Employee Scheduling:
How to Schedule Shift-Based Workers

Tips and Best Practices on How to Lower Costs & Improve Worker Satisfaction

How Do I Schedule Employees Effectively and Strategically in 2020?

Even as we are entering the new decade, the importance of strategic workforce scheduling continues to grow in nearly every industry. In this guide, you will learn five best practices for creating a win-win work schedule; one that benefits both workers and the organization. We’ll discuss how to:

  1. Understand your resource needs and then create the employee schedule according to those needs.
  2. Assign shifts to workers based on skill and availability.
  3. Manage schedule changes by making adjustments quickly and communicating with workers.
  4. Measure your schedule’s effectiveness, learn from the scheduling data, and adjust the scheduling process as you go.
  5. Use employee scheduling technology to solve some of your toughest business challenges.

Hourly Employee Scheduling Is a Strategic Process

Complex. Fast moving. Highly skilled employees. This is a shift-based workplace in 2020 and beyond. In this dynamic environment, knowing how to schedule employees strategically is critical. This is because the work schedule impacts many aspects of operations including: labor costs, productivity, legal compliance, employee satisfaction, and worker retention.

Employee scheduling serves as a key connection point between the business and its hourly workers. Effective shift planning helps build a great employee experience, improving employee retention and satisfaction. The quality with which the time schedule is planned, published, and communicated impacts worker satisfaction, “no-shows”, and, ultimately, employee turnover.


Employee turnover is 174% more likely without real-time scheduling capabilities. -Bersin by Deloitte


There’s a great deal of business impact riding on your work schedule, so this guide is here to help. These strategies apply to most work environments. That said, not every proposed strategy fits every circumstance, so incorporate what best fits your employee scheduling workflow. You can take these strategies and apply them to your specific needs.

Icon Paper with CheckmarksBest Practices Part 1:Creating the Employee Schedule

The work schedule defines what resources are needed, when, and where. Proper planning requires looking far ahead to assess demand and resource supply. Advance planning is especially crucial when needs vary across scheduling periods. When you schedule effectively, employee scheduling lowers labor costs by matching resources to demand.

These three steps will help you take a strategic approach to workforce scheduling and create the most effective employee schedule for your organization:

How to Schedule Employees Effectively: Video

Tip 1: Determine Resource Needs

First, clearly understand the labor resources you need to meet operations goals. Since everything is based on the master schedule, resource needs are especially important to get right. You’ll want to:

Determine the resources needed for each role by location and shift duration. For example, a hospital may need four nurses and two CNAs in Pediatrics from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are countless ways to define a location (e.g., hospital floors or event booths), so make sure you categorize locations clearly and consistently. You can organize resources for each role in many ways, such as a grid on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet, or using online scheduling software.

Identify trends you can apply to current planning efforts. Reviewing data from past scheduling periods can help you anticipate needs and schedule employees fairly. For instance, you may notice a pattern of under-scheduling a particular role or shift.

Plan for future events ahead of time. While you can’t always predict future work schedules based on past schedules, you can consider other factors. For example, an approaching summer holiday might require more lifeguards on duty.

Define any required qualifications for each shift. If you have a plan qualifying people for shifts, you’ll get the right employees scheduled at the right time. Let’s say, for example, that you need four nurses total for a shift, but at least one needs to be fluent in Spanish. Having a plan to qualify available workers before you schedule them will ensure you have the right employees scheduled at the right time.

Integrated Time and AttendanceUsing technology to track time and attendance improves the efficiency of workforce scheduling processes through automation. If your workplace does not use a time and attendance software application, you may want to investigate adding this functionality to your employee scheduling software service.

Tip 2: Assess Resource Pool

Once you understand exactly what you need, you can assess whether your current labor resources are a match those needs. In addition to your hourly workers, you may need to factor in any non-personnel resources at this stage. Here are a few important factors to consider as you make your assessment:

Once you understand resource demands, look ahead to identify upcoming events that may impact employee availability. For example, if a three-day weekend is fast approaching, your labor pool may be smaller than usual.

If you forecast a significant increase in resource needs, then you will probably want additional analysis. In this case, assess what you will need by role, location, and availability. Give yourself some extra room beyond expected demand to make sure you can allocate enough resources.

If non-personnel resources are in the mix, they should be on the schedule, too. For example, if a security firm provides vehicles for their guards to make rounds, the vehicles should be added to the shifts on the master work schedule.

Accurately predicting resource needs is essential, but can get complicated quickly when non-personnel resources, hourly worker needs, and fluctuating demand are all at play. For complex scheduling environments, workforce scheduling technology is a huge help. Tools such as Shiftboard’s Demand Planner use sophisticated algorithms to forecast resources based on historical patterns.

Tip 3: Define Scheduling Rules

Regulations, policies, and processes all drive how you make the work schedule. And it gets complicated quickly. Seniority, overtime status, location, and certifications are common factors that need to be reflected in the hourly schedule. Scheduling rules based on these factors may also be unique to your organization, so clear guidelines are extremely important. To avoid confusion, make sure that all managers understand the guidelines or rules before shifts are assigned.

Employee Scheduling Guide

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Icon Clock ScheduleBest Practices Part 2:Assign Employee Shifts

Now that your employee schedule is mapped out, everyone understands the guidelines, and you’re confident that you can meet your resource needs, it’s time to fill the open shifts. Locations and times should already be determined by this stage. Once they are, you can focus on selecting the right people.

Assigning employee shifts can be time-consuming depending on your workforce size, scheduling complexity, and level of automation. To maximize your results, consider these key criteria:

ApproachAre your shifts assigned by managers, requested by staff, or something in the middle? Bottom-up scheduling, where staff choose open shifts they’re qualified for, is an effective approach. It can drastically reduce scheduling effort. Though not always practical, bottom-up scheduling increases employee satisfaction and retention. Regardless of the approach you take, it’s helpful to consider how shifts are assigned when creating the employee schedule.

QualificationsUse the defined skills and competencies criteria to ensure any employees assigned to a shift meet the requirements for it. Scheduling employees with expired credentials can present significant legal risk and hefty fines. It’s important to confirm employees are in good standing before assigning them to a shift.

Scheduling RulesApply all defined scheduling rules. You may need to consider seniority, overtime, or other rules unique to your organization.

AvailabilityIdentify who is available to work that shift. From vacation requests to leaves of various kinds, employee availability issues are the #1 driver of schedule changes. Using a tool that shows you real-time availability can make all the difference.

PreferencesWhen you take employee preferences into account, you reduce change requests. More importantly, you improve employee satisfaction while lowering absenteeism and turnover.

CostsCompare scheduled resource cost with your forecast. The difference between actual cost (including overtime) and the forecast may surprise you. If labor cost is a key driver, model how cost changes with a different mix of resources.

Employee PerformanceSometimes you need your best people on the job, but identifying them can be difficult. This is especially true in large or complex organizations where staff fill multiple roles. Track performance ratings so you know who to schedule when it matters most.

Rich Profile ConfigurationYou likely have extensive information on your employees that you need to leverage in scheduling and reporting. This information often includes role, job-level, seniority, pay rates, and availability preferences for each employee. If you’re using employee scheduling software, make sure it can accommodate your employee profile data.

Automating Shift AssignmentAssigning shifts is typically the most time-consuming portion of the scheduling process. Manually matching people with positions is tough and keeping all the details straight is challenging. Employee scheduling software can help. Look for the ability to auto-assign shifts based on a variety of rules. Advanced features such as shift swapping and automated standby filling are also often extremely helpful.

Review the schedule to make sure all the factors above are considered. It’s easy to miss things, even with fairly straightforward schedules. Poor scheduling can have major consequences for your business. In high-stakes environments, develop a formal process to review costs, compliance, and any other key influences.

Publish and communicate the schedule so that everyone knows where and when to find it. Online scheduling solutions ensure everyone will have access to their schedules anytime and anywhere, including changes.

As the cost of living rises, more states are opting to increase their wages to remain competitive in the face of a tight labor market. From New York to L.A., more than 20 states are seeing an increase in minimum wage beginning January 1, 2020.-The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

Icon Round with Connecting DotsBest Practices Part 3:Manage Change

No matter how perfect the work schedule is when published, any seasoned scheduler knows what comes next. Frequent tweaking will happen, from the day it’s published through the last day it’s active.

Scheduling never stops.

Effective change management means quickly and efficiently addressing developments. It also requires real-time communication with your workforce. Keep a close eye on the following common reasons for schedule changes:

Demand SwingsThroughout the scheduling period, labor needs may go up or down. Standby pools, made up of part-time and/or contingent workers who can work on short notice, are a popular solution for managing surges. On the other hand, declining demand can be more challenging. If you have a sizable and flexible standby pool, you can staff the last 10-15% of normal schedule needs with surge staff. This provides a buffer for both increases and decreases in demand.

Changes to Employee AvailabilityAvailability is often a prevalent driver of employee schedule changes. Many organizations require employees to identify a suitable replacement once the schedule is posted. This can have mixed results, depending on the size and complexity of the organization. Employee scheduling software that provides a shift swapping capability allows employees to post and accept open shifts in real time. Managers can configure this workflow to either automatically process changes or require approval.

Employee No-ShowsReacting to same-day situations is stressful. Call lists and text messaging often won’t find you a last-minute sub quickly. Develop a “hot standby” pool made up of a small number of highly flexible employees who can jump in at a moment’s notice. These pools often include part-time staff, contingent workers, and even full-time employees who are hungry for overtime opportunities.

Communication ToolsIt’s critical to provide employees access to the schedule and communicate any changes. Combining the power of scheduling software with mobile technology is a fantastic way to improve communication. Between text messaging and high-quality software, your workforce can have 24/7 schedule access and real-time communication.

IntegrationsIf you use different technologies to manage employees and their schedules, integration among systems is essential. In many workplaces, the schedule is the key to daily operations. Workforce scheduling software can be integrated with payroll and human capital management systems to automate business processes. Ensure that your technology integrations are working well for your organization.

Employees with the ability to manage schedules in real time are 6X more satisfied than those without. – Aberdeen Group

The good news is that since most schedule changes stem from the three causes above, you can manage them more efficiently with the right process automation. Targeted, real-time communication is also vital to effectively managing change. The popularity of smartphones makes text messaging an important tool for connecting with employees, so mobile access may be important to you. Regardless, you want to make sure both managers and staff have 24/7 access to their schedules, so they can instantly interact and adjust on the fly.

Employee Scheduling Toolkit

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Icon Paper with LinesBest Practices Part 4:Measure, Learn & Adjust

The end of one shift scheduling period means a new period is about to start. Such transition points often serve as triggers for payroll and numerous operational reports.

At these transition points, it is helpful to step back and assess how workforce scheduling is going. Despite the repetitive nature of scheduling, it is critical to periodically review your processes, employee feedback, and business KPIs. Reviews should involve stakeholders from lines of business, human resources, and finance. Make sure to include the following areas in your review:

Forecasting AccuracyComparing forecasted to actual resource demand is a key review point. As a scheduler, you have a unique perspective. Use it to review variances and collaborate across your organization to improve your predictive accuracy. A seemingly small improvement can have a large impact on your business.

Evaluating ResourcesIt is critical to monitor and measure the health of your labor resource pools. Consider the time period and expected demand when reviewing employee availability. For example, noticing a spike in overlapping vacation requests will help you proactively adjust the schedule. Also, monitoring resource pools tied to mission-critical roles will help ensure you are always filling them with the best talent. If you are using employee scheduling software, you have a rich source of data to tap, from skill ratings to attendance data.

Workforce Scheduling ProcessesReview key processes with other schedulers, management, and employees and regularly test any improvement ideas. In shift-based work environments, the schedule has a huge impact on employee productivity and morale. Employee feedback will uncover opportunities that may be difficult to see from a scheduling perspective.

Analytics and ReportingThe right scheduling software will collect the data you need to assess and reveal insights. With new understanding of your data, you can fully optimize your scheduling process.

Organizations with predictable scheduling are 53% more likely to experience lower turnover than their industry average.-Aptitude Research partners

The Role of Technology

Workforce scheduling software excels at making the employee scheduling process more efficient to manage. It also helps to ensure compliance with the many rules and regulations that impact shift-based workplaces.

High-quality employee scheduling software has robust features that improve the workforce scheduling process. When determining your resource needs and gaps, resource forecasting is particularly useful. Integrated time and attendance are an asset as well, because you can eliminate manual processing. As you create the employee work schedule, rich profile configuration is helpful–you can use robust profile information to schedule the right people. Communication tools and shift assignment automation can help you manage change and adjust your process. Analytics and reporting capabilities allow you to find out what works and optimize your process.

Scheduling shift work can be difficult and time consuming, but technology can help you make it more efficient and easier to manage. Learn more about how Shiftboard’s employee scheduling software empowers strategic scheduling.

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