for why the store might be missing the mark.”
As a software development company, when we can encourage an organization to search for and fix root causes, not symptoms, we're guiding the organization as a whole towards much better outcomes for everyone, including those in the fleet. It’s how we ensure that we act according to our values and drive towards our mission of improving the lives of retail workers.