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On the Clock

Assuming you’ve had time to notice, we not only live in a 24-7 world, but also work in one. From health care and manufacturing to retailing and information technology, someone is on the clock every hour of every day. According to ongoing research by Purdue University's Ellen Ernst Kossek, that presents a growing challenge for employees and their families as well as for employers and individuals whose job is to manage the work schedules of others. 

Kossek, the Krannert School’s Basil S. Turner Professor of Management, addressed the issue most recently in a study published by ILR Review, “Filling the Holes: Work Schedulers as Job Crafters of Employment Practice in Long-Term Health Care.”

The paper was coauthored by Matthew Pizczek at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh; Kristie McAlpine at Cornell University; Leslie Hammer at Portland State University; and Lisa Burke, who worked on the project while a research associate at Purdue’s Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence, where Kossek serves as research director. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health Work Family Health Network.

“Work scheduling is a growing and critical occupation in most industries, and schedulers’ roles are increasingly complex and contested,” Kossek says. “Just as employers seek greater flexibility in the allocation of labor due to the growth of 24-7 schedules, employees demand greater flexibility because of the predominance of nontraditional family arrangements. As one scheduler interviewed for the study commented, ‘scheduling people is different than scheduling things.’”

Through a qualitative study of schedulers in 26 health care facilities in a large U.S. corporate nursing home chain, the authors examined the various job-crafting strategies (cognitive, physical or emotional tactics) that schedulers used to expand or restrict their approach to managing staffing and “fill holes” in the work schedule. That allowed Kossek and her team to identify four different types of schedulers on a continuum ranging from rigid, rule-bound “enforcers” to “balancers” who mediate staffing more equitably among employers, workers and those they serve.

Although the study focuses on health care, Kossek says the findings have implications for numerous employment sectors that allocate labor on a 24-7 schedule. “Beyond mediating the often competing needs of their constituents, work schedulers must also take into account such factors as fluctuations in market demand, just-in-time work processes and cost pressures,” she says.

Kossek says most employment research describes work scheduling too narrowly as either a taken for granted descriptive organizational process or an individual job characteristic.

“What’s often overlooked is that work scheduling is a key organizational role that can be implemented with varying mental models,” she says. “It is an occupation involving people who are the primary employer contact for employees when they need to make changes in their hours or work due to work-life scheduling needs. The schedulers also control labor spending and allocation systems and manage employees’ time on and off the job, even if they are not formal supervisors.”

“Our analysis shows that scheduling is actually a workplace social phenomenon in which schedulers adapt their roles to manage differing interpretations of stakeholder demands of patients/clients, employees and employers,” Kossek says. “In the face of such pressures, engaging in job crafting allows schedulers to make an impact beyond what their formal role might suggest. 

“A practical management implication of this study is that employers should reward and train their work schedulers to make positive choices to expand their roles to help employees and employers balance interests in a win–win process. Their decisions regarding how to carry out their jobs truly matter for society, business and employee well-being, and job effectiveness.”

An abstract and downloadable PDF of “Filling the Holes: Work Schedulers as Job Crafters of Employment Practice in Long-Term Health Care” is available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0019793916642761.