Workforce Management Solution Gives Film Festival Cause to Celebrate

By  Michael D. Cole — September 09, 2010

What do critically acclaimed movies and box-office smashes such as The Hurt Locker, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and The Usual Suspects all have in common?

They are just some of the motion picture favorites that made an initial splash at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Held annually since 1976, it has emerged as one of the biggest and most established film festivals in North America and is, by all accounts, giving other similar festivals around the world like Cannes a run for their money.

The popular event (it is generally considered to be a more audience-oriented film festival as opposed to others that are industry-centered) has been lauded for such unique facets as its four-film "secret festival" in which those who attend the screening sign an oath that they will not reveal afterwards what they have seen. Variety  includes SIFF as one of the world's "50 unmissable film festivals."

The 2010 version of SIFF, which concluded in June, was the biggest festival ever, featuring more than 400 films across multiple screening venues. Illustrating the enormous turnout, more than, 83,000 ballots were cast by audience members for the festival's awards such as best picture, and best actor and actress.

But success can be fraught with its own silver-screen sized logistics and human capital hurdles.

For one, the festival typically manages a workforce of over one thousand volunteers with just a few paid contract staff. SIFF is charged with fulfilling some 5,700 work shifts and 15,000 hours over the event, which takes place daily for nearly a month -- 25 days encompassing May and June.

Given such considerable demands, cancellations and no-shows are not an unexpected occurrence and there is a considerable ramp-up in scheduling just prior to each event. The diverse roles that must be filled in short order range from usher, box office, theater operations, drivers, special events and hospitality, among others.

All the challenges are further pronounced when you consider that the 2010 version of the festival, while being shown primarily in downtown Seattle, also branched out into other parts of Washington including West Seattle, Everett, Kirkland and Juanita Beach Park. Accordingly, such key tasks as picking up directors and actors from the airport and transferring films from theater to theater can offer their own level of trickiness.

Despite all those challenges and the surge in growth of the festival, Holden Payne, SIFF's director of operations said the recently concluded festival was one of the most seamless ever for the organization, operating with hardly a hitch.

"We had a really strong year: It was our best box office year ever, and being on the operations side of things I can tell you that isn't always a good thing," he laughs. "That's because it stretches your operations, but the impact on us this year was very minimal."

Getting in Sync

Payne attributes SIFF's successful operations to the organization's robust online and mobile scheduling and workforce management solution, from Seattle-headquartered Shiftboard. The solution is an integrated system encompassing not just scheduling but also communication tools,  management reporting, and an integrated online worker database for the constant recruiting needs of many flexible or contingent workforce organizations.

According to Shiftboard (which now claims more than 500 clients) the scheduling solution, first developed in 2002, was primarily adopted at the outset in the healthcare industry as it mobilized doctors, anesthesiologists, and nurses in real time. It was also used early on in the security field, in scheduling off-duty policy officers for instance.

SIFF started using the solution back in 2004, replacing their manual system comprised of sign-up sheets and more primitive electronic list management tools. "It has really revolutionized how we do things," Payne says. "It started to relieve pressure from us in year one. We've gone from a place where we used to operate with two full-time paid staff and five interns and now we're running things with one full-time staffer. In terms of scheduling man hours and improving volunteer recruiting, it's really been remarkable for us."

For SIFF, the Shiftboard platform creates a flexible real-time scheduling process for its managers, workers and volunteers. The organization is able to quickly fill the sudden high volume of shifts through either real-time, self-service or auto-scheduling based on worker availability. Payne says the solution has allowed the organization to increase participation, retain volunteers and save thousands of hours that would have otherwise been spent manually juggling schedules.

Conversely, the SIFF workforce is able to check shift details (which are color coded), pick up open shifts in real time and view positions for any date range.

Payne asserts that using the solution enhances SIFF's proactive people management capabilities: for instance, it enables the organization to fill key positions based on past and proven reliability as opposed to scheduling them with random personnel. "It leaves us with more time to focus on what we do best, which is bringing people together and promoting the art of filmmaking," Payne comments. "In the past we would broadcast [positions] out to everyone. We were having people that didn't necessarily have the skillset say 'oh that sounds like fun' and show up for it. This gives us the control over who we're messaging to and build specialized teams for certain tasks."

Payne says SIFF's scheduling processes were enhanced further this year, with the launch of an iPhone app from Shiftboard. Not only does it incorporate key features of the SaaS software, it also provides functionality such as enabling users to check the location of any shift with a linked map. Additionally, through the iPhone and other mobile platforms, SIFF organizers and its workforce are able to communicate to each other on the go via SMS text messages and e-mail updates.

Payne says the system "has made volunteering so much easier because they're managing their own shifts. Plans change and things come up, but in the past, we wouldn't get the call about cancellations and now we do. It has made our lives easier and helped volunteers manage their time."

Additionally, Payne says social media functionality in the Shiftboard system has not only "replaced the stress with fun" for its volunteer workforce but has also boosted SIFF's recruiting efforts, particularly helping it attract volunteers at a grassroots level -- particularly in some of the more peripheral geographic regions where the film festival is held.

A New Paradigm for Workforce Management?

Both Payne and Shiftboard's developers say the solution presents a fundamental shift in that it puts scheduling power directly in the hands of the organization's workforce -- not necessarily from the top down. The employee or volunteer is determining the schedule and that information is then sent back to the organization to help with decision-making.

"We call it 'bottoms up' scheduling," says Bryan Lhuillier, the founder and chief technology and product officer at Shiftboard. "It's a different approach to 'I'm the manager and I'm going to tell people when to work and we're not going to allow people to cancel.' It's a huge change we're seeing across different industries that we serve, even the healthcare market. There's a lot of excitement with this new paradigm."

It's one that Payne says is working for his organization.

"Our staffing and administrative costs were so much higher with the way we were doing things in the past," he says. "Now, we're doing things differently and we're definitely growing. A tool like this has made it possible for us."


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