Scheduling instability is a consistent challenge for people who work in the retail industry. Most people in the sector only work part-time and often have no indication from week to week whether they'll mostly be on site in the morning, evening or the middle of the day.

Furthermore, managers may only post schedules for the next week a few days in advance. That practice makes it nearly impossible to have a social life by planning future events with friends.

Some retail employees also work "on-call" shifts that allow superiors to tell them they're not needed at work up until two hours before their scheduled arrivals. That approach gives flexibility regarding accommodating for fluctuating levels of in-store traffic but can be immensely frustrating for employees who regularly get ready for work, anticipate the resultant income and get told they're not needed.

Using Gap Stores as Testing Grounds

Many of these practices were in place when researchers began an eight-month pretest at Gap to study the effects of more stable schedules for retail workers in three of the chain's stores. After the eight months, Gap began posting workers' hours two weeks in advance and stopped scheduling them for on-call shifts.

The full experiment was longer and involved 28 Gap stores, each of which was either part of a control group or considered an "intervention store." At the latter types, managers committed to trying the two changes Gap made after the pretest. They also got guidelines for other things and could choose how much to implement them:

Allowing staff members to swap shifts with each other without managerial approval when using a dedicated app

Instituting standardized starting and ending times for shifts

Giving more associates a stable schedule each week

Allocating extra staff during shifts with inadequate personnel numbers in stores likely to see sales increases

Guaranteeing a 20-hour weekly minimum of hours per week for core associates

Boosts in Productivity as Well as Sales

Thanks to the changes above, the labor force was five percent more productive in the intervention stores. The study also found a seven percent uptick in sales due to higher conversion rates caused by better service from associates.

Members of Gap's upper management also likely appreciated the high return on investment this experiment offered. Despite out-of-pocket costs totaling $31,200, researchers estimate Gap earned $2.9 million from the 35-week stable scheduling test.

If this research intrigued you, there are things you can do to increase scheduling stability in your workplace -- regardless of whether it's in retail.

1. Give Workers the Ability to Choose Their Hours When Possible

One way to improve productivity and efficiency in your workforce is trust that workers know their output capabilities well enough to figure out how long it takes to get things done. Make your workplace an environment where employees feel nurtured and respected. If it's feasible, provide scheduling flexibility by allowing workers to come in slightly earlier or later than usual with adequate notice.

A recent study from the University of Birmingham revealed that autonomy is a contributing factor in workplace satisfaction and overall well-being. Women, in particular, liked being able to select which hours they worked or even complete tasks from home.

2. Let Employees Get into a Routine

Many workers appreciate an element of regularity in their work schedules. For example, you might have them on the clock for four days in a row, and then they'll take two off. When employees work 12-hour shifts, it's common for them to work for four days and follow those up with the same number of days off the job.

Think about how such routines might work at your business. One advantage is that employees could get higher-quality rest knowing they have consistent days when they won't be called to work.

A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation found that employees who slept less than six hours per day were 2.7 percent less productive -- either while at work or due to absenteeism -- than peers who slumbered for seven to nine hours per day. Plus, the report warned that U.S. companies collectively lose as much as $411 billion due to reduced productivity caused by insufficient sleep.

3. Explore Options That Allow Positive Changes

Being open to actions that promote more schedule stability is necessary before changes can happen. Consider meeting with all the team members at your organization who are involved with scheduling and getting their feedback on how to improve the process. Also, ask for input from employees and take their comments seriously.

Altering managerial perceptions about flexibility and encouraging a shift in workplace culture may both be required. However, a healthier, happier workplace is in your future if you're willing to investigate the various ways to make schedules more consistent. 

Make Positive Scheduling Changes

Maybe you haven't thought seriously about allowing flexible schedules. Digesting the information above could make you realize it's time to weigh the possibility and its potential impacts on your employees.