Shift Schedules: The Ultimate How-To Guide

Shift Schedules: The Ultimate How-To Guide
Nick Darlington

By Nick Darlington

Shift scheduling, or employee work scheduling, is an integral part of any business that operates on shift work. Effective scheduling helps businesses reduce labor costs, boost staff morale, improve efficiency, and much more.

But creating shift schedules can be a challenging and time-consuming process with many businesses also struggling to track, and even maintain them. The result? Less than optimal schedules with establishments that are often over- or understaffed and lacking in customer service, and shrinking margins.

But you don’t need to suffer this fate!

In this post, you’ll learn almost everything you need to know about shift schedules so you can create better schedules, spend less time scheduling and, ultimately, run a more profitable and successful business.

What Is A Shift Schedule?

Shift schedules are a core aspect of modern workforce management that help manage and improve an organization's operational efficiency.

Shift scheduling, in turn, involves creating and maintaining these work schedules to better manage your resources, improve efficiencies, enhance customer service, and increase profits.

Many industries use shift worker schedules or shift plans to manage workforce operations including restaurants and bars, hospitality, public service, manufacturing, supply chain, retail, medical, and more.

What Are the Benefits of Effective Scheduling?

waiter server carrying a tray in a restaurant

If you choose the right scheduling method and balance the above business staffing and staff scheduling needs, you’re far more likely to overcome common scheduling issues and experience the many benefits for your business and employees:

Business Benefits:

  • Reduced labor costs due to optimized staff schedules
  • Improved customer experience as you’re never over or understaffed
  • Less time spent creating schedules each week—assuming you’re using the right tool
  • Fewer staff availability phone calls and texts because staff understand their roles
  • Improved accountability as staff have a formal schedule they can refer to and avoid missed shifts due to miscommunication
  • Increased staff engagement. Staff are more receptive to an organized scheduling process that works compared to one which lacks structure and hinders work/life balance

Employee Benefits:

  • Improved morale because employees understand their roles and working hours well in advance, and have a schedule that considers their time-off needs
  • Effective scheduling supports the staff’s desire for improved productivity. And it’s usually achieved by using the right tools and not clunky processes that slow you down

What Are the Keys to Effective Scheduling?

waitress setting table restaurant

This is a brief intro to the art of understanding and balancing your business' staffing needs with your staff's scheduling needs. Check out Why Balancing Restaurant Staffing & Staff Scheduling Needs = Win-Win for a detailed walk through.

Effective scheduling requires more than just choosing the right scheduling method. When creating a schedule, you need to understand and consider both your business’ staffing needs and your staff’s individual needs and strike a balance between the two.

1. Staff Scheduling Needs

Your employee scheduling needs include:

  • Having enough advance notice of schedule changes to manage their time properly
  • An understanding of their job roles, so they are empowered to accomplish work tasks
  • Control over work-related time-off and availability requests
  • Opportunity to swap out or pick up additional shifts on short notice

2. Business Staffing Needs

Your business requirements include:

  • The right mix of work shifts (fixed, split, rotating shifts, etc.) to improve efficiency
  • Having optimal schedules, so you’re never over or understaffed
  • The ability to reduce staff turnover rates
  • Smart scheduling that easily integrates with your POS to reduce scheduling time

How To Choose the Right Scheduling Method

There are four main scheduling methods available:

  1. Casual (No Formal Method)
  2. Traditional (Pen and Paper)
  3. Functional (Spreadsheets)
  4. Innovative (Scheduling Software)
quadrant 4 main scheduling methods

These scheduling methods range from the simplest (no formal method) to more robust scheduling software (online scheduling apps). Each scheduling method corresponds to a scheduling style: casual, traditional, functional or innovative.

The method you use to schedule dictates your scheduling style. No one method is better than the other, but each caters to different staff and scheduling needs (more on that in a bit) and offers different levels of flexibility and efficiency.

  • Flexibility: The ability to swap shifts, predict schedules and meet compliance requirements.
  • Efficiency: The ability to create optimal schedules in a timely manner with minimal maintenance.

1. Casual (No Formal Method)

This method is a great option for businesses that don't need extra help creating, managing or maintaining work schedules.

  • No added cost, tools or supplies needed
  • Suitable for small staff sizes or businesses with limited hours of operation
  • Switches and availability requests can get overwhelming
  • It’s difficult to scale as your staff increases and scheduling gets more complex
Scheduling Style: Casual

This style is about getting the job done using whatever means available—text messages, phone calls, word of mouth and so on.

2. Traditional (Pen and Paper)

Some businesses create schedules using traditional tools like pen and paper, notice boards, or whiteboards.

  • Simple, straightforward way to handle scheduling
  • No need to spend time learning purpose-built tools or the nuances of Excel
  • Minimal cost spent on scheduling supplies
  • Manual updates and modifications can be time-consuming
  • It’s difficult to optimize for efficiencies and may lead to over- or under-staffed shifts
  • Very difficult to make swift data-driven business decisions as labor reports aren’t readily available and instead you need to manually created them.
  • Tracking and managing schedule changes can become tedious, time-consuming, and tricky
  • Reduced operational agility and flexibility due to manual schedule adjustments and in-person staff schedule updates.
Scheduling Style: Traditional

Traditional scheduling is bare-bones and straightforward. Anyone with a pen and paper and enough determination to get the job done can use this method.

3. Functional (Spreadsheets)

This method is ideal for businesses comfortable creating and managing employee work schedules using Excel:

  • Microsoft Office offers work templates to speed up the schedule creation process
  • You can use formulas to automatically calculate total hours worked
  • You’re able to create detailed reports, charts, and tables to inform decisions
  • Excel is more cost-effective than scheduling software, although you still have to pay for a Microsoft Office license
  • You can share the latest schedule and communicate schedule changes via email instead of waiting for staff to show up in-person
  • Cons:
    • Using Excel may be a step-up from creating schedules with pen and paper, but they still require considerable time to create
    • Tracking and managing these schedules can be a struggle and is often a tedious process. You’re regularly flipping between schedules. And you’re never just working in one spreadsheet. There are multiple.
    • It’s harder to stay organized and up to date if you have more staff as this means there are more shifts to schedule
    • If you want any business data, you have to create reports and charts yourself

    Excel scheduling is prone to error, with lots of manual updating, and having to consolidate information from emails, phone calls, hand-written notes, text messages and so on.

    Restaurant General Manager Cody Hall, former scheduling manager at Joey’s in Toronto explains how unless you’re rebuilding your schedule every few weeks you can run into trouble, especially if you have many employees to schedule:

    “Imagine that in week one I build the schedule. Say I have a server named Austa. Austa usually works days, Mondays to Fridays, 11 to 5. Now, week two, on her Monday to Friday schedule, Austa books off Thursday and Friday. I take those two shifts and give them to Simone and Garron. When I go to week three, and I choose to fold that schedule over, Austa’s Thursday and Friday shift is missing, and Simone and Aaron have it. Because there are 70 people, I don’t recognize that Austa always has those shifts. And she’s getting mad because she’s asking, ‘Where’s my Thursday and Friday Shift?’ And I say, ‘I didn’t even realize that I didn’t give it to you.’ And that’s where things start getting tricky and why I would have to rebuild the schedule every two weeks." –Cody Hall, General Manager
    Cody Hall, General Manager
    Scheduling Style: Functional

    Functional scheduling uses technology to modernize traditional scheduling. This method is preferred by management that understands Excel and has time to build, modify, and manage spreadsheets.

    4. Innovative (Scheduling Software)

    7shifts restaurant scheduling software preview
    Scheduling software takes the best parts of spreadsheets and simplifies the rest

    As technology has advanced, so have shift scheduling tools. Employee scheduling is now automated; it’s digital; it’s seamless.

    Managers can create and manage schedules on the fly from their desktops or mobile devices and communicate schedule changes instantly without having to call face-to-face meetings. And it’s all possible with easy-to-use employee scheduling tools.

    • You save money. For example, if you’re a restaurateur, the right restaurant scheduling software will help you save $2000/month
    • Scheduling software lets you create schedules in less than 30 min
    • You spend less time managing schedules and, instead, approve or deny availability requests with one tap.
    • You’re better equipped to develop optimized work schedules. Say goodbye to poor customer service and high labor costs!
    • Decision making improves with real-time access to sales and labor reports
    • Approving employee requests for time-off is faster and easier than before
    • Employees can easily switch shifts with minimal involvement from you
    • Easily identify any unassigned shifts
    • Communication is fast, seamless, and native via mobile devices
    • Scheduling software requires a monthly subscription and potential one-time POS integration fee
    • There will be a slight learning curve to master new software and train staff
    Scheduling Style: Innovative

    Innovative scheduling uses real-time, always-on Software as a Service platforms and sophisticated algorithms to automate repetitive scheduling and make smarter scheduling decisions.

    The 9 Big Scheduling Issues To Avoid

    busy restaurant

    Given the many types of shifts to choose from, how do you find the right type of work schedule for your business?

    Unfortunately, there's no simple answer. It will depend on several factors like your business type, the kind of staff you hire, seasonality, and so on. For example, if you're a restaurateur who owns a 24/7 restaurant, a rotating shift may work best, but if you run a Bistro, a fixed schedule may be more suitable.

    Choosing the right schedule can also be a daunting process if you consider that there are over 500 shift patterns to choose from. And even once you've gone through the painstaking process of selecting the right schedule, there's no guarantee it'll remain optimal. Common scheduling problems can still occur which threaten to derail your operational efficiency.

    Have you experienced any of the nine most-common scheduling issues?

    The scheduling issues most commonly reported by restaurant managers and operators can be goruped into three major areas:

    • Insufficient Coverage
    • Excessive Turnover
    • Logistical Sloppiness

    Let's break them down below.

    1. Lack of Availability

    Even the most well-considered schedule will occasionally conflict an employee’s personal availability. If this issue gets out of control, full roster coverage will become a growing challenge.

    2. Over-Staffing

    Sending staff home early to manage labor costs may unintentionally sow animosity in your crew by risking ‘playing favorites’. Staff may lose trust in the reliability of their schedule, and of the value of their contribution.

    3. Margin Cannibalization

    The fear of missing out on a nice boost in sales can convince managers to ‘play it safe’ and over-schedule. This nobel concern wants to protect customer service levels, but can bloat labor costs beyond what actual sales justify.

    4. Staff Shortages

    The only thing more frustrating than insufficient shift schedule coverage is not having enough staff to work the positions and necessary shifts in the first place, and getting caught short-handed during peak sales seasons.

    5. No Call-No Shows

    Staff who don’t show up for work without advanced notice have at some point decided that their job is either no longer worth it, or that the consequences of not showing up are not worth avoiding. This is bad news all around.

    6. Training Too Often

    One of the most measurable issues downstream of high staff turnover is the additional–and often prohibitive–costs associated with training new cohorts of staff more frequently than your schedule can afford.

    7. Bad Customer Service

    Under-prepared or untrained staff are prone to taking incorrect orders, punching them in wrong, or not knowing how to handle complaints. If these core skills are not covered in training, your customer service will suffer.

    8. Poor Communication

    Shift swaps, shift subs, call-in’s and no call-no shows are a part of scheduling life, and all are made more costly and troublesome by low-quality communication habits, hasty or unclear announcements, or not enough notice.

    9. Labor Law Exceptions

    The fines incurred from failed regulatory audits can be costly and even threatening to the survival of a business, so compliance is a top priority for businesses affected by changing labor law legislation.

    6 Most Common Types of Shift Work Schedules

    When creating any work schedule, there are many different types of shift schedule to choose from. Different industries will prefer different schedule types. Here are seven of the most commonly used across the board:

    Fixed Shift Schedules

    fixed shift example
    Fixed shifts remain mostly constant week over week

    This is your basic all-purpose shift schedule type. Fixed shifts consist of staff working the same number of hours and days each week.

    For example, if you run a restaurant, a server or bartender may work Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 4:00pm (every week). This fixed schedule allows staff to bank on a predictable work schedule.

    Split Shift Schedules

    split shift example
    Split shifts are separated by more than a regular break period

    Employees agree to fill their work hours over two shifts or time slots in a day. For example, an employee may work from 08:00 to 13:00, take a break for four hours, and return to work from 17:00 to 21:00.

    A normal lunchtime break is not part of a split shift. When including this type of shift in your schedule, work with your HR department to ensure you’re within the federal labor laws.

    Overtime Shift Schedules

    Overtime shifts example
    Overtime shifts should be minimized to keep labor costs down

    Employees work more hours than a typical shift. These can be costly but are often necessary during emergencies. Take note of hard-working employees who put in extra hours and may be at risk of burnout. And be sure to check the overtime laws in your state to ensure you remain within the law.

    Rotating Shift Schedules

    Staff members switch shifts, usually on a set schedule. For example, employees on a rotating shift may switch between the day and night shift week-to-week or month-to-month.

    Rotating shifts help distribute shifts and hours among all staff across day and night shifts so that everyone gets a decent amount of hours. Not all employees will enjoy this flexibility so ensure you assign those who do.

    24/7 rotating shift patterns are common in businesses that operate around the clock and can get complicated fast.

    On-Call Shifts

    An employee is available to work on demand, at any time. For example, if someone misses a fixed shift due to a family emergency, the employee in waiting will be contacted to take this shift.

    Compensation is higher due to the urgency and importance of this shift and because employees never really has any time off. The burdensome nature of this shift means they're often rotated among staff.

    No-Schedule Shifts

    Despite the name, these shifts are actually scheduled. Managers will schedule these shifts on an ad-hoc basis to fill any gaps in the schedule. There's no specific regularity in the scheduling, with an employee, for example, receiving certain types of shifts the one week, followed by something entirely different the next.

    For a deeper dive into the 7 big work schedule types to consider when trying to balance your restaurant's and staff's needs, check out our feature on How to Find the Right Type of Work Schedule For Your Restaurant.

    Building An Effective Employee Schedule In 9 Steps

    Now that you understand what effective scheduling entails, you’re likely wondering: “So how exactly do I schedule employees effectively?” We’re glad you asked.

    Here’s an easy 9-step process to follow:

    how to schedule employees effectively

    Step 1: Create Work Production Standards

    Calculate how much work an employee with a particular job role needs to complete within a certain time (number of hours). How you choose to measure the amount of work will depend on your business. If you're a restaurateur, for example, you may look at how many covers a server can do within a certain time.

    Don't forget to detail the job role of every employee. Again using the restaurant example, you may look at prep, closing, and cleaning tasks. Repeat this process for each shift employee across your entire organization. (This step is for new managers or businesses, and only needs to be done once.)

    Step 2: Analyze the Current Activity

    Analyze your current activity levels to determine the right amount of staff to schedule. You may be tempted to use your intuition when scheduling. But, intuition can be wrong and lead to over or understaffing. Instead, analyze sales and labor reports or use the right employee scheduling software to do this automatically.

    Step 3: Forecast Your Activity Levels

    Use the previous data to forecast future activity levels. Identify peak and slow times during each day, each week of the month, and each month of the year. Knowing, for example, that Labor Day weekend is always 3x as busy as the average weekend, you can plan for it and ensure you have 3x the average staff to service the additional demand.

    Step 4: Ascertain How Many Employees You Need

    Calculate the exact number of employees you need by dividing the production standards by the number of customers. For example, if a server in a restaurant can complete 30 covers in an 8-hour shift and you estimate there will be 150 covers (the level of activity you plotted), then you likely need five servers.

    shift crew size calculation

    Step 5: Consider Employee Scheduling Needs

    It’s now time to also factor in your employees' scheduling needs such as the desire for flexibility and even the desired rotation. Don’t forget to account for possible absenteeism and consult with the necessary experts about legal considerations, especially for overtime.

    Step 6: Choose Your Scheduling Method

    Start creating the schedule using any of the methods listed above, bearing in mind that some methods will save you more time and money and help you better optimize schedules.

    Restaurant Schedule Excel Template

    Create an employee shift schedule using a template specifically designed for restaurateurs

    Download now

    Step 7: Get Approval From Top Management

    Once you've created the schedule, don't forget to get approval from top management if you need to. Together, evaluate the schedule based on your labor costs, employee and business needs or any other criteria you deem acceptable.

    Step 8: Share the Schedule to Staff

    Distribute the schedule to employees so that they remain accountable and understand what's expected of them. You can send the schedule via email if you're using Excel or check that employees have checked the notice board.

    Alternatively, use a scheduling app that lets you share your schedule via mobile and easily communicate schedule changes without the need for in-person meetings.

    Step 9: Regularly Review Your Schedule

    You work really only begins after you've created your first schedule. You now have to manage, track, and regularly change your schedule to ensure it remains optimized. Periodically review schedules and your scheduling process to discover problems and to find solutions to optimize the entire process.

    KISS (keep it simple stupid!) your scheduling problems goodby with our even more detailed walk-through: 9 Steps On How to Schedule Employees Effectively

    Making Better Shift Work Schedules

    In this post, we covered almost everything you need to know about how to make amazing shift schedules. Whether monthly or weekly, 8 hour or 12 hour shifts, our goal is to help you create and better manage your work schedules, whatever your business needs.

    As you saw, shift scheduling is a vital part of any business. You also learned how masterful scheduling reduces labor costs, improves customer service, boosts team morale, and saves you heaps of time.

    But, as you know and likely already discovered, reaching mastery isn't easy. With all shift types and even more shift patterns to choose from when creating a schedule—not to mention the struggle of managing and updating these schedules once created—achieving mastery can feel like a pipe dream.

    But it doesn't have to be. You just need to:

    • Choose the right scheduling method for your business
    • Concentrate on the keys to effective scheduling
    • Follow a step-by-step process when creating your shift schedules and
    • Continuously review and adjust your schedules

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    Nick Darlington
    Nick Darlington

    Nick Darlington ( is a B2B writer who conceives, writes and produces engaging website copy, blog posts and lead magnets for technology companies.