Visual Patterns in the Employee Scheduling Process

Author: Neofit Neofitov, Principal Software Engineer and Architect

Employee scheduling can be a complex and time-consuming process. The schedule has to satisfy multiple requirements, and finding a good solution is challenging and maybe even impossible in some cases. Generic scheduling solutions for requirements such as employee rotations, site coverage, and forecast requirements are typically saved and reused as a set of scheduling templates/patterns. When unexpected changes or human mistakes happen, “noise” is introduced into the expected patterns. A visual presentation of the schedule data can make this “noise” visible and easy to fix. Visual patterns can significantly reduce the time needed to create complex scheduling templates, identify problems and improve existing schedules.

Why visual patterns

Visual patterns are everywhere. We see and remember the world around us with associations. Our brain matches the currently visible frame with a visual pattern we already know. If we cannot find an existing visual pattern, we will make one up. Fast visual pattern recognition is what helped animals survive and evolve to what they are today.

Scheduling Software

The human brain understands visual information better than text. We have been communicating with each other for approximately 30,000 years, but we have only been using text/numbers for about 3,700 years.

Every day, 90 percent of the information transmitted to our brain is visual. We process visual information 60,000 times faster than text. MIT neuroscientists found that the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds, click here for more info.

How much time is 13 milliseconds

It is literally faster than the “blink of an eye,” which is 100 to 400 milliseconds, according to the Harvard Database of Useful Biological Numbers, click here for more info. Thirteen milliseconds is faster than the screen refresh rate on most devices in use today. For example, the display refresh rate of today’s iOS devices, like iPad Pro and iPhone7 is 60 Hz, equivalent to 16.67 milliseconds per frame. Our brain can identify images faster than the time it takes for a mobile or desktop application to execute a simple backend service. A simple ping request to www.google.com usually takes more than 30 milliseconds, and a request to display search results will take significantly longer because of data transfer, encryption/decryption, security checks, service execution, logging etc. Software developers classify service response time of 200 milliseconds as “Instant” and response time of 500 milliseconds as “immediate.”

Our brain has the amazing ability to recognize visual patterns extremely quickly! How can we use this ability in the employee scheduling process? 

Text vs visual – data presentation and editing

Let’s define a simple scheduling requirement: A customer needs security guard at a site 24/7 for 5 days.

During the schedule build process, the schedule may have to be changed multiple times in order to handle exceptions and to satisfy customer, employee, company, union, and other requirements. With each change, the scheduler has to identify and correct problems and errors quickly.

Let’s see how easy it is to find and fix problems in the site coverage if only grid/ text data is presented. In the example below, we have a standard Excel-style grid/text view where each row represents one shift record, which is a single instance of an employee working on a single day. How long will it take you to identify the problem using this Excel view below?

Employee Scheduling Software

(Excel view – shift records)

Even with features like grid sorting, filtering, and column move, it is not easy to find the problem in the Excel view above. This view represents data only for one site with three employees covering 5 days. Schedulers usually deal with hundreds/thousands of sites and employees coverage requirements.

Let’s see the same scheduling data presented in Visual Scheduler using layout with Customer as header and Site as an item:

Staff Scheduling Software

(Example visual scheduler view: by site, shifts – proportional to total hours)

The error in the schedule becomes immediately visible.

The expected visual pattern for the site coverage, in this case, is a single horizontal line of shift rectangles without gaps. The human brain is able to detect the “noise” in the pattern in milliseconds. Compare this with a lengthy review of text line by line, cell by cell in Excel. The user can fix the problem with a simple drag and drop on the visual schedule. The example displays data for one site; however, we can display hundreds of sites in this view, and with a single glance identify sites with this type of problem.

Visual patterns examples presented with Visual Scheduler layouts

The Wednesday evening shift is still not assigned to an employee:

Software for Scheduling

(Example visual scheduler view: by site, shifts – proportional to total hours)

We can display the same data by employee to see who can take the shift. Frank is not yet scheduled on Wednesday:

(Example visual scheduler view: by employee, shifts – re-size to fill day)

To fix: Drag and drop the open shift to Frank.

Verifying fair shift assignment, proper rest periods, with no missing coverage:

Show the start time and shift duration to allow for rest periods between shifts and 24/7 site coverage:

(Example visual scheduler view: by employee, daily, shifts – proportional to total hours.)

(Example visual scheduler view: by employee, hourly, shifts – proportional to total hours)

Example of weekly coverage with 5 on 2 off:

The visual pattern below can be used to validate coverage – 5 employees per shift (8:00 – 17:00) per day, 7 days per week; Work pattern 5 days on 2 days off.

(Example visual scheduler view: by employee, shifts – re-size to fill day)

Example of weekdays coverage – 4 weekdays on:

The visual pattern below can be used to validate coverage – 8 employees per shift (8:00 – 19:00) per day, Monday to Friday; 4 weekdays on, weekends off and one weekday off;

(Example visual scheduler view: by employee, shifts – re-size to fill day)

Visual patterns can help the scheduler to see and resolve on the fly many problems in the client requirements, employee workload, gaps and overscheduling at a glance. The Visual Scheduler has been included with the eTime Xpress advanced scheduling solution for 10 years. Visual Scheduler enables flexible visual presentations and graphical editing of scheduling data. Each user-configurable layout in Visual Scheduler defines a time-oriented graphical board. The user can select from existing predefined layouts or define his own layouts to satisfy specific custom requirements and to most easily see the expected visual patterns.

For more information on how Celayix can help improve and simplify your scheduling process, please contact us.