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By: Marnie Harris, Mentor Program Coordinator, Excel Program
By: Marnie Harris, Mentor Program Coordinator, Excel Program

Sustainable Scheduling: Improving Lives, Boosting Productivity

6:00 AM: Wake-up, shower, read, and eat breakfast.

8:00 AM: Arrive at work, check emails, conduct meetings, put out fires, check emails again, and think about how to eliminate emails from my life.

5:00 PM: Go for a run or attend my favorite workout class.

6:00 PM: Cook dinner, hang out with family, or spend time with friends.

9:00 PM: Read a book, check more emails, and clean the house (or put it off until tomorrow).

10:00 PM: Go to bed.

As a Georgia Tech student, I quickly learned that an established routine was the fastest way to success. I continued to maintain a regular pattern after I graduated and entered the workforce. As Mentor Program Coordinator for Excel, an entrepreneurial certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities at Georgia Tech, I find that a daily routine like the one above is essential to my ability to contribute to the workplace, to my family, and to my own well-being.

However, as Dr. Saravanan Kesavan pointed out in a talk on February 12th, the privilege of a routine should not be taken for granted. Kesavan’s presentation, “Stable Schedules: A Win for Both Retail Associates and Stores,” was an installment in the Business, Environment, and Society Speaker Series hosted by the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business. Kesavan is an Associate Professor and Sarah Graham Kenan Fellow at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Unstable schedules, Kesavan noted, are ubiquitous in the world of part-time employment. Employers typically present workers with their weekly schedules with just a few days notice. The weekdays for work, the hours per day, and the hours per week can vary at the drop of a hat.

This dearth of regularity within the scheduling system hurts those in our society who can least afford uncertainty in the workplace. Part-time employees often work several jobs in order to earn a living wage. In the retail sector, which represents one of the prime sources of part-time employment work, unstable schedules are status quo. It is easy to imagine the stress that lack of consistency may cause for a person who juggles multiple responsibilities in order to make ends meet.

Luckily, cities like San Francisco are enacting legislation to protect part-time workers from inconsistent scheduling and income insecurity. The Retail Workers Bill of Rights requires retailers to publish schedules two weeks in advance. If an employer changes a schedule within the two-week period, the corporation must compensate the employee.

If it seems that only employees win with new legislation such as this, think again. Dr. Kesavan and a group of researchers hypothesized that unstable schedules are detrimental not only to employees but also to employers. His team created an intervention for a national retailer with the goal of improving schedule stability of workers without hurting the financial performance of its stores. The intervention had several components, including:

  • Two-week advance notice of scheduling
  • Elimination of on-call schedules
  • Tech-enabled shift swapping
  • Stable shift structure

The results of the intervention were astounding. Participating stores saw a 7% increase in sales with a 5% increase in employee productivity relative to stores that did not make any changes to their scheduling practices. Turnover of experienced staff decreased.

What’s more, Kesavan contradicted our fallacious presumption that unstable schedules are caused by an inability to predict customer traffic. Rather, store managers reported that corporate initiatives are the primary cause of schedule instability. Last-minute changes in shipment dates, mass markdowns, leadership visits with little advance notice, and flawed online scheduling software lead managers to over- or under-staff stores, which negatively affects sales and employees’ well-being.

Kesavan recommends implementing sustainable labor practices that lead to more stability in employees’ lives and that can also positively impact sales. He convincingly described how schedule stability and flexibility for shift-swapping increases employee productivity and boosts the bottom line.


Marnie Harris is Mentor Program Coordinator for Excel, a four-year certificate program at Georgia Tech for students with intellectual disabilities. She graduated from Georgia Tech in 2014 with a degree in biomedical engineering.

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