This piece of paper is a tragedy.
It is our mission at Homebase to destroy it.
If you’ve worked in retail, restaurants, or other shift work, you probably recognize this. It’s a paper schedule. It’s often the time-off calendar and the timesheet too. If you’ve never seen one, just know that this piece of paper ensures there is someone to serve you coffee at 6am.
But this piece of paper also symbolizes the problems of hourly work. Managers face a byzantine set of laws, demanding operations, and piles of paperwork; hourly employees and their families face uncertainty and hidden costs of work. This is not a one-sided burden and it’s getting worse: part-time work is growing, and so is the paperwork.
And what do they have to help? A piece of paper taped to the wall. For those of us behind desks or at big companies, we’ve been going through the greatest workplace transformation since the Industrial Revolution: new devices and applications have changed where we do our jobs, how we do them, and powered new levels of productivity. Meanwhile, for many in hourly work, the biggest innovation has been white-out.
Among the millions suffering the pains of paper, these problems were still being faced by my childhood friend Hunter Brooks and my sister Emily. We wanted to do something about it, so we started building Homebase to reduce some of the administrative burden of hourly work. After serving thousands of businesses over the past year, we launched our product out of beta today. We’ve made it free for all businesses. I wanted to share a few thoughts on why we think it’s important.
For Hunter, and over two million local business owners like him, this schedule is a symbol of the paperwork that sits between him and his dream.
Three years ago, Hunter quit his job to open Evergreens Salads with his childhood friend Todd Fishman. Their goal was to serve healthy food to the city they love: Seattle. Today, they’re managing two beautiful locations and serving up “Walk the Flanks” and “Cobb Your Enthusiasms” to hundreds of happy customers every day. But Hunter does not have time to enjoy it. If Hunter can survive the week of catering orders and deliveries, he still must contend with a pile of paperwork.
When Saturday hits, and the lunch rushes slow down, Hunter begins the weekly admin. First, he reviews the timesheets, going line by line through 80 shifts to check for errors and compliance with local and federal laws. Next, he’ll build the schedules, starting with a review of time-off requests and availability changes (stored on sticky notes). He’ll go through the Sudoku exercise of placing shifts, while trying to stay in his operating budget. (Getting the budget right matters: a typical small business runs with <6% margins and 30% labor costs, so getting it wrong by 20% means going out of business.) When he’s done, he’ll print copies and tape them to the back wall.
From Seattle to Sarasota, we’ve talked to thousands of small business owners as we’ve built Homebase, and they’re facing the same burden as Hunter: around seven hours every week on the admin of hourly work. This is 30 hours per month that is not spent with family or friends, growing their businesses, or sharing their secret cilantro lime salad dressing with the world.
This is an unbelievable tax. Last year, over 1.3 billion hours were spent on these activities in the retail and hospitality industries alone. These hours were necessary but not productive; this time did not hire more people or make more customers happy. Worse yet, over 90% of this waste fell on the 2.5 million local businesses with little time to spare. Local businesses like Hunter’s account for 60% of net new jobs, and yet a quarter will fail in their first year. How many great businesses could have been saved with 30 additional hours every month to manage, market, or save in labor costs?
For these busy owners, this piece of paper represents all of the hourly work admin that keeps them away from growing their businesses and living their dream.
The business world is filled with inefficiencies; what makes this one so evil? Simple: this paperwork is also limiting the quality of life for everyone that works shift jobs. For over 33 million people, this piece of paper is a symbol of uncertainty.
My sister, Emily, spent years bartending in Seattle and Austin. If you crossed paths with her, you’d remember the quick smile and terrible puns that came with your drink. She loves hospitality and the opportunity to improve a stranger’s day. She’s balanced hosting and schoolwork, bartending and waitressing, and many other combinations of shift jobs over the years.
She’s loved the flexibility, but every week she would deal with seemingly simple questions: when am I working? How much am I going to make this week? She’d call in to get her schedule for the week, and then the work began: who can cover my Thursday shift so I can go to my second job? Can I trade my Saturday shift so I can go visit my awesome brother for a weekend? Later in the week, a shift might get cancelled halfway through — leaving her with the lost time and cost of gas, and without the income. Every week began a challenge of seeking a sustainable life — and making sure she can cover rent.
This is more than just a headache; this chronic instability has real costs. Research has shown that work schedule uncertainty has a clear negative impact on health and even cognitive ability. The Atlantic Monthly’s recent article, “The Very Real Hardship of Unpredictable Work Schedules,” details how schedule uncertainty limits economic mobility, access to government benefits, and other opportunities to improve quality of life.
These costs fall upon both employees and their families. Over 20% of hourly workers are single-parents, and over 40% are responsible for a family member. For them this unpredictability initiates a time-consuming and expensive weekly cycle of finding babysitters, transportation, and other accommodations just to be able to work.
Over 33 million hourly employees face these problems every week. Many are young, and having their views of work shaped by an environment that feels uncertain. A full third are low-income families who can ill-afford these extra costs. None of them should face the burdens that this paper schedule represents.
I tell these stories because I want it to be painfully clear that it is difficult to manage hourly work, and it is difficult to be an hourly employee.
Unfortunately, these problems are dividing managers and employees, who view the schedule as a battleground between business requirements and quality of life. Politicians are considering regulatory solutions, which would only create more paperwork. But much of this anger and energy is misdirected; both sides have really hard jobs, and they only have paper to help them.
“Workforce management tools” (of which scheduling and timesheets fall) have existed for decades, but unless you’re working in a large company or organization, you probably haven’t had access. They’re expensive and carry high training costs. Even the name is scary. Which is why 90% of retailers and restaurants are stuck with paper and excel today.
Paper and Excel are reliable, but they trap information and cannot automate routine tasks, like finding errors. There is a Maslow’s Hierarchy for work tasks: when so much time is spent on admin — just getting the basics done — higher-order tasks, like building a schedule that accommodates your team’s preferences, have no chance. Many problems that we assume are structural — lengthy payroll cycles, last-minute scheduling, unpredictable hours — may just be a byproduct of poor tools: we do not have the time or information to solve them.
It is time we made work a little easier for everyone. Here at Homebase, we have just launched free scheduling and timesheets for local businesses*. We’ve made the tools free because we want to eliminate these problems at businesses of all sizes, and for all of their employees.
So the next time you see this piece of paper hanging on a wall, remember what it means. Say “thank you” to the busy owner for all of the hard work you don’t see. Tip your server a little more for the work they’re putting in off their shift. And if technology has helped remove some of the headaches of your job, don’t take it for granted. Soon, we will be eliminating this paper schedule and making hourly work a little easier too.
*here’s the future: