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Improving productivity and quality through workforce scheduling.

Although the workforce is a most important variable when discussing improving quality and productivity, the scheduling of a workforce receives relatively little attention in industrial engineering literature. Workforce scheduling is an area with motivational as well as operational implications. In many operations, hospitals in particular, workforce scheduling has been a chronic problem.

Poor workforce scheduling often leads to high personnel turnover, absenteeism, resentment, poor job performance and unfit mental and physical conditions -- situations that translate to loss of productivity, quality and even safety. One study reveals a 30 percent annual turnover rate of nurses with scheduling given as their number one work-related reason for leaving a hospital. It also has been pointed out that the early morning Three Mile Island accident might have been partly due to the tiring weekly rotating shifts used there.

For reasons like these, the importance of workforce scheduling and what it has to offer to improving motivation and operations has to be known. Useful workforce scheduling ideas include:

* Rearranged Workweek; * Permanent Shift; * Successive Phase Delay; * Shift Overlap; and * Self-Scheduling.

These ideas are at a strategic level involving major policy changes (flextime is omitted in the discussion because it is widely known and a great deal has been written on it already). They have been proven to work in many operations as the following examples show. Practitioners who face workforce scheduling problems or want to improve the practice of workforce scheduling may well find these ideas of immediate use.

Rearranged workweek

A rearranged workweek is often referred to as a compressed workweek in which an employee comes to work for fewer days a week (at least on the average), but works a longer day, such as the 10-hours-a-day, 4-day workweek and its many variations (e.g. 12-hours-a-day, 3-day workweek).

Rearranged workweek can be a great recruitment tool. Many people are enthusiastic about receiving one or more extra off-days per week and longer weekends (for the 4-day workweek, there are 52 extra off-days per year). Moreover, fewer work days means including less time and money on commuting and less expenses on meals and childcare. For many, this is an important factor in considering employment. Furthermore, in 7-days-a-week operations, more off-days means that the workstretch (the number of consecutive work days) is reduced.

There are other benefits to employees. Although the number of work hours per week remains approximately the same, the extra off-days allow more quality leisure time for family and social activities. Sex life may improve because of the extra mornings that a worker can stay in bed.

Most firms that have implemented a rearranged workweek cite higher morale and reductions in turnover, absenteeism, overtime, requests for days off and tardiness, leading to productivity gain.

Productivity increases also because of fewer coffee and lunch breaks (so-called organized work stoppages), increasing real production time and continuity of production. For example, if the lunch break is one hour per day, a 5-day workweek calls for five hours of unproductive time per week, while a 4-day workweek calls for only four hours. If there are 100 employees, the real production time increases by 100 hours per week!

With a 10-hours-a-day, 4-day workweek, shift overlaps help meet peak demands. A rearranged workweek also makes finding backup for overtime or sick-day coverage easier because on-leave workers are more willing to sacrifice their many off-days.

There are some potential problems with a rearranged workweek. One is that the longer day may lead to excessive fatigue. However, for sedentary jobs, excessive fatigue tends to subside when workers have adjusted to the longer work day. Considering that many people frequently work overtime, a longer work day is quite acceptable. In fact, in a Du Pont continuous-process plant, workers felt less fatigued when the shift length changed from eight hours to 12 hours because the extra off-days provided plenty of rest. For arduous jobs, a longer work day may be infeasible. For example, employees who worked outdoors in a refinery at Winnipeg, Canada, did not participate in a rearranged workweek that called for a 12-hour work day because of the extremely cold weather.

Another potential problem is that a shorter workweek may induce a worker to moonlight, which may adversely affect his work performance. However, a worker who is motivated enough to moonlight would probably be motivated to perform well at his main job, making moonlighting a less serious issue.

Finally, the number of consecutive days off may create the problem of discontinuity. In a hospital, nurses worked seven consecutive days and then were off seven consecutive days. In a data processing center, the rest period could be as long as seven days. Workers on leave for several days are deprived of the knowledge of changes and new developments in the workplace. However, this can be resolved. For example, in the data processing center example, the problem of discontinuity was alleviated by a must-read bulletin board, log books of program changes and completely up-to-date program operating instructions.

Permanent shift

For round-the-clock and similar operations, shift rotation is a common practice -- so common that there are about 20 million Americans working on rotating shift schedules.

Shift work has an adverse effect on motivation. A worker rotating from one shift to another constantly worries if he can sleep well after work. Under this condition, how can the worker be motivated to produce? In the framework of Maslow's well-known hierarchy of needs, it is unlikely that the worker can deliver his best. Moreover, shift rotation is often carried out on an individual basis (i.e. a worker is rotated without reference to other workers) rather than on a crew basis. This isolates a worker and prevents formation of a cohesive work group, which is a great asset in supporting and retaining employees.

In addition, shift work results in various adverse health effects such as sleeping, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disorders, constituting a public health problem. Shift work also causes lack of vigilance and incidents of falling asleep at work, which can have serious consequences in many operations (e.g. nuclear plants and air traffic controlling rooms). Many early morning industrial accidents (e.g. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Rhine River chemical leak in Switzerland) might be partially attributed to poor shift scheduling. Furthermore, shift work disturbs a worker's family and social life. For example, on a rotating basis, a worker wishing to pursue an education, which may benefit the firm, is neither able to attend morning nor evening classes.

An obvious remedy to shift work is the permanent-shift system. Because shift work has many adverse health and job performance effects, the permanent-shift system is justified, assuming an operation is able to recruit sufficient workers to staff the late shifts.

In addition to avoiding numerous adverse effects of shift work, there are other benefits of the permanent-shift system:

* A worker can select the shift that best fits his lifestyle;

* A worker can continue his education and participate in social activities that require regular attendance;

* It enables the formation of cohesive work groups (workers in one shift form a group, which can be further partitioned into smaller groups if necessary); and

* In healthcare, permanent shift enhances continuity of patient care as a patient receives care from the same nurse in a particular shift (except when the nurse is off) for the length of the patient's stay, lessening the "I never know who my nurse is" complaints.

Finding adequate staffing for the evening and night shifts may not be that difficult. Many prefer to work on the evening or night shift. They can avoid traffic jams and crowds and even earn an evening or night pay premium. Workers fed up with shift rotation or having poor relationships with spouses and families may be attracted to the opportunity of permanent evening or night shift work.

A study on magnet hospitals -- those hospitals that were able to recruit and retain quality nurses even under nurse shortages -- found that one of the common practices attributing to their success was that shift rotation was minimized or eliminated.

Successive phase delay

When a permanent shift is infeasible, there are ways to reduce the adverse effects of shift work. One is to select those who are more adaptable to shift work. They may be younger people or those who are accustomed to shift work. Another way is to use successive phase delay (i.e., rotation in clockwise direction), which is less disruptive to the human's circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm refers to an organism's endogenous timekeeping mechanism, which has a cycle of approximately 24 hours. Desynchronization of a human's circadian rhythm by frequent shift rotation can lead to health disorders and the reduced level of vigilance discussed earlier. The common weekly rotating schedule may be undesirable because no sooner has the worker begun to adapt than it is time for him to change.

In a landmark chronobiological study, two groups of workers in a potash mining and processing facility in Utah were compared. One group used the facility's conventional phase-advance schedule (i.e. night shift followed by afternoon shift, day shift by night shift and afternoon shift by day shift) with weekly rotation. The other group used the phase-advance schedule (i.e. night shift followed by day shift, day shift by afternoon shift and afternoon shift by night shift) with each shift assignment lasting three weeks. Workers preferred the new schedule with phase delay. Moreover, with the new schedule, there were increases in satisfaction and health indices. There was also a decrease in personnel turnover and a marked increase in productivity.

Since this study, a number of firms have developed schedules that utilize phase delay. Several consulting firms founded by chronobiologists gave scheduling advice to such companies as Federal Express, Detroit Edison, Exxon and Mobil. One of the firms even guaranteed their clients a within-two-years payback period on the consulting fee invested. The number of incidences of falling asleep on the job in a manufacturing plant in New England dropped to a quarter of the previous level after redesigning schedules to allow for phase delay. The production of a plant increased by 30 percent and the number of commuting auto accidents dropped dramatically after implementing a phase-delay schedule.

Shift overlap

In some operations -- services in particular -- there are peak hours in which more labor is needed. Shift overlap (i.e. the hours in which the current and the next shifts overlap) is a clever means to handle this increase in labor requirements.

As an example, many police departments, like the Huntington Beach Police Department, California, experienced a high rate of crime occurrence between 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. After 3:00 a.m., there was a sharp drop in calls for service. Under the system with three 8-hour watches per day with the night shift beginning at 11:00 p.m., much manpower was unnecessary after 3:00 a.m.

A 10-hours-a-day, 4-day workweek was introduced. This plan called for watch overlaps with the three watch times being 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m., and 9:30 p.m.-7:30 a.m. The overlap during the late evening hours increased police manpower just when this was needed. Police manpower was reduced just when calls for service began to decrease after 2:30 a.m. The new schedule resulted in over a 30 percent decrease in police response times between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Moreover, during these late hours, there was an increase in arrests and a decrease in commercial burglaries. Furthermore, there were significant improvements in the quality of written reports and investigations conducted, due to higher morale and the overlap, which provided more manpower and hence more time to file comprehensive reports.

Clearly, overlaps also improve communication between shifts and smoothness in a shift changeover. This is particularly important in hospitals when the needs and problems of patients cannot be communicated in a few minutes. In addition, overlaps help reduce overtime.


As the name implies, self-scheduling means employees, usually as a group, develop their own work schedules. Totally or partially transferring the scheduling task, which can be extremely perplexing and time consuming, to employees alleviates its burden on management. Moreover, employees feel more satisfied since their schedules are more likely to correspond to the days and shifts they prefer. Furthermore, employees tend to be more committed to a schedule that they develop with their peers than one assigned by management. Finally, the interactive process in self-scheduling improves communication and understanding among employees, boosting team building. This may eventually evolve to quality circles.

Self-scheduling was implemented in a 62-bed unit of a large urban medical center. Given such guidelines as staffing level required on each shift, the nurses collectively negotiated, decided and implemented the monthly schedule. Positive results included:

* A 55 percent reduction in turnover rate for that unit;

* Elimination of special request book for days off;

* Increased awareness by nursing staff of the unit's nursing care needs;

* Enhancement of team spirit; and

* Improved relationships between nurses and administration.

Other hospital self-scheduling instances resulted in nurses finding their activity planning becoming easier and enjoyment in coming to work. Interestingly, nurses were no longer preoccupied with the thought of unfairness in assignments.

Self-scheduling may be difficult to initiate. Many employees are accustomed to receiving instructions. When suddenly given the freedom to choose, they may not know how to handle such freedom. As such, it may take a while for them to adjust to the new environment. For hospital settings, a work-out period of at least five months has been suggested.


Workforce scheduling has been identified as a most potent motivational and operational tool. Best of all, it is almost costless. As R. Poor has put it, "rearranging work scheduling is an innovation that increases productivity."

Rudy Hung is a lecturer in the faculty of business administration of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He earned his Ph.D. in operations research from Case Western Reserve University. His expertise is in workforce scheduling.

For further reading

American Academy of Nursing, Magnet Hospitals: Attraction and Retention of Professional Nurses, Kansas City: American Nurses Association, 1983.

Cales, A. D., "A Twelve-Hour Schedule Experiment," Supervisor Nurse, June 1976.

Cooperrider, F., "Staff Input in Scheduling Boosts Morale," Hospitals, August 1980.

Czeisler, C. A., M. C. Moore-Ede and R. M. Coleman, "Rotating Shift Work Schedules that Disrupt Sleep are Improved by Applying Circadian Principles," Science, July 30, 1982.

Dobelis, M. C., "The Three-Day Week -- Offshoot of an EDP Operation," Personnel, January/February 1972.

McGurrin, L., "Scientists Adjust the Hands of Time to Ease Shift-Change Stress on Workers," New England Business, February 1987.

Miller, M. L., "Implementing Self-Scheduling," The Journal of Nursing Administration, March 1984.

Moore-Ede, M. C. and G. S. Richardson, "Medical Implications of Shift Work," Annual Review of Medicine, 1985.

Nollen, S. D. and V. H. Martin, Alternative Work Schedule: Parts 2 and 3, New York: AMA, 1978.

Poor, R., 4 Days 40 Hours, New York: Mentor, 1973.

Prescott, P. A. and S. A. Bowen, "Controlling Nursing Turnover," Nursing Management, June 1987.

Robison, D., "Du Pont's 12-Hour Shift Improves QWL and Employee Self-Esteem at Six Continuous-Process Plants," World of Work Report, February 1978.

Robitaille, E. W., "Ten Plan," The Police Chief, September 1970.

Rose, M., "Shift: How Does it Affect You," American Journal of Nursing, April 1984.

Siwolop, S., L. Therrien, M. O'Neal and M. Ivery, "Helping Workers Stay Awake at the Switch," Business Week, December 8, 1986.

Vervalin, C. H., "The Short Work Week has Arrived," Hydrocarbon Processing, August 1972.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Title Annotation:Employee Motivation
Author:Hung, Rudy
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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