After nearly two years of testing, Walmart is ready to roll out extensive scheduling changes for its hourly workforce in hopes of improving the daily experience for employees.

For many workers, low wages aren’t the only downside of a job in retail. Many have to cope with shifts that can change on short notice in response to store traffic, making it difficult to fit in other priorities like school and childcare.

But those practices been changing over the past year, as companies respond to increasing public awareness around the impact on workers’ lives of “just-in-time” scheduling. The changes come as states and cities across the country pursue proposals that would require companies to provide more predictable hours for workers, following first-in-the-nation legislation for retail workers in San Francisco.

Right now, most of Walmart’s 4,655 U.S. stores operate on a system of “open shifts,” where managers schedule workers within the times the employees said they’re available. By the end of the year, Walmart says it plans to make two more options available: Fixed shifts, which guarantee the same weekly hours for as long as a year, and flex shifts, which allow associates to build their own schedules from the hours available, in roughly two-and-a-half-week increments.

Fixed shifts would be offered first to employees with the longest tenure, and then on a first-come-first-serve basis as new shifts become available. The company is working on an app that would allow workers to choose and update their schedules on their smartphones.

“The more visibility and information you’re able to show associates about what’s out there, you’re able to make it their choice,” says Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg. And more features might be coming in the future, like the ability to split shifts in smaller increments. “I think everything is on the table, in figuring out how to get people in the store working when people are shopping. There are a lot of things we’re looking at to see how we can make it work.”
The company has been testing the new system, which is built on commercial software modified for Walmart’s use, at stores in Van Buren, Ark. and Wichita, Kansas for two years. And Walmart thinks the changes will help its bottom line as well: Early results showed an 11 percent decline in absenteeism and a 14 percent drop in staff turnover, which comports with what academic research has shown is possible with greater predictability and worker control.