Brookstone prepares for the workforce of the future

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Brookstone, long known for offering unique products like kinetic sand, percussion massagers and watch winders, is upending its business model. As it does, it needs a workforce management system that can keep up.

To be sure, the Merrimack, N.H.-based retailer remains committed to offering innovative product lines across its 140 retail locations and online. At the same time, the new Brookstone Plus Innovation and Retail Platform provides a network between Brookstone, maker communities, product incubators, global brands and manufacturing companies who have joined forces to accelerate innovation and bring new products to markets worldwide.

One critical element of the Platform is the “Makers Showcase.” Located within Brookstone stores, the Showcase gives inventors and brands a place to demonstrate and help consumers experience their products. Brookstone plans to roll out Makers Showcases in the United States and China throughout 2018.

In addition, Brookstone is partnering with other retailers to sell some of its wares at their locations: Costco members now can purchase massage chairs from Brookstone.

“As we transform our business model, the flexibility of our workforce management system becomes key,” says Susan McGrath, Brookstone’s vice president of human resources. The system needs to manage employees working in the home office, the distribution center, the stores and perhaps on-site at other retailers.
In addition, because the Makers Showcase will feature scheduled events and demonstrations, staffing them will require a different approach than traditional store staffing.

Brookstone looked at several vendors in searching for a new workforce management system, but only one — Kronos’ Workforce Dimensions — handles all the functions the retailer needs, McGrath says. This includes artificial intelligence to forecast sales demand, the ability to automate administrative tasks, self-scheduling tools for employees, access from almost any device and access to key performance metrics.

Along with its changing business model, as a multi-state organization Brookstone must comply with numerous wage and scheduling regulations, McGrath says. The ongoing proliferation of regulations at all levels of government makes it increasingly difficult to remain compliant while still scheduling employees and managing payroll to meet business needs.

Behind the scenes

Workforce Dimensions is the result of a decision within Kronos to “put Kronos out of business before somebody else does,” says Charlie DeWitt, vice president of business development. In 2013, the company was doing well. Sales were approaching $1 billion, employee engagement was high and the company had momentum.
Yet as Kronos leadership watched other companies such as Blackberry fall to advancing technology, changing tastes and aggressive competitors, management challenged itself to consider how work would look in the future and use that to guide its future workforce management systems.

To start, the technology would need to easily connect people: Existing enterprise software often was clunky and hard to use. The software also would have to leverage artificial intelligence to help managers make better decisions, DeWitt says. The idea was to “make every manager like your most experienced manager,” rather than relying on learning through mistakes.

Whatever Kronos developed had to be a platform for the future. That is, it had “to use modern technology and really be forward thinking,” DeWitt says. This meant maintaining the speed and performance of its predecessor solution, Workforce Central, while adding analytic capabilities.

The data contained within workforce systems is rich with valuable information; by marrying pay codes to a point-of-sale system, for instance, a retailer can learn how labor impacts customer satisfaction and sales, among other performance measures.

Other key metrics are unplanned absences or turnover. Many retailers have little idea how many employees are unexpectedly absent, or how turnover varies from one store to the next. In designing Workforce Dimensions, Kronos looked to unleash that information and put it in the hands of both corporate leaders and frontline managers and employees.

Workforce Dimensions makes this data easily accessible through what Kronos calls embedded analytics, which allows users to access key performance indicators and identify opportunities for improvement. A primary benefit of Workforce Dimension is its ability to “unleash information and make everybody’s life easier,” DeWitt says.

The system also allows for some elements of self-scheduling for hourly employees. If an employee wants to swap a shift, they can initiate the request from a mobile device; the software will offer recommendations of people who can take the shift and allow the switch. At the same, retailers can place limits on employees’ ability to self-schedule.

Workforce Dimensions uses a variation of the “random forest” modeling technique, which averages hundreds of decision trees to arrive at a single outcome. It also uses a technique called K-means clustering to check whether anyone is modifying employee time cards to either pad or clip the time stamped on each.

Aimed at retailers with 500 or more hourly and salaried employees, Workforce Dimensions is built on the Kronos D5 platform, a cloud architecture. DeWitt says it can integrate with most retailers’ existing IT infrastructure.

Implementation

As it pilots Workforce Dimensions, Brookstone is continuing to use its current timekeeping system, also from Kronos, along with “parallel punching” at its headquarters and distribution center, McGrath says. Brookstone will roll out the system to the field to a small pilot group, including stores in different states, and then to all stores, a process that should take several months.

McGrath says Brookstone managers have found value in the ability to access schedules, time cards and other information on mobile devices — a key feature, as not all employees have Brookstone email addresses — and to log in remotely.

Its partnership with Kronos on the implementation, has “been a pleasure,” McGrath says. “Their level of commitment and communication is very high.”

At the same time, change management is critical to a successful rollout. “This will be the only system in the entire company every associate touches,” she says, so she and her colleagues want to make sure they’re explaining the system in way that’s as intuitive as system itself.

A key benefit Brookstone expects from its implementation is the ability to better manage payroll. Brookstone currently schedules shifts to ensure stores are covered, often using historical data as a guide to expected traffic. However, past traffic isn’t always a useful predictor, especially as Brookstone changes its operating model.
Moreover, Brookstone wants to capture as much benefit as it can from the scheduled events within the Makers Showcase, which benefit both Brookstone and the makers participating.

“Workforce Dimensions allows us to really schedule according to the needs of the business,” McGrath says. Although the company already runs a lean operation, “management expects savings and a more productive use of employees.”

Karen M. Kroll is a business writer based in Minnetonka, Minn.

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