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Reaping the Benefits of Robotic Process Automation
From steam powered engines to personal computers, technology has played a major role in reshaping the workplace. In the past, machines would often replace complete job roles, like telephone and lift operators. But the future looks set to be different.
The fourth wave of the industrial revolution gives businesses the systems to automate repetitive aspects of roles, relieving people from monotonous tasks. One such job is workforce scheduling. We explore how technology is automating this necessary chore and freeing up staff for value-adding work.
Defining Workforce Scheduling
With large numbers of employees in a broad range of salaried and hourly roles, retailers must complete a chess-like operation to:
- Determine the capacity of workers for a specific task or location
- Deploy the right people to fulfil this requirement
Usually, workforce scheduling is planned in response to operational needs usually no more than three months in advance. Traditionally, the process involves managers:
- Reviewing capacity plans and estimating the number of people to fulfil the requirement
- Preparing a schedule in response to the capacity plan, worker preference, availability and skills and sharing the schedule with workers
- Adapting plans in response to issues like unplanned absence, high or low demand
- Reviewing the schedule to assess whether there are any shortages or a surplus of workers and applying learnings to future planning (if they choose to)
Workforce scheduling is carried out to varying degrees of sophistication. Some retailers use paper or a spreadsheet, sometimes developing homegrown scheduling tools like macros with limited functionality.
In the middle of scale, scheduling is completed using operational applications provided as part of a wider management system. They are usually designed to provide a sector or case-specific solution.
At the top end of the sophistication scale are workforce management applications. They typically form part of a broader system providing complete workforce management (WFM) like time and attendance, absence management and task management. These are the most advanced solutions providing retailers with additional analytical power.
The Problem With Workforce Planning
With a range of solutions on the table, why introduce automation? For the same reason that computers took over from typewriters: because they could do the job better and they offered more functionality.
The same is true of workforce scheduling. With artificial intelligence and machine learning providing additional capabilities, more data can be analysed to provide better outcomes. Advanced systems are able to compute the complexities of worker contracts – including hourly paid, zero hours and those on flexible or dynamic contracts – alongside a huge range of other data. This enables businesses to align staff far more accurately to business need.
In comparison, manual scheduling creates a range of additional activity. With schedules on spreadsheets, managers must phone staff and leave voicemails to check availability. Leaders are left in the dark, unsure if people are picking up messages and whether a particular shift will be covered.
Basic systems also fail to provide more than the most fundamental information on an employee. Accurate scheduling relies on managers knowing their people’s skills and capabilities. This is fine for smaller teams. But at scale this isn’t the way to make the most of retailers’ human resources. A better solution is called for.
Automation Opens Up New Possibilities
Workforce scheduling can be much more than the right person, right place, right time. Because workforce planning is a rules-based process, robotic process automation can be used to:
- Assess the rules including company policies and union agreements
- Analyse more data than any human can compute
- Match workers to capacity
- Deploy them with a great degree of accuracy
The major advantage of automation is that it gives retailers the opportunity to review their entire process. And it takes workforce scheduling from a tactical to a strategic function that:
- Estimates the volume of workers to fulfil the work
- Drafts a schedule based on labour drivers, worker preference, availability and skills
- Shares the schedule with the workforce
- Provides intraday management, proposing schedule changes in case of unplanned absence or changes in demand
- Automatically analyses schedule efficiency to inform better future planning
To a great degree, managers can be removed from the process. However, they still have a role to play in reviewing drafts and changing and approving proposed and amended schedules. According to Gartner: “The most visible and successful use cases in this domain occur when automation supports manager decision making by providing recommendations, and not by making decisions for them. Unsurprisingly, this will also be preferred by workers.” ₁
It’s difficult to put a figure on the degree of benefit retailers can expect from scheduling automation. Each organisation will generate its own efficiency gains depending on its starting point. However, most organisations should be able to work out items like manager time saved on workforce administration.
There are other benefits that you can expect too:
- Boosted employee engagement as staff can feed back on their schedule and take more control of their working pattern
- Greater agility, governance and control
- The option to redeploy people to value-adding jobs or save the labour cost
- Savings on employee absence by finding replacements, filling shifts and reducing unplanned overtime
Plus there’s the knock-on effect of better employee management leading to enhanced customer satisfaction and improved revenues.
Who Should Be Using This Technology?
This technology isn’t suitable for every organisation. Gartner has identified “suitable characteristics for the deployment of automated workforce scheduling:
- Variable demand for labour over hours, days or weeks
- Pressure to balance provision of labor so that operations remain profitable/sustainable, while providing high-quality customer service/experience.
- A high worker to manager ratio (the higher the ratio, the more benefit from automating the manager experience)
- To support automated scheduling, the organization will already have deployed relatively sophisticated WFM applications (at least non manual, preferably including employee experience) and have embraced broader concepts of the digital workplace and digital transformation.”
Gartner notes, “Based on these characteristics, the following industries and use cases would be suitable for the deployment of automated workforce scheduling. Industries: retail, healthcare, emergency services, distribution/logistics, transport. Use cases: field service management, contact/call center”₂
If you think workforce planning automation could help your organisation to prosper, there are a few steps you can take:
- Assess your WFM strategy to see whether it’s sufficiently well positioned to deploy advanced scheduling functions.
- If the answer is yes, explore leading vendors who can provide you with a framework to decide what can be automated. Look for providers with:
- Retail experience
- In-depth technical capability
- An innovative, customer-first approach
- AI/ML enabled products that will generate the best ROI
- Partnerships with proven workforce scheduling system providers who can provide ready made systems that are fit for purpose and able to be deployed quickly and effectively
- If the answer is no, contact a vendor who can help you with WFM products and digital services to get you to the right place for automation
Gartner predicts: “by 2025, 40% of large enterprises with hourly paid workers and variable demand for labor will use automation to drive workforce scheduling decisions.”₃
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₁ Gartner, How Advanced Automation is Transforming Workforce Scheduling, 2018
₂ Gartner, How Advanced Automation is Transforming Workforce Scheduling, 2018
₃ Gartner, How Advanced Automation is Transforming Workforce Scheduling, 2018