Conquer Swing Shift Scheduling for Restaurants

Conquer Swing Shift Scheduling for Restaurants
AJ Beltis

By AJ Beltis

The 9 to 5 workday is common in many industries—but not in restaurants. The hospitality industry calls for early mornings and late nights, which means a normal scheduling approach doesn't exactly fit in a restaurant.

If your restaurant is open 24/7 or needs workers outside its normal hours of service, your business might benefit from a swing shift schedule, which ensures you have the right amount of coverage at the right times.

What is a swing shift schedule?

In a restaurant, a swing shift schedule is a scheduling method that sees some employees working irregular or rotating shifts throughout the week to ensure proper staffing at all times. Simply put—it's a name for employees who come in at different times on different days. For example, if an employee works five eight-hour days at your restaurant, but works the early shift some days and the late shift on others, that employee has a swing shift.

How swing shifts are used in restaurants

Swing shift schedules keep a restaurant properly-staffed for its normal business hours, plus or minus setup time for the day. Because that often lasts longer than eight hours, you can either pay your staff to work the entire day, or have employees clock in and out as needed. Most restaurants choose the latter, and that's where the swing shift comes in.

Because employee availability and customer demand vary throughout the week, it's unlikely that an employee is needed the same hours every day they work. For example, your best cook might be needed during the busy dinner shift on the weekends, but also to support the lunch rush during the week. In that situation, that cook's workweek might look something like this:

  • 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM, Monday - Thursday (6 hours each shift)
  • 11:00 AM - 9:00 PM, Friday (10-hour shift)
  • 4:00 PM - 10:00 PM, Saturday (6-hour shift)

This employee is working a 40-hour week, but comes in when needed the most and isn't working a rigid daily schedule.

Restaurants use swing shifts to put the right people on each shift, save on labor costs, and juggle the needs of part-time and full-time employees.

Another use of the swing shift is for restaurants that are not open the same hours every day. Fine dining restaurants, for example, might only be open for dinner Thursday through Sunday, and be closed outright on Monday and Tuesday. Having employees work only one or two lunch shifts throughout the week breaks up their routine so that not everyone has to work every night the restaurant is open.

Conversely, a restaurant open 24/7 like a diner or fast-food spot needs coverage around the clock, but might not want one group of employees always working the graveyard shift. For these restaurants, mixing up who works overnight each week (or making it a routine with a rotating schedule) can reduce the risk of burnout for those who prefer not to work late.

Basic Swing Shift Schedule & Patterns

A basic swing shift will see hours varied during the week, but the actual schedule may be repeated week-over-week.

  • Eight-Hour Shifts: Employees work eight-hour shifts over five days. However, those shifts might vary in the when. This option is simple, as it avoids overtime and still gets your employees to full-time status.
  • Ten-Hour Shifts: Employees work ten-hour shifts over four days.While this avoids weekly overtime, the employee may be eligible for daily overtime rates depending on local laws.
  • Mixed-Hours Shifts: Employees work various hours each day, but still qualify for full-time benefits. This might include working a five-hour morning shift for four days and two ten-hour days from lunch until dinner.
  • Part-Time Shifts: This is similar to the above, but for employees who only work part-time. An example would be someone who works five-hour dinner shifts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then a four-hour lunch shift on Saturday.

Swing Shift Hours

Swing shift hours will vary by shift, day, and week. Still, it's helpful for your team to share an understanding of which shifts commonly refer to which hours. Here are some different reference points to establish the hours and length of in your restaurant.

  • Morning Shift: A set six-hour shift from 5:00 AM until 11:00 AM for breakfast.
  • Lunch Shift: A set four-hour shift from 11:00 AM until 3:00 PM for part-time employees.
  • Dinner Shift: An eight-hour shift from 3:00 PM until 11:00 PM.
  • Full Shift: If you're open from 11:30 AM until 9:30 PM, the full shift would be the eleven-hour shift from opening to closing (plus the 30 minutes on each end).
  • Half Shift: A four-hour shift to start (11:00 AM until 3:00 PM) or close out (5:00 PM until 9:00 PM) the day.
  • Split Shift: A split shift breaks up an employee's day by giving them a few hours off in between shifts. At your restaurant, someone working the split shift may work 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM, then return for 5:30 PM until 9:30 PM.

Examples of a swing shift schedule by role

Still lost on what a swing shift looks like? Here are a few examples of the practice in action for a few different role types.

Server swing shift

  • Monday: Off
  • Tuesday: 11:00 AM - 9:00 PM (Ten Hours)
  • Wednesday: 4:00 PM - 10:00 PM (Six Hours)
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday - Sunday: 3:00 PM - 11:00 PM (Eight Hours)

Bartender swing shift

  • Monday - Wednesday: 4:00 PM - 11:00 PM (Seven Hours)
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: 5:00 PM - 2:00 AM (Nine Hours)
  • Saturday: 4:00 PM - 2:00 AM (Eight Hours)
  • Sunday: Off

Part-Time swing shift

  • Monday - Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: 5:00 PM - 9:00 PM (Four Hours)
  • Friday - Saturday: 4:30 PM - 9:30 PM (Five Hours)
  • Sunday: 4:00 PM - 10:00 PM (Six Hours)

Benefits of a swing shift schedule

Greater scheduling flexibility

By far, the biggest benefit managers see with swing schedules is flexibility. You aren't tied down by everyone having the same start and end time to their shifts, and can build a schedule that's more responsive to demand as it arises. After all, do you really need everyone working from 2:00 PM until 4:00 PM?

Greater employee flexibility

The flexibility doesn't stop with managers—employees also get more variety in their working hours and their time off with swing shifts. According to 7shifts report, more than half of restaurant workers say more flexibility would make them happier at work. It's also a top reason that they quit restaurant jobs. The pandemic left many restaurant workers burnt out. More flexibility gives them the opportunity to live their lives in healthier ways—whether it's catching an afternoon movie or being able to pick up their kids from school.

Stay open longer

Swing shifts make it possible for employees to come in earlier or leave later than some of their other colleagues, which allows your restaurant to expand its hours with the right amount of employees working each hour.

Drawbacks of swing shifts

Conflict with local or state laws

Swing shifts can have a direct impact on overtime if employees work more than eight hours in a day. Also, in a situation where an employee works a clopen (a closing shift followed by the next day's opening), that could infringe on their right to rest between shifts as mandated by fair workweek laws. Finally, there could be restrictions on split shifts. For example, in California, if an employee's swing shift involves a split shift, state law dictates that employee receive an extra hour of pay for their work.

Difficulties on Employees

As much as some employees value flexibility, others value consistency. Swing shifts can impact employees' sleep, family, and personal schedules in a way that they're not excited about. Working irregular hours results in some employees becoming more stressed and burned out, which could cause them to feel burned out and seek other, more consistent roles. The key is to talk to your staff to see what's important to them.

Difficulties Finding Coverage

During the restaurant's busiest shifts, you need a full house of your best talent. If shift trades or swaps are part of your scheduling, keep in mind that with a swing shift, it can be more complicated to coordinate changes last-minute. You may deal with a smaller pool of eligible employees to make a trade due to overtime laws and clopen restrictions — even if using a shift trading tool.

Best Practices: Six ways to make swing shifts work

1. Get team buy-in

While some team members will thrive with this scheduling refresh, others may feel frustrated. It's important to talk to all employees about this change, source feedback from them, and factor their thoughts into your scheduling program. For example, if some employees prefer a fixed schedule, perhaps you could honor those employees' requests and save the swing shifts for those who want them.

2. Account for employee capabilities

Swing shifts only work if you have the right amount of employees working in the right positions at all times. Employee availability and capabilities is a crucial part of swing shift scheduling, because the success of your restaurant is contingent on proper staffing. If you find that this new approach leaves you short on servers during too many shifts, it might need to be rethought.

3. Ensure work-life balance

Some employees can game the system for swing shifts by claiming they're only available during lucrative shifts or for shifts that are more conducive to their personal lives (i.e. never working weekends or overnight). It might be worth coming up with a way to distribute the more and less desirable shifts among your staff so that some employees don't feel like they're being taken advantage of.

4. Help your team

As you implement and roll out a swing shift schedule, take note of how your employees are reacting and offer to help them if needed. If some employees are feeling burned out by working too many overnight shifts or too many consecutive days, go back to the drawing board to create a better approach. Offer support to those who are struggling with time off allowances and longer rest periods.

5. Plan on-call shifts

Swing shifts work perfectly alongside on-call scheduling. Swing shifts are all about staffing up when demand is high and giving staff time off when demand is low — and that's exactly what on-call scheduling does, too. If the laws (and your staff) allow it, consider having one or two employees on-call throughout the day. That way, if one of your swing shift employees doesn't show — or if demand picks up — you won't have to worry.

6. Use the right tools for scheduling swing shifts

The best tool to help you build a swing schedule is scheduling software for restaurants like 7shifts... The platform's Auto Scheduling tool calculates how many employees should be on each shift based on forecasted demand and cross-references that plan with employee availability. From there, you can finalize your swing shift down to the last 15-minutes.

Forecasting demand using 7shifts auto scheduling tool

7shifts' scheduling software also has tools to keep your restaurant afloat in case employees don't show up - such as on-call shifts to bring on a team member and easy shift trading for employees to find coverage at the last minute.

Trading shifts within the employee 7shifts website

7shifts also works great for multi-unit restaurant scheduling - since any employee working at two different locations is likely working a swing shift as is.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I avoid swing shift schedules in my restaurant?

A swing shift schedule isn't always right for restaurants with small staffs or staffs that value consistent hours. Swing shifts also aren't ideal for restaurants only open for a few hours — like a coffee shop that only serves customers from 6:00 AM until noon — as there might not be enough hours to warrant the swing.

What are other methods of scheduling?

Aside from the swing shift, other types of restaurant scheduling include:

  • 24/7 Scheduling: Employees work to keep the restaurant open all day.
  • 9/80 Scheduling: Employees work eight nine-hour days and one eight-hour day over two weeks, getting an extra day off every other week while maintaining full-time status.
  • Fixed Scheduling: Employees work the same shifts and days every week.
  • Multi-Unit Scheduling: Employees from different locations of the same restaurant group can overlap.
  • On-Call Scheduling: A few employees are scheduled to come in only if needed.
  • Rotating Scheduling: Employees' shifts change each week, season, or year.

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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 manager at HubSpot, and previously as a blogger at Toast.