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    Inside the Social World of Shift-Scheduling Apps

    Zoom fatigue, layoffs in Slack chat, reply-all meltdowns and the general destruction of work-life boundaries: The digitized plight of the white-collar office employee, 9-to-5-ing remotely, has been documented extensively.

    In non-white-collar industries, hit even harder by the pandemic — small businesses like restaurants, bars and independent retailers — managers have spent much of this year dealing with more immediate and brutal dilemmas, making major staff cuts and furloughs, navigating complicated loan applications and weighing closures both temporary and permanent. Their employees, many unable to collect unemployment benefits that are now running out anyway, are not only eager for work but also wary of its new risks.

    The pandemic has accelerated the service industry’s embrace of new tech tools, many of which are being adapted to the industry’s peculiar new needs. Online delivery platforms, like Grubhub and Uber Eats, became vital — and sometimes demanding — partners for restaurants where takeout had been an afterthought.

    Plans for touch-screen table-side ordering were expedited. Reservation and point-of-sale software is now being updated to help restaurants comply with new and frequently changing state-by-state capacity and spacing rules.

    Some changes are less visible. Apps used for assigning and trading shifts have become, for some workers, the last thin thread connecting them to their jobs and colleagues.

    In the beginning of September, HotSchedules, an employee scheduling and communications app, was one of the 10 best-selling apps in Apple’s App Store, just ahead of the hugely popular Plague Inc. — a pandemic simulation game — and FaceTune, the photo touch-up app.

    HotSchedules’ downloads tell a story: In March and April, when many service workers were sent home, it was crowded out by apps used for remote schooling and work; by May and especially June, it had come roaring back. Temporarily closed restaurants and bars were, to different degrees and at different times, returning to business as usual.

    HotSchedules, which is based in Austin, Texas, was founded in 1999, and released its first web-based scheduling system in 2000. In 2008, it released its first smartphone app, and in 2019 it merged with Fourth, a company in London that specializes in payroll, analytics and inventory-tracking software.

    While HotSchedules is primarily used for setting work schedules, it also includes email-style messaging that owners, management and employees can use to talk. In many workplaces, this talk is limited to official business and haggling over shifts; in some, HotSchedules becomes a de facto social network.

    Amber Hitchcock, 27, who works at a steakhouse in Florida, said that most employees use the app for its intended purpose. “But then people are like, ‘Hey, I have a pressure-washing business,’ or, like, ‘Here’s a cat I found.’”

    How people use the service is largely a reflection of workplace culture. A restaurant worker in South Carolina, who was granted anonymity by The New York Times to protect his job, described how a male co-worker once used the app to send inappropriate messages to a woman he worked with; when the co-worker was let go, he sent a message to the entire staff lashing out at his managers.

    HotSchedules is, at its core, a tool for managers, and so managers dictate how, and how well, it’s used. “I’ve used HotSchedules at four to five different restaurants now,” said Sierra Cordell, a supervisor at a restaurant in Denver. “I’ve worked places where it was discouraged to use it for anything other than strictly scheduling,” Mx. Cordell said, “but at other places, we’ve set up our fantasy football league through HotSchedules messaging.”

    In March, when local restaurants were ordered to close for in-house service, Mx. Cordell’s employer told the staff they wouldn’t be working for a while. “One server sent out a lot of very detailed information about unemployment in Colorado and sent over some helpful tips regarding getting contact with the unemployment office,” Mx. Cordell said.

    Chatter shifted to Facebook and group texts until June, when workers started getting their first notifications from HotSchedules: Shifts were once again available. Since then the app has been key as a hub for weekly updates about changes to service, coronavirus precautions and staffing issues.

    In the early days of the pandemic, Sara Porcheddu, a bartender and server in Cambridge, Mass., was similarly encouraged by how communicative her employer was on HotSchedules. When she and her colleagues were furloughed in March, the communication continued: messages about “local emergency funds we could apply for, unemployment insurance tips, when and how we could pick up our final tip and wage checks, as well as being generally warm and supportive,” she said.

    “A few posts a week quickly turned into radio silence,” Ms. Porcheddu said. “It became clear things would be closed a lot longer than we anticipated.” She didn’t receive any HotSchedules notifications for weeks; eventually she stopped checking it.

    Her workplace had never been especially social on HotSchedules — perhaps, Ms. Porcheddu said, “influenced by rumors that our general manager had access to any messages we sent to each other.”

    Instead, the app was mostly used for shift swapping and looking up contact information for other employees. (Madison McGillicuddy, a spokeswoman for HotSchedules, said that managers do not have routine access to employee messages; in cases where there is “legitimate cause for concern, such as legal, health or physical or mental well-being,” she said, a manager can submit a request to the company for access.)

    Still, in the early days of the pandemic it was Ms. Porcheddu’s sole source of information about her workplace, and her job. In June, she checked for an update. The restaurant’s account had been deactivated.

    She’s been checking in on former colleagues and managers on social media, looking, and asking, for clues about possible reopening. As far as she knows, she’s been “furloughed” for six months.

    Other restaurant workers, physically cut off from their workplaces, shared similarly surreal experiences.

    Alex, a 22-year-old server in central Ohio, was eight months pregnant when the small restaurant she worked at shut down; she gave birth the next day.

    “I was exhausted from taking care of my newborn at the time so I wasn’t logging on to HotSchedules all that much,” she said. In the middle of May, she and her mother, who worked at the same restaurant, logged in to see if there were any updates. They were locked out.

    “There was no communication and no explanation,” she said. Just an error message.

    Worried about her eligibility for unemployment benefits, Alex was eventually able to get in touch with a manager by phone, who provided a fuller story: There had been staff cuts, and she was among them.

    Apps like HotSchedules share an attitude, and central tension, with their white-collar counterparts, like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google’s G Suite, and encourage somewhat free and casual exchange. These apps often obscure, although not always effectively, conventional power dynamics.

    Remote work during the pandemic, which has shifted more time and labor to such platforms, has sharpened the contrast between how such tools feel and what they’re actually for: productivity, efficiency and helping companies keep track of their workforces.

    Some firms are using new software to comprehensively monitor remote workers, while others are seeing how close they can get with the tools they already expect employees to use.

    Employees returning to work in virtually every industry are realizing that their jobs, if they’re lucky enough to have kept them, aren’t the same ones they left. Safely meeting basic business needs is complicated enough, and additional in-person interaction is widely discouraged. Workplace socializing, to the extent it still exists, even in workplaces where presence is mandatory, has been nudged online.

    A restaurant, of course, is not a tech start-up, and compared with the overlapping communications systems used for remote office work, the social veneer of a service like HotSchedules is thin. (The app asks workers how they might rate their recent shifts, using emoji.) Still, messaging is one of the app’s most robust functions; according to the company, employees interact with it on average 3.5 times per day, even during a period of curtailed work.

    “One of the ways employees have stayed engaged is using the communications tools,” said Casey Clinkbeard, who works in product development for HotSchedules. “It’s kind of like a watering hole.”

    The problem is, with reduced or eliminated in-person interactions, there isn’t much to talk about except anxiety and fear about job security and health. One factor in HotSchedules’ sudden spike in popularity may be a new feature: an option to require employees to answer a health survey before they’re able to schedule a shift.

    With more than 6,000 customers accounting for more than 35,000 different locations — mostly restaurants and bars — HotSchedules has an unusually clear view of how the pandemic has shocked the service industry.

    It’s clear from their data, for example, that larger chains and takeout-ready restaurants have fared much better than their smaller counterparts. Reopened quick-service restaurants have returned to and sometimes exceeded pre-pandemic staffing levels. In contrast, HotSchedules recorded a drop in average scheduled staffers at table-service restaurants from a peak of 39 at the beginning of March to 25 at the beginning of August — a statistic that excludes restaurants that closed altogether.

    Bethany Perry, 26, former delivery driver for a Papa John’s in Ohio and now a medical screener for a construction company, used to depend on HotSchedules. Mx. Perry said they “never really used the messaging feature,” but they had good relationships with their co-workers and most of their managers, although the scheduling system — as opposed to direct communication — was a source of occasional frustration.

    Mx. Perry had stopped delivering pizza by the time the pandemic hit Ohio, having found a new temporary job with similar scheduling system: a nursing home, where employees used an app called OnShift.

    “Quite a few people were calling off, and we were really short staffed,” Mx. Perry said. Management sent messages about new testing and screening procedures alongside pleas to pick up shifts. Physical communication was minimized.

    “During the pandemic, there was not very much in-person interaction,” Mx. Perry said. The bulk of the work remained the same. Those moments at the margins — catching up with your replacement at a shift change, or commiserating over a snack in the break room — went online, and it’s not clear when, or if, they’ll come back.

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