The Essential Guide to Shift Planning

Updated Dec 5, 2022.

Run a business that needs skilled labor round the clock or at certain times to meet customer demand? Shift planning is the one skill that can single-handedly make or break your business.

Planning shifts can be a chore, but with the right approach, it can be painless and make a big difference in labor costs and employee turnover which affect your bottom line. Today, we’ll look at the right way to plan shifts so you maximize both time and employee skills without incurring extra costs.

What is Shift Planning?

Shift planning is simply the process of making sure there is always enough staff on hand at any time during business hours to attend to customers. You’ll find this to be especially common for businesses in the health, hospitality, and service space.

It involves creating a well-outlined schedule that specifies who is supposed to be doing what and when at any given point in time during business operating hours.

When you’re planning shifts you’re also supposed to consider any potential overlapping hours, workload distribution, holidays, staff training periods, and even include contingencies.

How to Plan a Shift Schedule

Planning a shift schedule can be treated as a simple matter of creating a table (or spreadsheet) with staff names and making sure every time slot is covered. But if you want to plan a truly efficient shift schedule, you’ll need to consider certain factors.

1. Consider labor demands.

Which times are peak operating hours? Is there a major holiday or event around the corner? How many staff members are available for rotation at any given period?

Knowing these will help you have enough staff on hand to handle demand during your peak periods and reduce the risk of overworking some staff which could lead to overtime costs.

Likewise, during less busy hours you’ll save on labor costs by having not as many staff around.

2. Know your staff’s strengths and weaknesses.

Each member on your team will have a specific skill that they’re good at, for example, customer service. Based on past data, you should be able to predict when during business hours you’ll need a specific skill set so you can schedule someone who is good at it.

This also applies to staff who are habitual no-shows or don’t pull their weight while at work. So if you have important clients coming through or are hosting an event, you’ll know who to put on duty. Employee monitoring software is a good tool to help you identify such staff traits.

Be sure to include any special requirements for trained staff from the get-go. For example, if you need to have a certain number of trained child care attendants on duty at any point in time, this should be rostered into your schedule.

Likewise if you have a lot of trainee staff with a few experienced ones supervising, it helps to pay attention to the ratios so you don’t end up with too much or too little of each group.

Benefits of Shift Planning

Creating a shift schedule can be a chore for business owners but its benefits are worth it. Here are a few major benefits of planning shifts.

1. Cut Down On Labor Costs

The main reason businesses plan shifts is to save money on labor by avoiding having more staff than needed at any point in time. Having too many or too few people at work can both be expensive for your business, because of the risk of paying overtime or idle people.

Once you plan your staff shifts, you’ll drastically reduce the risk of having too many (or too few) people at work at a time.

2. Maximize Staff Skills

Shift planning also helps you make the best use of your staff’s expertise. You’ll be able to make sure either the most experienced or most qualified person is at work when they are most needed.

It is also helpful if you’re doing on-the-job training since you can schedule enough experienced staff to supervise and groom those who are still learning the ropes.

3. Reduce Employee Turnover

Finally, shift planning helps you distribute work hours evenly without overburdening some staff and leaving others which means less sick leave requests and absenteeism.

You can even seek staff input about their preferred shifts after which can help influence how you assign each member. Asking them which slots they prefer will promote a sense of inclusion which boosts overall employee satisfaction.

How to Create a Shift Schedule

Creating a shift schedule should be influenced by your business’s needs and how the market is moving. That said, here are some critical steps to consider when creating the perfect shift schedule for your business.

1. Your Staff Strength and Availability

It’s pointless to create a shift schedule that your staff simply can’t keep up with or one that frustrates everybody.

Keep your staff strength and numbers in mind as you create and fill available shift slots. Again, be sure to factor in any training, extended leave periods, or supervisory roles that need to be filled.

By paying attention to what’s going on in your workers’ lives, you’ll be able to create a shift schedule that’s efficient, workable, and makes them feel cared about which will boost productivity.

2. Advanced Communication of Shift Schedules

The earlier your team knows about their upcoming rotations, the better it is for everyone. Letting them know in advance will help you spot potential problems like shift clashes, and longer than usual hours well ahead so you can fix them.

They’ll also know how to move their personal arrangements around to fit their work schedule which reduces the risk of no-shows or last-minute swaps.

3. Make Contingency Plans

The last thing you want to do is wait till the last minute to create a shift schedule, like the ending of this month to create a new schedule for the following month. Armed with all the necessary data, you should be able to plan shift rosters at least two weeks in advance.

Again, planning ahead provides room for contingencies in case some staff may not be available at the time or even to get extra help when a larger than normal workload is expected.

4. Choose the Right Tools

Finally, you’ll need the right tools to create a shift schedule. If your team is made up of a handful of employees, you may find using just a paper and pen or basic spreadsheets to be fine.

But when you’re creating a schedule for a large team of hundreds of people or multiple business branches, spreadsheets or paper and pen simply won’t cut it. Either option is error-prone and can’t be distributed readily across a large team.

This is where it pays to invest in specialized shift planning software that automatically creates and fills slots and in some cases, directly sends updates to your employees’ phones via an app.

How to Manage Time-Off Requests?

It is inevitable that some of your staff are going to ask for time off. Thus no matter how hard you try to factor in all possible variables, you’re bound to run into employee requests for time-off.

Without proper planning and guidelines, such requests can throw your shift schedule off and cause complete chaos.

But that need not be the case. Below we look at a few pointers to help you manage time-off requests without causing confusion in your shift schedule.

1. Consider Creating a Simple Time-Off Policy.

It’s not uncommon to find some companies missing a personal time-off policy. This is a major deal breaker if you intend to start running shifts at your business. A time-off policy helps everyone in your organization be on the same page when it comes to asking for time off.

It doesn’t have to be complex or filled with jargon, but it does need to clearly outline expectations both for employees and management, for example, when does someone qualify for time-off and how many times can one person take time-off within a given period.

2. Include Appropriate Notice Periods

Apart from knowing when someone can get time off, it’s equally critical to let staff know how soon ahead staff can put in requests for time off. Likewise, your staff needs to know how long it’ll take for their requests to get approved and on what grounds requests will be approved or denied.

3. Know Who Is Off and When

Lastly, you’ll have to know who is going to be off, when and for how long. Keeping tabs on time-off requests and the number of staff you’ll have available within any scheduling period will avoid understaffing.

Scheduling software can come in handy as it’ll automatically alert you if you happen to have conflicting time-off requests.

How to Deal With Staff Shortages?

No matter how well-planned or researched your shift schedule may be, staff shortages are a real possibility. Emergencies will come up and some of your teammates will simply be unavailable to cover their shift.

Much as this can cause stress, you should still be able to get staff to cover such gaps in shifts without breaking a sweat. By properly planning your shift schedule, you’ll give yourself breathing room in case the unexpected happens.

For starters, use existing staff and business data to plan your new rotation. Paying attention to peak and slow business periods should help you factor in any additional staffing needs. Be sure to have backup staff for shifts that need to have many hands on deck.

Next, let your staff know well ahead of time. When people know when they’re supposed to be on duty, they’ll make sure to create room in their personal calendars or better yet, let you know in advance that they won’t be available on certain days.

It also pays to allow your staff to swap shifts on their own to make up for such gaps in the shift schedule. This will save you the headache of making sure there is always enough staff on hand.

How to Accommodate Shift Swaps?

Swapping shifts can be a great way to lighten the burden of making sure you always have enough staff on hand while providing your team with some flexibility to choose their working hours.

But in some instances, it can cause stress and anxiety especially when things don’t go according to plan. Being proactive about shift swaps with some of the tips below can help you turn this potentially problematic solution into a helpful tool in your shift planning.

1. Create Rules for Shift Swaps

There’s always the tendency for people to go overboard without some type of control or guideline. Likewise, you’ll need to create simple, easy-to-understand rules for swapping shifts.

Which shifts can be swapped and which ones can’t? Is an advanced notice required for a shift swap? Let your team know that any shift trade must first be approved by management too.

2. Ensure Shift Swap Policy Compliance

Next, let your team know about your shift swap rules so they can make informed decisions. It’s also worth letting them know that management encourages them to trade shifts and there will be no consequences for trying an approved shift swap. By getting more staff using the procedure, you’ll worry less about last-minute staffing needs.

3. Keep Managerial Control of Swaps

While you could just let your team do the swaps amongst themselves, you’re bound to run into no-show issues where you can’t tell who is actually being sincere and who is consistently finding excuses to evade work.
By making sure all swaps come to you for approval, you’ll not only avoid such awkward situations but also be able to keep tabs on who and who are available to work at any given time.

Maintaining oversight also helps you make sure swapped shifts are among staff with similar skills and also reduces the risk of staff running into overtime.

Running shift swaps can be cumbersome if you’re manually planning shifts with spreadsheets or pen and paper. Shift scheduling software reduces this risk by giving you a bird’s eye view of available shift swap slots and also lets your team digitally log their shift trade requests.

Best Practices for Shift Planning

Shift planning can be simple with the right tools and guidelines, but there are some things you can do to ensure you create the most efficient shift schedule possible. By using some of these best practices, you’ll be sure to make creating an efficient shift schedule stress-free every time.

1. Find And Stick To A Template That Works

When you’re first starting out with shift scheduling, you may find you have to experiment with finding a format that is easy to understand and works for your business. But once you do, it’s best to stick to it as a template.

Thus, whether you choose pen and paper, spreadsheets, word docs, or a scheduling app, stick to the method and template that you find most helpful for you and your team. This saves time and the mental workload when creating a roster for staff.

2. Know Your Staff Strength At Any Point In Time

The most important thing you’ll need to know before you attempt to draw a shift schedule for your team is who is available and when. The whole point of shift planning is to ensure you’re not under or overstaffed during specific business periods.

Not knowing your staff’s availability at any given point makes it near impossible to create an effective shift schedule. Try to get this information beforehand, either during monthly staff meetings, training, and/or onboarding sessions for newbies.

You’ll also have the added benefit of being able to quickly adjust shifts in case someone is absent while making fewer changes once you finish creating the schedule.

3. Plan Shifts A Minimum of Two Weeks Ahead

Want to avoid last-minute no-shows and reduce lateness? Let your staff know ahead of time which shifts they’ll be working.

By drawing up your shift schedule at least two weeks in advance, members of your team can draw your attention to any errors, overlaps, and double workloads.

It’s also good for them since they’ll be able to plan their personal lives and non-work commitments in a way that doesn’t interfere with them. They may even make shift trades to accommodate such events. You’ll no longer need to worry about last-minute emergencies or shift swaps.

4. Limit On-Call Scheduling

In some fields, on-call scheduling, or calling staff to come in only when needed is not entirely avoidable, for example, doctors and nurses in hospitals.

Other businesses may require scheduled employees to call in prior to their scheduled time to confirm if they should still report to work, which is common in food and retail store businesses.

Either way, on-call scheduling is both stressful and an inefficient way of drawing up a shift schedule. It leaves too much uncertainty and is definitely not a good use of anyone’s time.

Creating a fixed schedule with a minimum but efficient number of staff who can handle any sudden surge in customers.

Why Shift Planning Software Will Make Your Life Easier

Without proper planning and research, your business could lose hundreds to thousands in revenue due to poorly planned shift schedules.

Manual shift planning methods like spreadsheets and handwritten shifts are prone to issues like being understaffed due to data entry or communication issues which could lead to a poor customer experience.

Switching to shift scheduling software like ZoomShift and Deputy, helps to automate part of your shift planning work and gives you an overview and control of how you distribute your staff so you can make the most of your human resources.

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Anastasia Belyh

Editor at FounderJar

Anastasia has been a professional blogger and researcher since 2014. She loves to perform in-depth software reviews to help software buyers make informed decisions when choosing project management software, CRM tools, website builders, and everything around growing a startup business.

Anastasia worked in management consulting and tech startups, so she has lots of experience in helping professionals choosing the right business software.