It's Not Just About When, but Who

5 mins

When you create an employee's schedule, you're not only dictating when you want them...

When you create an employee's schedule, you're not only dictating when you want them to show up, but also with whom they work. If they spent a month working with a higher performer, their own performance could increase by about 8%, a new study found.

 A study suggests that employee schedules designed to encourage relationships between co-workers create a benefit for both organisations and employees.  The study was published recently in Human Resource Management, and it illustrated the importance of considering how schedules create shift workers' social contexts with implications for performance outcomes. 

When we think about scheduling, we often think of it from an operations perspective - employee schedules are meant to match customer demands or anticipated customer demands. On a Friday night we expect a lot of people to come to the restaurant, and so we need to have a larger headcount. Yet, according to Patrick Downes, the lead author of the study and Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Kansas School of Business, not only do employee schedules serve the purpose of meeting customer demand, but they also create the social environments within which employees work. 

“When I set a schedule as an employer, I’m not just dictating when and where that employee will work, but I’m also dictating with whom they're going to work and what their social experience is likely to be like as a result of that schedule. This is a really important idea, because it is something employers can use to build a schedule to have people working together for strategic reasons. For example, employers may want the workers to learn from each other or compete with each other or collaborate with each other”, said Downes. 

These valuable relational aspects are opportunities that initiate the employee interaction, which, in turn, could have a substantial impact on employee performance. That’s why it is important that employers do not just ask “when do I need this employee?,” but also “with whom should this employee work?” 

The literature talks a lot about what happens when there are star performers or higher performers alongside other employees. Does it help employee performance because they're more motivated or because they learn from those higher performers? Or does it hurt their performance for a variety of reasons? Maybe the higher performer consumes resources from the lower performer, and so the lower performer has a harder time improving?  One of the new considerations this study introduced was the idea of time. More specifically, there were two different temporal arguments used to help answer these questions: a learning-related argument for working with higher performers, which is about  “I work with a higher performer; I see their skills and then sometime later I get better at my job”. According to the other, resource-related argument, higher performers are consuming resources. This is, according to Downes, pretty immediate. 

 “You can envision, if I'm working in the sales context, and if you're the higher performer and you're really, really good at selling, I have fewer opportunities because you're churning through customers really fast. And I just don't have as much opportunity as I would if you weren't so good at your job. And so there's an immediate negative effect for lower performers. But over time, the effect becomes positive - and that's what the study found”, said Downes. 

The study analysed scheduling and performance data from 7,893 retail sales representatives over a 1-year period and found that higher performers constrain peers' performance in the short term because they consume limited resources. However, higher performers also provide instructive role models for learning new skills, which increases peers' performance over the longer term. 

“We found that working with a higher performer - someone better than yourself -  for a full 40-hour week equated to about 2% bump in performance the following month. So, if you work for a month with a higher performer, it’s about a 7 or 8% bump in performance, which practically is huge for a rather small investment in an HR practice that could bring significant returns.”, said Downes.

And while a relational perspective of employee scheduling may seem daunting at scale, with the advent of HR analytics, the employers could do this at scale now. Scheduling algorithms that capture employees' co-scheduling require more advanced data tracking and modelling, which is something that would require an analytics team to build a model of, said Downes. 

Downes’ co-author was Ella Sareum Lee, a PhD student at the University of Kansas School of Business.

Contact Patrick Downes at    

Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM,