Whenever there are stories about Uber or TaskRabbit or any other “sharing economy” platform, the benefit of scheduling flexibility is inevitably mentioned. These firms may not offer their workers (more accurately, contractors) benefits or guarantees of employment, but they allow workers to craft a schedule that fits their own needs. Does granting such flexibility work in a more conventional setting?
Zappos, it seems, is out to answer that question with its call center workers (Zappos is bringing Uber-like surge pay to the workplace, Jan 28). Zappos’ incumbent system had call center agents signing up for their preferred shifts on paper once a quarter based on seniority. That obviously limits flexibility. Further, Zappos (not surprisingly) faces some predictable patterns in its call volume that are challenging to meet. For example, there is a spike on weekday mornings as people call from the East Coast — which is way early at Zappos’ Las Vegas call center. The solution? A bit of Uber-like surge pricing.
[CEO Tony] Hsieh was not available for an interview for this article, but as Goldstein recalls, he asked the Labs team, “‘How do you feel about looking at something like Uber for the call center?’ It was definitely not something we’d actively been thinking about,” Goldstein says.
That conversation sparked the development of what is now known as Open Market—referred to as “Om” internally—an online scheduling platform that allows workers to set discretionary hours and compensates them based on an Uber-esque surge-pricing payment model: hourly shifts with greater caller demand pay higher wages. The goal of Open Market was to create a “free-market system,” Goldstein says, and strike a balance between the rigidness of customer service center scheduling and what the company says is its dedication to giving employees time to pursue other opportunities at Zappos, like extra training. “We wanted the [customer service center employees] to work more flexible hours, eventually 100% flexible, and reward them based on how much or how little customers need them to work,” he says. …
Zappos limited the Open Market pilot to the 213 employees who work the customer service center’s phones. Everyone received at least 10% flexible time, so during a 40-hour week, employees would have four hours to play with. They could choose to not work during those hours or they could fulfill them whenever they liked by tacking them onto the start or end of a workday or by coming into the office on a scheduled day off.
Employees decided when to work with the help of Open Market’s real-time customer service center metrics algorithm and historical data that showed customer demand, as measured by the wait time of the longest-holding customer, and the accompanying compensation rates. The longer the hold time, the higher the customer demand, the more the employees working that shift would get paid.
If I understand this correctly, the call center agents have limited flexibility in adjusting their schedule. A chunk of scheduling is still done by signing up for standard shifts but they have some flexibility to tack on hours here or there.
This is actually a problem I have thought some about (and indeed have a paper on). I first was exposed to this in discussions with execs at a work-from-home call center. They basically had the 100% flexibility that Zappos is aiming for since agents could sign up for just a half hour at a time. They could do that because “going to work” was more or less costless for agents; they basically had to just walk from part of their home to another. It is not clear that Zappos will ever be able to achieve that level of flexibility. As long as workers have a non-trivial commute to the call center, they will want to be able to work for several hours every time they come in.
Now is this likely to be effective? Quite plausibly, yes. The average Zappos agent is getting $14.50 per hour, above minimum wage but hardly the path to riches. An extra buck or two an hour would likely get a lot of agents to rethink which shifts they want to work. Further, it likely will shift the mix of who is working at busy but inconvenient times. Given that the current process is based on seniority, I would guess that more seasoned workers opt out of getting up wicked early. That means the busy early mornings are mostly staffed by the least experienced agents. Better pay will lure more senior agents out of bed. Assuming that more experience implies somewhat better at the job, that should improve productivity and service.
The article also mentions that Zappos would like to move to a similar scheme for all its workers. They perceive the hold up as not having “the same type of real-time demand” as in the call center. I see another issue as well. These self-scheduling schemes presume that a worker can be productive independent of who else is working. This will hold for a call center. Only one agent is needed to handle a given call. However, there are settings where this cannot be true. For example, you can’t schedule an assembly line in this fashion. Operating an assembly line at a given rate is predicated on having a certain number of people trained in specific skills present. That cannot be left to the whims of who wants to work when. Now most of the work going on at Zappos likely doesn’t look like an assembly line. But if some degree of collaboration is necessary, turning over everything to a marketplace might be hard.