Rotating Schedules and Shifts: The Ultimate Guide + Examples

Rotating Schedules and Shifts: The Ultimate Guide + Examples
AJ Beltis

By AJ Beltis

Restaurant schedules shuffle all the time. While some managers dread the thought of a seasonal, monthly, or weekly schedule adjustment, others rely on it.

This practice of planned changes to employee schedules is known as rotating scheduling – and about 5% of hospitality employees work this way. Restaurants that engage in rotating scheduling will regularly schedule employees in different shifts depending on the week, month, or season.

A contrast to the fixed restaurant schedule, the rotating schedule affords employees and managers a slew of advantages, such as the sharing of preferred shifts among staff and the chance for staff to take longer breaks from work. However, rotating schedules requires some consideration before implementing due to their inconsistency and effects on employee work-life balance.

In this post, we'll get into more about the place of a rotating scheduling strategy in restaurants, as well as different types of rotating schedules, their advantages and disadvantages, and a step-by-step process for developing a rotating schedule in your restaurant.

What is a Rotating Schedule?

A rotating schedule is a scheduling strategy that periodically adjusts an employee's days and/or hours worked over a set period of time.

What is a rotating shift?

A rotating shift refers to the change from one shift to another – for example, an employee might work the lunch shift on Mondays in one month, but rotate to the Monday dinner shift in another month.

Rotating schedules are regularly reset when each scheduling cycle ends, so depending on how often a cycle lasts, it can be reset every week, every two weeks, or even every couple of months.

For example, if the schedule rotates each month and is on a two days on, two days off, three days on schedule, an employee might work an opening on Sunday and Monday, have Tuesday and Wednesday off, and work Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

The next month, that employee might work dinner on Sunday and Monday, keep Tuesday and Wednesday as days off, but work lunch between Thursday and Saturday.

This approach gives employees varying shifts and days on and off as the schedule changes.

Fixed Shifts Versus Rotating Shifts

Fixed shifts in restaurants are reliable, yet rigid. They dictate that the same staff works the same shifts, week-after-week and month-after-month. Outside of time off requests and shift swaps, things stay the same, meaning the server who has been working the same Friday night dinner shift for a decade will continue to do so.

A restaurant staff that favors this kind of reliability will prefer fixed shifts. It's easier for employees to plan for family obligations, social interactions, appointments, and time off requests. Fixed shifts also allow employees a consistent workload. For example, it might make sense to have a newer employee work weekdays until he gets his footing, then allow him to fill an opening that becomes available for a weekend shift once he's fully trained.

Rotating shifts, however, may favor a larger-sized staff that want more flexibility from a work schedule. A rotating schedule means that all servers have the chance to work tip-heavy Friday nights or that employees take turns getting weekends off.

Types of Rotating Schedules

Rotating schedules come in all shapes and sizes in restaurants. Here are a few of the different cycles and the frequency at which they may reset.

Constant Rotation Schedule

Living up to its name, a constant rotation schedule means employees will see an adjustment in the shifts they work frequently. This means one week an employee works might look drastically different than the next week with regard to days working, shift times, or even both. Oftentimes, this schedule type is part of a larger rotating schedule strategy that covers a certain amount of days, or even a month – we'll explain a few common examples of them in future sections.

Slow Rotation Schedule

The slow rotation schedule balances the needs for stability and change. Instead of weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly changes, a slow rotation schedule allows employees to settle into a normal schedule for a few months.

Slow rotation schedules are best for seasonal businesses. For example, if your restaurant is located near a popular skiing area, chances are you'll serve more guests and need more staff between the months of November and April than you would between May and October. So, it makes sense for the schedule to rotate every six months rather than overspend on labor.

Weekend Rotation Schedule

Weekend rotation schedules are more popular in smaller restaurants where securing a weekend off isn't the easiest. With a weekend rotation, employees rotate which weekends they get off in a given month, balancing out the needs for both work and family obligations. Under this model, the remainder of the week can be either a fixed schedule or a rotating schedule, which provides you with some flexibility in choosing the option that works best for your team.

Partial Rotation Schedule

A large staff – particularly one with frequent employee turnover – would benefit most from a partial rotation schedule. With a partial rotation, some employees operate on a fixed schedule, while others are on a rotating one. While some extra back-office work might be required to iron out the logistics here, it might be the best use of everyone's talents. With this model, veteran staff members can work the shifts where they're needed most, while newer employees can experience different days and shifts to see where they might be the best fit.

Rotating Shift Examples

8-Hour Shift Example

An eight-hour schedule works best for restaurants that are open 24/7 or for 16 hours each day.

For example, let's say you run a popular lunch and dinner restaurant, but have decided to expand to breakfast and open earlier in the day. Your new hours are from 7 am to 11 pm.

You've broken the hours down into:

  • The Day Shift (7 am to 3 pm).
  • The Night Shift (3 pm to 11 pm).

Your entire staff is made up of:

  • Nine servers.
  • Six cooks.
  • Three hosts/takeout counter workers.
  • Three shift managers.

You would break each team member into one of three groups, so that each shift team always has:

  • Three servers.
  • Two cooks.
  • One host/takeout counter worker.
  • One shift manager.

You decide you want to rotate the schedule every three days, meaning employees work the day shift for three days, the night shift for three days, and then get three consecutive days off.

This schedule approach evens out to just shy of 40 hours a week on average, and while it would require employees to work for six consecutive days, it would constantly reward them with three-day breaks.

10-Hour Shift Example

Unless your restaurant is open 20 hours a day, the ten-hour rotating schedule is more complicated than its eight-hour counterpart.

One common ten-hour rotating shift example is the 4-3 option. This method has employees working the same four consecutive days each week, but rotating the times of their ten-hour shifts when a new week begins. The employee takes the same remaining three days off.

Let's walk through an example. A restaurant is open 24/7 and is busiest on Fridays, as well as every day between the hours of 4 pm and 8 pm. Its three shifts are laid out as follows:

  • First Shift (11 am - 9 pm).
  • Second Shift (3 pm - 1 am).
  • Third Shift (1 am - 11 am).

In this example, six different teams take turns working throughout the week, but given the overlap in the first and second shifts between 3 pm and 9 pm, the restaurant is always doubled up on staff during its busiest time – four teams are working instead of the typical two.

With this setup, there's also one day a week where all employees are working (in this example, let's assume it's Friday, since that's the restaurant's busiest day).

The ten-hour approach – specifically in the 4-3 model – means employees can always plan for the same days off, get forty hours of work each week, and only work the graveyard shift one week out of every three.

12-Hour Shift Examples

Twelve-hour rotating shift schedules work for restaurants that are open twelve hours a day or are open 24/7. For the former, the rotation will typically represent a change in days worked, since a restaurant open twelve hours each day has just one daily shift to work.

For 24/7 restaurants, one of the most common rotating schedule types is the DuPont system, which offers employees a full week off in each 28-day working cycle. It breaks down as follows:

  • Four night shifts.
  • Three days off.
  • Three day shifts.
  • One day off.
  • Three night shifts.
  • Three days off.
  • Four day shifts.
  • Seven days off.

Outside of the one-week break, the DuPont method is arguably the most strenuous example we've mentioned so far – however, the more difficult stretch of four consecutive night shifts is immediately followed by an entire week off.

How to Set Up a Rotating Schedule

1. Determine Your Schedule Type

First things first – you'll need to decide which rotating schedule option works best for your restaurant. It might be one of the above options, or it could be worth looking into (or even developing) a different one. The choice depends entirely on your staff size, your hours of operation, and overtime requirements & compliance.

2. Let Your Team Know of the Upcoming Change

Before you go ahead and start scheduling employees to shifts you've already agreed they would not be working, double check with your team about potential conflicts. You should be prepared to explain why you're looking into new scheduling options – particularly if you're asking staff to work shifts they've never worked or expressed interest in working before.

Instead of making a team-wide announcement in your pre-shift meeting, you could also use an employee engagement tool to source personal and actionable feedback from your staff about their input on the new schedule.

3. Divide Your Staff Into Groups

Once your staff is on board with rotating schedules, start assigning them to different rotation groups. Remember to take any considerations needed into account (this may be a reason to use a partial rotation schedule and keep a few employees on a fixed schedule).

Depending on your restaurant's makeup, it could be worthwhile to have separate shift groups or schedule types for back-of-house and front-of-house staff, or even by specific role. When making these teams, you'll want to consider who does, doesn't, and who you think might work well together. Also, remember to factor in the expertise of your staff – you wouldn't want to waste the expertise of your more senior employees on a Tuesday lunch shift and leave Saturday night to a group of all new hires, would you?

4. Use a Rotating Schedule Template to Get Organized [Free Download]

With so many options for your rotating schedule, it's worth using a rotating schedule template to plan out your options and visualize which approach makes the most sense for your staff.

The 7shifts team created this free rotating schedule template for you to build out your new schedule. Click here to download the template for free.

5. Alert Your Team of the New Change

Once the new scheduling approach is finalized, share it with your team so they can start making any necessary adjustments in their lives. If you're using an employee scheduling software like 7shifts, you can share the new schedule with your team instantly online.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages of Rotating Schedules

Scheduling Flexibility

Rotating schedules acknowledge the need for change. When known ahead of time, rotating schedules allow employees to break up the otherwise mundane nature of their schedules. For example, if the rotating schedule is a seasonal one, reconfiguring it after bringing on more workers in the summer might allow your veteran staff members to enjoy more time off. If the rotation happens weekly or even monthly, staff could spend one rotation sleeping in on weekdays and enjoying weeknights out, while spending the next period relaxing during the day and earning more tips on the weekends.

Cross-Training Employees

Let's say your restaurant is open 24/7 and you've got a full staff working the graveyard shift. Employees can be cross-trained to learn duties other than their core ones and then put those skills to use in shifts like these. For example, your servers might not be tending to a full house at 4 am, which means it's a perfect time for them to get utensils and dishes organized for the morning shift and handle deliveries that come in before the breakfast crowd arrives. That way, they can do more side work and handle it with less stress than during a busy shift.

Sharing Preferred Shifts

The crowd is always busier on weekends, holidays, game night, and trivia night – meaning tips pour in for servers and bartenders, yet the back-of-house staff works exponentially harder for no incremental pay. Fixed schedules can create a feeling of resentment on your team, with front-of-house staff missing out on more lucrative shifts and the kitchen crew seeing a set wage regardless of the amount of orders they fulfill. Rotating scheduling alleviates this hostility by divvying up these preferred shifts among the entire staff.

More Employee Interaction

The intricacies required for rotating scheduling means employees may find themselves working with different team members every time their shifts are adjusted. As a result, employee engagement could improve, and employees may be noticed by different managers for their talents.

Disadvantages of Rotating Shifts

Scheduling Around Special Considerations

Rotating scheduling sounds like a good idea until some of the logistics kick in. What happens if one of your waitresses can't work weekdays between 2pm and 4pm because she needs to pick up her children from daycare, or if your teenage cashiers can't work before 3pm because they're still in school? Particularly with a larger staff, the ins and outs of rotating scheduling can get very complicated very quickly when taking your staff's work-life balance and personal commitments into consideration.

Quick Tip: If worries over employee availability are a barrier to you trying rotating shifts in your restaurant, try using the 7shifts Team Communication Tool for manager-approved employee shift swaps.

No Consistency

Some employees like the hustle and bustle of weekend shifts and find slower shifts tedious. Others can't handle the commotion of a busy night and are willing to make lower wages as a result. With rotating schedules, it can be difficult for employees to find and stay in their “sweet spots.”This inconsistency also spills over into employees' personal lives when they're trying to plan their schedules weeks or months ahead of time. You also may find yourself overstaffed in slower hours and understaffed during a rush, which creates an inconsistent experience for your diners and your employees.

Employee Mental and Physical Considerations

Multiple studies (including this one published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information) have concluded that rotating shift work – particularly those requiring overnight work – can have a strong negative impact on workers' physical and mental health. Abnormal sleep schedules may contribute to cardiovascular disorders, cancer, metabolic issues, gastrointestinal disorders, and legitimate strains on the psychological state of employees. Clearly, none of these are good for your employees or your restaurant.

Longer Shifts

The most commonly implemented rotating shifts are done so on an eight-, ten-, or twelve-hour shift basis. Continuous days of ten- and twelve-hour shifts can drain your employees quickly, especially if they're overnighters. Towards the end of their shifts, they might lose focus and be more prone to make a mistake. Longer shifts could also create resentment from your staff for keeping them from their families for too long and thus increase employee turnover.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Rotating Shift Work Unhealthy?

Rotating shift work has been linked to health issues in several studies. Our bodies rely on the consistency of a biological 24-hour clock relative to our locations. For rotating shift schedules requiring overnight work, continued sleep-wake cycle disruptions can lead to the aforementioned health problems, ranging from the risk of cancer to heightened stress and mood disorders. Additionally, the stress induced by rotating overnight shifts can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as “smoking, alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.”

Because these adverse health effects seem to have the biggest impact for overnight shifts, rotating shifts for restaurants open for limited hours (such as the eight-hour shift example outlined above) likely would not have the same negative impact on employees.

Who Manages the Rotating Shift Schedules?

Typically, a restaurant's manager(s) and/or owner handles the rotating shift schedule. Naturally, time off and shift swapping requests will arise, so it's best for the restaurant's leaders to lay out a policy for how to maintain the rotating schedule while respecting employees' need for occasional flexibility. Building a rotating shift from scratch is an arduous task, so it's best to get started with a rotating schedule template and/or an employee scheduling software.

Scheduling Your Employees Effectively

The rotating shift schedule isn't for every restaurant, so whichever method you adopt, ensure it respects the abilities of your staff to offer the best possible experience to your guests.

Regardless of whether your restaurant utilizes a fixed or a rotating restaurant schedule, it's best to build and communicate schedules with a restaurant employee management software like 7shifts. The auto-scheduling feature will help you determine the best schedule for each shift based on demand and employee availability, while schedules can be communicated to employees electronically with the click of a button.

Get a two-week free trial of 7shifts and see how you can save over $2,000 and 16 hours of work each month.

Start using 7shifts today

7shifts is the all-in-one labor platform built for restaurants to simplify employee scheduling and labor management. Easily manage your teams’ schedules, timesheets, communication, tasks, tips and more– all in one place with 7shifts.

Start FREE Trial.

AJ Beltis
AJ Beltis

AJ Beltis is a freelance writer with almost a decade of experience in the restaurant industry. He currently works as a content specialist at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.