Imagine for a moment that you’ve been tasked with organizing approximately 8,000 volunteers to work a charity event.

All areas of the event have to be covered and staffed for the week, which includes having people on during the day and at night. It also means making sure that there are enough people working so that everyone can take a break. You also have to keep in mind that some people have different skills sets or abilities and can only work in certain areas. You’ve made hundreds of phone calls and texts to ensure everyone is in the right spot and that all the areas of the festival have the right people working in them.

Now imagine that on the first day of the event, 300 of those 8,000 people call to tell you that they won’t be able to make it in. And again on the second day. And it continues that way for the rest of the week.

Welcome to Staff Scheduling.

“We fill approximately 10,000 shifts a week for half of the Region,” explains Kweku Johnson, Manager of Strategic Scheduling and Human Resources Scheduling. “We get approximately 300 people calling in sick or absent every single day and we make over a million phone calls or texts a year. This is a very complex environment to schedule but we know how important it is to have the right person in the right place caring for a patient and we like making it easier for that employee to be there.”

The Staff Scheduling department is composed of three areas – Strategic Scheduling, Onsite Scheduling and Central Scheduling, with approximately 60-70 employees total. Approximately 25 of the department’s employees work at Central Scheduling in Humboldt, while the rest either work onsite in different areas across the city. The department schedules approximately 8,000 of the Region’s 14,000 employees.

The whole thing used to be done on paper.

“Yes, long pieces of paper,” says Karen Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite is a Staff Scheduling Coordinator for Strategic Scheduling. She has been with the Region for over 18 years and has seen the many transitions of the scheduling system over that time. “When I started, we did the scheduling for all the nursing in Saskatoon City Hospital and it was a lot of phone calls and flipping through paper. When we transitioned to the computerized ESP (Environment for Scheduling Personnel) system, we finally got to ditch the paper,” she laughs.

Schedulers Sherry Santos and Rachelle Berke, with Scheduling Consultant Kristyn Malasky.

Schedulers (from left) Sherry Santos and Rachelle Berke, with Scheduling Consultant Kristyn Malasky.

About four years ago, Scheduling transitioned to the automated system the Region has now. “We worked with managers, schedulers, staff and the unions to design an automated and computerized scheduling system that would allow for an instant way to contact staff and let them know what shifts were available and let them access their schedule anywhere they want from any electronic device,” explains Johnson. In the past, staff would have either have to come in physically to request leaves or fax the information in. Now it’s all online at “Not only has this system reduced a huge amount of paper and time, it’s also created a lot more flexibility for staff with their work life because it’s almost like they are scheduling for themselves.”

While there was some reluctance among employees with the new system initially, results of a survey this spring suggest that employees are appreciating the automated system more and more.

“Eight out of 10 people think that we’re doing a good job which is up significantly from our previous surveys,” says Kristyn Malasky, a Consultant with Staff Scheduling. The team takes the data and the feedback from the surveys very seriously. “We had almost 900 respondents from the three unions and out-of-scope employees, which means the data represents the opinion of about 95 per cent of the people we schedule for; many of them mentioned wanting to have the ability to request and cancel leaves online. Within about two weeks of the survey results coming in, we were able to incorporate leave requests and cancellations into the online system,” she says. “They talked, we listened.”

Additional features and improvements based on the survey feedback will be added to the system as well; by the end of July, an Online Payout feature will be operational and the team is making adjustments to the Smart Call system. This feature allows employees to ask to be paid out for holiday and vacation time online, instead of submitting a paper form.

“The survey results told us that the second notification on our Smart Call system results in less than two per cent of shifts being replaced,” says Malasky. “These results are telling us how staff really feel about the service we provide and if we’re able to make adjustments and improve our service, why wouldn’t we?”

Being able to make those improvements and to make the user experience better for staff is the beauty of this system. “Other health regions and organizations in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have adopted our technology and we’re actually getting royalties every time our partner sells the system, says Johnson. “Across Western Canada, we are considered leaders when it comes to Scheduling.”

One of the most challenging parts of the job is scheduling not just for a unit but for the organization as a whole. “The reality is that we’re a big organization and our role is to understand how the system works overall,” says Johnson. “What managers and staff might see is that there are two people absent on their unit. We see the people absent on every unit throughout the entire Region. It can be challenging to get them to see what we see.”

According to Johnson, the most important thing Staff Scheduling can do is support managers and staff to be there for the people we serve. “Now, as we move into the cellular model, we have some schedulers back on the units but they are able to be more proactive,” says Johnson. “They’re working with managers towards some of the long term goals for the units and being able to help better predict what their staffing needs are. We’re looking at not only today and tomorrow’s needs, but the potential staffing needs six months from now. That’s something we couldn’t do before the automated system.”