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10 Hacks to Help You Save Time Making Rotating Shift Schedules for Your Team

Every rotating shift schedule coordinator has experienced late nights finishing monthly schedules, knowing they’ll do it all again the following month.

You might have tried different techniques to optimize rotating shift scheduling in your team, but nothing seems to work. Your staff still misses their shifts, complains about their schedules, and you keep struggling to comply with labor requirements.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you! In this article, you’ll learn 10 hacks to save time and protect your sanity when creating rotating shift schedules for your entire team. You’ll also get a better picture of what rotating shift schedules are and their pros and cons.

Jump right to it:

What is a rotating shift schedule?

Rotating shift schedules function by alternating between workdays and days off. This scheduling method is common in businesses that operate outside the typical 9-5 and require the workforce to be on site 24 hours a day or during atypical times (such as late evenings, nights, and early mornings). Businesses in manufacturing, healthcare, retail, hospitality, and restaurant industries use this method the most.

There are different types of rotating schedules, such as:

  • Fixed rotation: When employees work and rest for a set period. For example, they work one week of morning shifts followed by one week of evening shifts with breaks in between. The cycle repeats in the third week.
  • Slow rotation: Employees work morning or day shifts for a few weeks, then switch to evening or night shifts for another extended period. Longer rotations allow employees to adapt to different working times and plan their other activities in advance.
  • Fast rotation: Fast rotations happen every few days, such as two days working day shifts, then having a day off, and then working two night shifts. Fast rotations are more common in high-demand jobs such as healthcare or manufacturing, as employees need more rest between their shifts.
  • All over-the-place rotation: Sometimes rotating shift schedules go out of hand. You have no patterns or rules to follow. Instead, some weeks workers do morning and night shifts, rotate every 2 days and the next week every 3 days, and don’t have consistent breaks.

Pros and cons of rotating shifts for the company and workers

For many businesses, rotating shift scheduling is the only way to ensure that every position and responsibility is filled 24/7. However, this method has its benefits and disadvantages for workers and the company.

Shift rotation scheduling benefits:

  • Undisrupted operations: If your business must operate 24/7, having enough people take on different responsibilities is essential. By rotating shift schedules, you also ensure that employees come to their shifts rested and ready to work instead of working 5 days in a row, operating challenging tasks without resting.
  • Flexibility for your team: Your employees can adjust their other responsibilities around rotating shifts to accommodate their own personal needs. For example, if they have days off during the traditional work week, they have more flexibility to attend public services such as visiting a doctor or a bank.
  • Equal distribution of undesirable shifts: Each worker gets assigned day, night, and weekend shifts evenly, creating a fairer working environment.
  • Reduced burnout: Employees can rest more when they have frequent breaks compared to during traditional Saturday-Sunday weekends. Alternating between two days of work and one day of rest helps reset.

Shift work rotation scheduling disadvantages

  • Effects on employee well-being: Constantly changing between night and day shifts disrupts the body's natural circadian rhythm. It can lead to fatigue, poor sleep quality, insomnia, and other health issues. Some research shows that rotating shift schedules might increase the risks of cardiovascular problems, obesity, and mood disorders.
  • Effects on social and family life: Rotating shift schedules are more unpredictable, making it challenging to commit to social and family responsibilities and find time for leisure activities, especially during night and weekend shifts.
  • Communication and training issues: When part of your team works during the day while others work at night, communication gets lost between the shifts. You might also need to offer extra training for different shifts as the specific tasks and responsibilities might depend on the time of the day.

The challenges of creating rotating shift schedules

For someone without scheduling experience, creating and coordinating a schedule might seem easy. But every schedule maker can attest that it’s far from the truth. The main two challenges are wasted time and errors. Here is how they occur:

  • Lack of attention to employee preferences: Your team is the backbone of your company. They deserve a say about their vacations, days off, and other requests to plan their time. When their requests are continuously denied, employee morale drops, and so does their commitment to the company and motivation.
  • Labor law offenses: Each country has requirements on how much time employees should work and rest. The rotating shift model makes it more difficult to follow labor laws because you have to give your team enough time to rest between shifts and not schedule them to work too many weekend or night shifts in a row. Together with constant law changes and increasing team size, it’s almost impossible to keep track of everything and avoid mistakes.
  • Poor attendance tracking: Tracking everything manually inevitably results in mistakes and discrepancies. Can you ever be sure that every person on your team comes to work on time and leaves when their shift finishes? Some people abuse the lack of tracking options and come to work late, miss their shifts, or leave work early. At the end of the month, you pay them the same as the workers who are responsible, which creates financial gaps and dissension.
  • Unregistered shift swaps throughout the month: There’s rarely a month when you make a schedule and are done with it. Whether it's shift swaps, urgent leave requests, or forgotten schedules, you must react quickly and fix it. What do you do then? The entire schedule system falls apart, urging you to fill in missing shifts while trying not to compromise other workers’ time off and breaks.
  • Lack of tracking options: What were the assigned work hours for each employee, and how many did they actually work? How many holiday shifts have they covered? And let's not overlook the banked-hour accounting, which is already confusing. If you're managing all this information on a piece of paper or an Excel sheet, there's a likelihood of missing crucial details and making errors.
  • Manual payroll: Unregistered information makes it much more difficult to calculate salaries and keep payroll fair, causing mistakes, overpaying, or underpaying your staff.
  • Handling too many employees: One person can only do so much. So, when managing large teams of 50+ employees, making accurate and mistake-free schedules for everyone is almost impossible. You either have to hire more managers to handle scheduling or find reliable tools to automate some of the processes.
  • Poor communication between employees and departments: Are you one of those managers who hangs a paper schedule on the wall in the break room? Most schedule coordinators do that. In fact, 1 in 2 shift workers in the US get their weekly work schedule on paper or written on a whiteboard.But let’s say someone asks for a day off during the month or has to swap a shift. How do you communicate new information with the involved employees? It often doesn’t reach them, resulting in missed shifts, downtime, and arguments between team members.

The importance of time-saving hacks

Every great manager has some tricks up their sleeve to save time when creating schedules. We want to share some of our best hacks that work for our clients and hopefully help you save time and money and create more accurate schedules.

10 hacks to help you save time on rotating shift scheduling

1. Understand your team’s needs

How often do you sit down with your team to discuss their thoughts and ideas about scheduling and rotating shifts? Chances are, not that often. Many managers just assume things are fine until they aren’t. Avoid conflict and low motivation by keeping track of your team’s needs, preferences, and skills.

How to do that:

  • Analyze work roles and responsibilities: Let’s take the restaurant business as an example. Make a list of how many waiters, cooks, hosts, and other workers are on your team and how many of them you need to meet the restaurant’s capacity. Compare these numbers with your current workforce. Perhaps someone could wait tables more often instead of staying behind the bar. Or you might notice that you don’t need as many waiters during the slow days. This can help you adjust your workforce, optimize schedules, and even save money.
  • Know employee preferences and availability: While there are always last-minute shift changes, many people have ongoing responsibilities such as morning classes or other jobs. Gather this information before creating a schedule and use it to establish ongoing preference timetables.
  • Create experience and skill levels: A business can only run when enough skilled people do their job right. You must have enough cooks on the busiest shift to prepare meals and waiters to ensure your customers are happy and served on time. Keep a list of your team’s experience, skills, and competencies to schedule workers based on merit. This approach helps to schedule senior workers to work with new employees and plan the workforce based on the business demand.

2. Involve employees in the process

Before creating a schedule for the following month, have a time when everyone can send their preferences and requests to you. Encourage people to document it in an email so that you can keep track of everything. Better yet, consider an automated employee scheduler with communication features to send notifications to relevant staff members.

However, poor communication is a big problem in a lot of companies. Many workers complain that they get schedule change notices in less than a week. Statistics show that 1 in 5 shift workers get notices about schedule changes in less than a week, making it difficult to swap shifts and plan other responsibilities. In some countries, you might even get fined for that because it’s mandatory to give at least one week's notice about schedule changes.

How to fix it: Arrange quarterly or bi-yearly meetups with your team to discuss schedules and their efficiency. Your employees are the ones who are in the field and know the business in and out.

They can help you understand when the business demand is highest, which employees work best together, and who might distract others. You can also update the employee preference list during your meetings, keep smooth communication, and improve your relationship as a team.

3. Set clear guidelines

As a manager, your responsibility isn’t only to create and hang a schedule on a wall. You must ensure that everyone can attend their shifts and do their best work. To achieve this, particularly when managing a large team, set clear guidelines.

What should your guidelines include:

  • Make clear and applicable schedule rules. For example, everyone must send their requests at least 48 hours before their shift swaps. It prevents last-minute changes and gives you more time to structure the team and find replacements.
  • Make your schedule creation process clear to everyone. Your team should know when and how they can request time off and notify you about their vacations, parental time off, and other responsibilities.
  • Set communication channels to make sure everyone can reach you. Instead of just stopping by to let you know they want to request a week-long vacation in 6 months, set a special email or a calendar where employees can fill out their requests and notify you about them.
  • Use an automated employee shift scheduler to oversee every scheduling process — guidelines included. Such tools let you and your team register requests, set deadlines, and send reminders so that everyone knows what’s happening and you can create a better structure in your company.

4. Try Cross-Training

Cross-training your employees can be a great strategy for the retail, hospitality, and restaurant industries. For example, training your waiters to help in the kitchen and vice versa.

Hands-on experience in different processes can make allocating tasks and filling in shifts easier. If someone with a particular skill set is unavailable, another team member with cross-training can step in.

Cross-training also promotes a collaborative environment where your staff can try various roles, helping them understand and appreciate the contributions of others.

Talk to your team to see what they think about learning new skills. In many cases, learning new skills and taking on diverse tasks can be interesting and motivating. It adds variety to your team’s work, prevents monotony, and contributes to professional development.

Perhaps you already have employees who see themselves in other roles or would like to take on more responsibilities. It’s a great opportunity to grow and learn within a company.

Cross-training also shows your team that you trust their work and believe in their skills, which is rewarding and encouraging.

5. Create schedule templates

Depending on which tools you use to create rotating schedules, you can make the process easier by creating and establishing templates. Changes will occur, but you’ll have a foundation to work on.

Schedule templates reduce manual input and errors, saving time and giving your team more clarity. When your staff knows and gets used to similar schedules, keeping track and planning their time becomes easier.

If you use manual or semi-manual rotating shift scheduling tools like Excel, you can create templates that work for you or find pre-made templates online.

However, more advanced employee scheduling systems offer predesigned templates that make this whole process a lot easier.

6. Try self-service scheduling

Okay, this one might not work for every team, but if you’re brave to experiment, you can try it. Self-service scheduling encourages your staff to input their working time preferences, breaks, and time off independently.

You can dedicate a few days during the month to gather and use this information to help you create schedules. If you see that your employees effectively schedule their own time and collaborate well, it can take a lot of work off your plate.

If you use simpler tools, you can make a sharable document and let everyone make real-time changes and suggestions.

More advanced scheduling systems allow this feature while giving editing and access roles and real-time notifications in case someone selects the wrong time or exceeds their hourly quota.

7. Optimize shift lengths and patterns

Initially, we listed three types of rotating shifts and how to schedule them. However, each business is different, so even if one model works for other companies in your industry, it might not work for you.

Try experimenting with different schedule rotations for a while, ask your employee input, and decide which is the most efficient method for your business and team.

Shorter shift rotations might be more suitable for challenging roles such as operating machinery, as they provide employees with regular breaks for rest. On the other hand, restaurant or hotel employees might prefer longer rotating shift schedules to plan their time better and get used to schedules.

To make the most effective patterns:

  • Experiment with different length rotations
  • Track your team’s productivity
  • Consider your team’s well-being
  • Keep communication with your team open and safe

8. Monitor and adjust schedules

Make it a habit to regularly review your team’s performance and see how scheduling affects their motivation and work. Notice if some employees work better together and those who distract each other.

Try to spot if someone shouldn’t work on certain days because they can’t come on time due to other responsibilities. All this matters when maximizing your scheduling efficiency.

9. Have a plan B

There’s no such thing as a perfect schedule. Even after spending days locked up in your office, someone will have something to say about it. Don’t worry, and don’t take it personally because managing people is challenging.

To keep downtime to a minimum, develop a plan B. In some businesses, a plan B is having a list of people you can contract for a few days to replace your full-time employees. For others, it’s cross-training their staff to handle various tasks.

Other tips on how to create a reliable plan B:

  • Contact a few agencies that can provide urgent replacements or outsource workers.
  • Straightforward communication with your team and ways to reach them to make shift swaps between employees easier.
  • Implement a banked-hour model to give you and your team more time and flexibility to plan their working hours over a longer period.
  • Have on-call employees that can replace no-shows on short notice. Keep in mind that in some countries you must pay on-call staff for the time they spend between shifts.

10. Automate employee scheduling with AI

Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can completely transform your employee scheduling processes. AI-based employee scheduling software automates and optimizes most scheduling tasks, allowing you to save time, reduce mistakes, and control all information in one place.

Some of the things that AI employee rotating shift schedule software does:

  • It predicts and schedules based on demand (more workers on the busiest shifts and fewer when there’s less work).
  • It gathers all information about your rotation model, employee preferences, business capacity, skills, and experience to use this information whenever creating schedules.
  • It tracks employee attendance. AI software tracks when everyone comes in and leaves work and how many days/hours each worker works during holidays, weekends, and nights, as it can affect their salaries.
  • It can be implemented with other business systems, such as payroll and personnel management software, to transport raw data about employees and their attendance into clear reports.

Hack your employee scheduling with OPTAS rotating shift schedule software

Let’s recap. To speed up your rotating shift scheduling, try these 10 hacks:

  1. Understand your team’s needs
  2. Include them in the scheduling process
  3. Set clear guidelines and rules
  4. Try cross-training your employees
  5. Establish schedule templates
  6. Try a self-service system
  7. Experiment with different rotation lengths
  8. Be open to employee feedback
  9. Have a plan B
  10. Or just let an automated employee rotation scheduling software do all this for you.

We hope these hacks will save you time and optimize your rotating shift scheduling process. If you’re looking for a tool that could hack all this for you, we are excited to introduce OPTAS employee scheduling software.

It’s a one-of-a-kind AI scheduler that makes manual staff scheduling a thing of the past. No more late nights in the office, complaints from your team, and fear of fines due to labor law violations. OPTAS AI scheduling system takes data about your rotating shift schedules and your employee preferences and turns it into working and efficient schedules, no matter how many people work on your team. In fact – the more, the better.

We offer a standard, no-nonsense solution for restaurants, hospitals and clinics, hotels, manufacturing companies, and retail businesses to make employee scheduling faster, easier, and cheaper.

Do you want to see how AI can change your entire employee scheduling? Check our pricing or contact us, and we’ll show it to you during a discovery call.

Eglė Račkauskaitė
December 4th, 2023