Striking a Work/Life Balance for Schedulers & Dispatchers
In the fast-moving world of business aviation, “duty calls” at all hours of the day and night. Especially for Schedulers and Dispatchers.
When does a global 24/7 operation stop? When does the phone stop ringing? The answer is, it doesn’t.
Our aviation departments run 24/7/365. But human beings cannot keep up that pace.
Maybe Bill Gates was a 24/7/365 kind of guy when he built and ran one of the largest companies in the world, but the bulk of us are not manically driven entrepreneurs like Bill. We’re expected to leave work one day and come back refreshed on the next. So we cannot be up working in the middle of the night and be expected to show up the next morning, fresh as a daisy.
We don’t ask our pilots to do it, so why should we ask our schedulers and dispatchers to do it?
Balancing the demands of family, career and our own personal needs can be overwhelming at times. But it doesn’t have to be.
Advice from Top Schedulers & Dispatchers
In a recent interactive presentation at the Schedulers & Dispatchers conference, I hosted a panel of three amazing professionals—each of whom is at a different point in his or her career.
Attendees heard real-life examples of how these professionals are thinking outside the box when it comes to staffing and scheduling. (Hint: It isn’t 8 to 5!).
My panelists included:
- Sal Funicello, who’s the Director of Scheduling and Dispatch at Pfizer, responsible for managing XX employees.
- Theresa Lushina-Lonergan, a flight operations coordinator and 30-year aviation industry veteran who worked for Motorola and then joined Jen-Air, a private management company, five years ago in their infancy.
- Andrew Waber, a flight coordinator who works at Air Products & Chemicals, and who previously worked at Jeppesen, supporting all international operations for NetJets scheduling functions.
Key Work/Life Balance Issues
As noted above, most companies with aviation operations have 24/7/365 schedules. And what’s vitally important is that schedulers and dispatchers don’t have protective regulations in place like pilots do. Instead, many of them put in some wearying hours, which often includes working nights, weekends and a lot of overtime.
One point we all need agreement on is that we don’t do ourselves any favors by trying to be heroes—by toughing it out and working constantly to try and prove some point with ourselves and others.
That’s a recipe for burnout—or worse.
Theresa from Jen-Air revealed that when she was the only dispatcher for her company, she often had to pull over to the side of the road in her car to handle whatever needs had arisen. To say that this can jeopardize safety is understating the case.
Alarmingly, she also recalled taking an important call after she’d left work at 8 p.m. She was at the grocery store when the call came in, so she left her cart to go out to the car and access her laptop. Once the call was over, she returned to the store only to find that they’d put her groceries away and she had to resume shopping all over again.
Talk about stress! I get stressed just thinking about it.
The best way we can collectively win is to share our ideas and learn from one another.
To that end, some of the key takeaways from the panel discussion are worth highlighting. From the panelists and attendees, we learned:
Determine what the current expectations are vs. the legacy expectations. Look at it from all perspectives—yourself, your director (boss), your principals or executive travelers, and their assistants. Even your family. Sal went to his HR department at Pfizer to understand the “normal” work week expected of exempt and non-exempt employees. (He quickly realized that his team was working about 50-70 hours per week—way past his company’s expectation of 40 hours).
When it comes to striking a balance, nobody will move the needle—whether it’s scheduling, headcount, compensation, etc.—without good data to support the facts. Realistically, a global operation’s schedule cannot be built on a traditional 40-hour work week. it might end up being double that, per-person, per-week, if we don’t have a tracking mechanism in place.
True data tracking (where you accurately list your time on the job and answer why) is the key to beginning to address work/life balance. Sal from Pfizer shared how his department diligently tracks their work days and documents any hours over eight per weekday they work. Having a year and a half worth of data tracking—using just a $100 software program—enabled him to see that his team was working too much overtime. This was not in alignment with the company values, so he was able to prove that headcount would help relieve some pressure.
“I kept going to my boss, to tell him that we’re working these people too hard,” Sal said. “After we I showed him the data, it took only 48 hours, and I had additional headcount. My boss was upset to know we had been treating people this way.”
Get Your Manager on Board
Without the director of aviation supporting you and being open-minded to change, nothing is going to happen. It’s important to have someone in a senior position who’s not willing to settle on the status quo or to do things the way they’ve always been done for the past 20 years. Not everyone likes change, but you have to be open to it—and—I’ll say again—data helps immeasurably.
Before Andrew Waber joined Air Products, his colleague (the only dispatcher on site) was exhausted, and there wasn’t anyone else to work trips. But upon Andrew’s arrival, the dispatcher was able to gain much more life/balance. Together, they adopted new technology and tools to help with the job. They even moved their desks from a dark room without windows to one natural light. I can only imagine how much of a difference that made regarding their morale.
An interesting development on the technology front is that Andrew’s company is working on becoming a paperless flight department. They’re looking at making all documents accessible online—from maintenance releases to flight ops and flight plans. From a scheduling perspective, they’re creating a PDF packet for each trip that pilots can access on the road. “Everyone can sign off on what they need and return it back to Dispatch,” Andrew explained.
Embrace Change & Be Flexible
Instead of going into the office every day, working from home can make Schedulers and Dispatchers more productive, and summon your full concentration. Technology advances have enabled staff to work remotely and deliver even more than they might in an office setting.
Eventually, as Theresa explained, her team transitioned to a virtual system where they can route trip requests to whomever is/was on call for that time of day. Theresa, who’s now a full time remote employee, disclosed that her team operates with one email inbox. When admins call, the dispatcher has a case folder at the ready and can pick up where the other team member left off. (They do a hand off at each shift to ensure details don’t get lost.)
Likewise, we discussed some of the active steps we can take to change the culture. Here’s some of what you can do:
- Create transparency as to the time everyone puts in on the job to make things happen, and put it out in the open for all to understand. Honest data is truly the key to lay the foundation for needed change.
- Review your existing work/departmental processes. Are they strong?
- Understand and review yours scheduling and dispatch tools. Are they working well for you? Also, ensure that you’re investing in the right tools. Be circumspect regarding what’s available out there.
- Can you outsource some of your duties? One way might be to train the pilots to use the software to print trip sheets, and assist them during normal business hours.
Lastly, I’d like to share one last word of advice from Sal: As a scheduling team, it’s important to stick together like glue to manage perceptions and expectations from your principals and their assistants. If there’s a non-critical email that comes in after 6 p.m., does it need to be answered right away?
Setting boundaries between what is necessary and would is nice to have is another way to start to strike the balance between your work-life and your home-life, and, once you accomplish that, everyone will be better off.