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Challenges of Variable Work Schedules for Frontline Teams
Eric Phelan
Co-Founder & CTO
Feb. 26th, 2023
5 min read

In recent years, variable work schedules have become a staple across various industries, offering employers the flexibility to adjust the number and timing of employees' work hours in response to fluctuating market conditions. This approach, aimed at maximizing profitability, often means that an employee's schedule can change from one day to the next without much notice. However, research conducted by Cornell University doctoral student Hyesook Chung has shed light on the potential pitfalls of such scheduling practices, particularly highlighting their impact during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Chung's study, titled "Variable Work Schedules, Unit-Level Turnover, and Performance Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic," published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, delves deep into the repercussions of unstable work schedules. The research, involving data from 1,678 stores of a U.S.-based fast-food chain, suggests that reliance on variable schedules correlates strongly with higher turnover rates. This turnover stems from the detrimental effects these schedules have on workers’ economic security, health, and work-life balance.

Impact on Different Frontline Industries

Food Service

In the food service sector, variable scheduling is particularly prevalent. Workers often face weeks where the number of shifts can double without prior warning, depending on the restaurant's expected foot traffic and reservations. This unpredictability can make it difficult for employees to manage personal commitments and maintain a steady income. For example, a server might find it challenging to plan childcare or further education when their work hours are inconsistent. The economic uncertainty and stress contribute to higher turnover rates, which in turn can affect the quality of service and operational efficiency in restaurants.


Similarly, in the hospitality industry, hotels and resorts frequently adjust staff levels to accommodate varying levels of occupancy. During peak tourist seasons, staff may work overtime, while in the off-season, they might struggle to get enough hours. This inconsistency can lead to job dissatisfaction and increased stress among employees, who must cope with fluctuating earnings and a lack of stable employment. The high employee turnover during critical times can also lead to a drop in service quality, potentially impacting guest satisfaction and overall business performance.


Retail workers also face significant challenges due to variable work schedules. Many retail stores adjust staffing based on shopping trends, promotions, and holidays, leading to weeks of long hours followed by periods of few to no work hours. The unpredictability in scheduling can hinder workers from engaging in other personal activities or commitments, leading to job dissatisfaction and high turnover rates. This turnover is costly for businesses, which must constantly invest in training new employees.

Health and Wellness

For gym staff and fitness trainers, the number of classes or sessions they conduct can vary dramatically, often influenced by member sign-ups and seasonal interest in different fitness programs. This erratic scheduling can make it challenging for staff to maintain a consistent income and manage their health and well-being, which is ironically at the core of their professional focus. High turnover in this sector can result in a loss of experienced staff who are crucial for maintaining client relationships and ensuring a high standard of service.

Strategic Adjustments for Better Outcomes

Chung's research posits that the tension between employers' need for flexibility and employees' need for predictability is a significant issue. The study suggests that businesses might benefit from reducing their reliance on flexible staffing, considering that the trade-offs between business and employee outcomes are not always zero-sum. Employers need to rethink the implications of environmental disruptions, like those experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, with respect to their HR practices.

To address these challenges, it is crucial for managers in industries with frontline workers to consider more stable scheduling practices. Providing employees with predictable and consistent work hours can help in building a more secure and satisfied workforce, which in turn can enhance organizational resilience and performance.

This approach not only aids in reducing turnover but also positions companies better to adapt to competitive and regulatory changes in the business environment. As Chung emphasizes, while variable work scheduling may offer short-term solutions to demand volatility, the potential negative impacts on both workers and business performance are considerable and warrant a strategic reevaluation.

Harnessing Prospr for Enhanced Scheduling in Frontline Industries

In addressing the challenges posed by variable work schedules, tools like Prospr offer innovative solutions that prioritize both business needs and employee well-being.

By enabling employees to communicate their availability and preferences directly through the platform, Prospr helps create schedules that align more closely with individual needs. This empowerment extends to managing their own shift swaps, fostering a sense of autonomy and reducing scheduling conflicts. Additionally, Prospr’s auto-scheduling features, which leverage past scheduling patterns, along with cloning and templates, facilitate the creation of more standard recurring patterns. This not only ensures consistent coverage but also helps establish predictable work hours for employees.

By integrating these advanced tools, businesses can enhance operational efficiency, improve employee satisfaction, and ultimately, foster a more stable and productive work environment. To learn more about how Prospr can help you tackle this challenge, schedule a demo today.

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