March 7, 2024

Setting work schedules: A guide for managers


Employee work schedules are critical to running a successful organization, especially in industries where shift work is the norm. Unfortunately, issues like dealing with complex scheduling policies, keeping up with employee availability and qualifications, and finding the right coverage to avoid understaffing, overstaffing, or overtime can make effective scheduling difficult. Not only can these problems negatively impact operations, but they can also result in costly compliance penalties and employee churn.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with these scheduling issues, gaining a deeper understanding of employee scheduling can help you find the right tools and develop the ideal process for your organization and employees. Let’s take an in-depth look at employee scheduling to help you learn about its importance, explore the types of schedules you can consider, and find answers to your questions.

What is a work schedule?

A work schedule is a list employers create with the dates and times employees are expected to work. Ideally, work schedules consider factors like availability and demand to ensure adequate shift coverage and avoid overworking or underworking employees. This balance promotes a healthy bottom line and a positive employee experience.

Why is effective employee work scheduling important?

Effective employee schedules are crucial to achieving and maintaining operational efficiency. Here are some ways you and your team can benefit from optimized employee scheduling processes:

Save time

Using a streamlined employee scheduling procedure reduces the time you’d typically spend on tedious administrative tasks. It also saves employees’ time by minimizing scheduling mistakes that lead to miscommunication, last-minute changes, and gaps in coverage. By creating accurate, accessible schedules, you can attain adequate shift coverage and boost the employee experience through transparency and visibility.

Establish structure and consistency

Part of establishing efficient scheduling processes is taking a structured approach to creating and maintaining schedules. With a consistent scheduling approach, you give yourself and your team a better idea of when and where they’re expected. These expectations can help you foster trust between employees and management teams and create a sense of mutual respect. When they know they can count on you for consistent scheduling, employees are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, so you’re more likely to keep them on your team.

Control labor costs

Scheduling is one of the primary factors affecting labor costs and budgets. Ineffective processes lead to scheduling errors that cause issues like unnecessary overtime, employee turnover, and non-compliance with legal, union, and internal regulations. Effective scheduling processes improve your bottom line by preventing overtime, supporting compliance, and reducing employee turnover.

Boost employee productivity

Prioritizing the needs and preferences of your team and creating schedules that balance the workload can help you increase productivity and retain talent. Through fair and effective scheduling, you can show employees you value both their contributions to the team and the importance of resting and recharging outside of work. When employers respect the work-life balance of employees, they create a work environment that promotes confidence, engagement, and efficiency.

Plan your workforce

Considering demand when creating schedules requires predictive forecasting to know how to staff effectively to fill open shifts. Many organizations have peak busy periods, and management teams must schedule employees based on demand. Planning your workforce effectively allows you to achieve the right coverage for each shift for better customer and employee experiences. The complexity of forecasting makes it exceedingly difficult to accomplish through manual scheduling processes, but you can simplify workforce planning with an automated scheduling tool that meets your complex needs.

Track overtime hours

Unnecessary overtime plays a significant role in driving out-of-control costs and draining labor budgets. Labor laws require employers to handle overtime in specific ways, and employees often have certain protections under union collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and internal policies. If you fail to comply with these regulations, your organization might face legal, financial, or reputational consequences. The right scheduling tools help your team avoid overtime, stay in compliance, and control costs.

Types of work schedules

Achieving the benefits of an efficient scheduling system starts with choosing the type of work schedule that works best for your organization and employees. Here are some common options:

Full-time schedule

A full-time schedule typically involves working 40 hours each week. Because full-time simply refers to the number of hours an employee works, it’s common across industries and may be used in combination with other types of schedules. Full-time workers often receive an annual salary instead of hourly pay, especially if they work the same days and hours each week.

Part-time schedule

A part-time schedule is considered any working arrangement that requires less than full-time hours. Like full-time, part-time is only a determination of the number of hours an employee works per week, not the structure of their schedule. Part-time employees may have set schedules, or their days and hours may vary each week.

Fixed schedule

A fixed schedule is one in which an employee’s hours and working days remain the same. This type of schedule is common among full-time employees, such as those who work Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A fixed schedule can offer both employers and employees consistency.

Flexible schedule

A flexible work schedule allows employees some freedom in determining their working hours. Flexible (or flex) schedules are informed by availability but essentially dictated by the business needs. Some organizations require employees to work during a certain time each day, while others allow complete flexibility. Employers often find that flexible scheduling leads to high levels of job satisfaction, as it enables employees to achieve their ideal work-life balance.

Rotating shift work schedule

A rotating shift work schedule is a combination of fixed and flexible schedules. Employees don’t work the same times or days every week, but their schedules have predictable patterns. For example, they may work 12-hour shifts three days per week, but the weeks they work might alternate biweekly. Rotating shift work schedules allow employers to maintain around-the-clock coverages while providing employees with extended periods of time off work.

Split shift schedule

A split shift schedule requires employees to cover peak times by working part of the day and returning later in the day to finish their shifts. Although split shifts are common in certain industries, such as hospitality, many states have fair workweek laws that require organizations to pay employees for the additional cost of leaving and returning to work within the same day. Employees who prefer this type of schedule appreciate the time off during the day.

Seasonal schedule

A seasonal schedule is an arrangement in which employees only work during certain times of the year, such as over the holidays or during the summer. They may work part-time or full-time, and their employment usually lasts from a few weeks to a few months. The major advantage of this type of scheduling for employers is that it allows them to ensure coverage during their busiest seasons. Seasonal schedules are ideal for employees who don’t want long-term employment.

Shift schedule

A shift schedule consists of three shifts: first, second, and third. First shift is morning through afternoon, second shift is afternoon through evening, and third shift is overnight. Like rotating shifts, this type of schedule benefits employers who need 24/7 coverage, such as healthcare or correctional facilities.

Compressed schedule

A compressed schedule requires employees to work a set number of hours over a limited number of days. For example, a full-time employee may work 10 hours per day, four days per week instead of a standard five-day workweek. For organizations, a compressed schedule can offer employees the ability to connect with clients or customers outside of regular business hours. Employees have the opportunity to have more time off work while maintaining a full-time income.

Once you’ve chosen the type of schedule that best suits your operations and employees, you can start the process of creating and managing one effectively.

How to make employee work schedules

The specific steps you take to create an employee work schedule depend on the tools and methods you use, but these general guidelines can help you lay the groundwork for an effective scheduling strategy:

1. Evaluate your staffing needs

The first step in creating an employee schedule is to consider your staffing needs. Start by evaluating demand for each shift so that you know how many people you need to schedule, which roles to fill, and which hours to schedule them for. Think about factors like skills requirements, applicable regulations, fairness, and recent understaffing or overstaffing issues.

2. Get to know your employees’ preferences

Once you have a good idea of your needs for each shift, consider each employees’ preferences. Although it may not always be possible to honor them, creating schedules that align with employees’ needs as often as you can is a great way to earn employees’ respect. When your team knows you value them, they’re more likely to stay with the organization long-term.

3. Use employee scheduling software

Manual processes and unspecialized software makes employee scheduling time-consuming and error-prone. With so many working parts involved in making schedules, automated employee scheduling software is essential to streamlining the process and ensuring accuracy. Some of the tasks and goals you can achieve with the right platform include:

  • Scheduling to match demand
  • Aligning with your labor budget
  • Assigning shifts according to employees’ strengths, skills, and qualifications
  • Staying in compliance with CBAs, labor laws, and internal policies
  • Streamlining communications between employees and managers
  • Minimizing the chaos of everyday shift management, such as handling call-offs and shift changes

4. Give your employees plenty of advance notice

Creating and sharing schedules in advance benefits both employees and organizations. When you and your team know what to expect, you can better plan your work and personal lives. Advance scheduling shows employees you care about their time, and it gives them adequate notice to swap shifts, raise concerns, and make necessary arrangements when needed. In some states, scheduling employees ahead of time isn’t just a convenience; it’s required under predictive scheduling laws. Check up on your state’s laws when planning a scheduling cadence to make sure you’re in compliance.

5. Empower employees to access and control their schedules

After publishing their schedules, provide employees with 24/7 self-service access. While posting the schedule on a wall or sending it in an email may seem easy and accessible, these methods make it difficult to change and share schedules without confusion. If you use an automated scheduling software, you can empower employees to co-own their schedules by giving them self-service access to view their schedules, swap shifts, and request time off.

6. Prioritize communication and maintenance

For many organizations, maintaining schedules can be even more difficult than creating them. Shift changes happen frequently, and managers must keep up with them while keeping employees informed at the same time. To establish a strong communication and maintenance system, your scheduling system should allow you to:

  • Easily publish updated schedules in real-time
  • Give employees 24/7 self-service access to the most up-to-date scheduling details
  • Fill call-offs by quickly connecting you to qualified staff without using laborious phone trees or confusing email chains
  • Make it easy for employees to swap shifts and submit time-off requests
  • Simplify time-off request approvals and processing
  • Find the right employee to come in last-minute and help during a busy shift
  • Ensure every update accommodates availability, aligns with qualifications, and prevents conflicts like overtime and compliance issues
  • Change shift lengths, area assignments, or details on the fly

7. Leverage reporting for continuous improvement

Operational changes like demand fluctuations, staffing availability and requirements, and updated regulations all affect scheduling, and even minor inefficiencies that go unrecognized can have major consequences. Real-time reporting minimizes these concerns by tracking important metrics, like how your scheduling compares to your labor budget, your rate of absenteeism, and how well you’re meeting demand. Finding answers to these questions through accurate data gives you the insight you need to improve your scheduling process over time.

Regardless of the approach you take, feeling confident in your process and choosing the type that works best for your organization is key to developing a scheduling solution that benefits your team and your bottom line.

Best practices for setting employee work schedules

Efficient employee scheduling can bolster a healthy work environment and instill trust between employees and managers. Keep in mind these best practices to help you overcome common challenges when creating and managing the ideal employee schedule for your organization:

Set clear expectations when hiring

Make sure to clarify your expectations to candidates during the hiring process—and allow them to share theirs. When employees and management teams are in agreement on topics like availability, role qualifications, and scheduling policies and preferences, they’re able to minimize major scheduling concerns. This can help everyone work more efficiently, achieve their optimal work-life balance, and feel respected at work.

Ask for feedback

When developing a scheduling process, consider asking employees for their input. Explain what the organization requires from an operational perspective, and then collect feedback from employees on how well the current system is working and what you can do to improve it. Try taking a poll to see which approach they’d prefer. This shows employees their insight is valuable to you and the organization.

Have a communication plan

Once you’ve established a scheduling procedure, work with employees to create a communication plan. Talk about how management teams and employees will handle scheduling concerns like conflicts, time off, shift swapping, and availability to make sure everyone understands who to contact and how they can reach them. That way, everyone feels confident using scheduling tools and processes to communicate.

Let your employee scheduling software manage the complexities

The ideal employee scheduling software will do more than just create schedules; it’ll also allow you to handle the complexities that come along with scheduling. Between employee needs, organizational policies, compliance regulations, and constant updates, it’s unsustainable for personnel to manage every aspect of scheduling on their own. Automation is key to simplifying the human role in scheduling while still allowing visibility and oversight at every level.

Streamline your complex employee scheduling needs with TCP Software

Effective scheduling is a crucial but challenging aspect of employee management for many organizations. With so many critical details to consider, it’s not feasible for management teams and schedulers to handle every aspect of scheduling on their own. Without the right scheduling platform, organizations often face challenges like unmet demand, overstaffing, and non-compliance. If not handled correctly, these challenges can lead to serious issues, such as reduced productivity, low morale, and budget-crushing costs, including:

  • Unnecessary overtime
  • Loss of new revenue
  • Compliance penalties
  • Employee turnover
  • Excessive lost time

An effective scheduling process prevents these issues and offers a range of other benefits, including minimized errors, operational efficiency, and alignment with employee and organizational needs. TCP’s automated employee scheduling software provides the ideal solution by streamlining the scheduling and communication process, helping organizations control costs through proper coverage, offering employee flexibility and empowerment, and mitigating compliance risks—all without the frustration and inaccuracies of manual processes.

At TCP, we believe that organizations shouldn’t have to choose between meeting their goals and keeping their employees happy, no matter how complex their needs are. That’s why we offer configurable, automated scheduling software that’s designed to fit your needs—not the other way around. Through automated scheduling and communications, demand forecasting and alignment, compliance risk mitigation, and cost control, TCP can help you streamline your scheduling process.

Learn more about how TCP can help you overcome costly scheduling obstacles and develop the best approach for your organization by downloading our eBook or speaking to an expert.

FAQs about employee work schedules

The best way to create and update a work schedule is by using automated employee scheduling software. By configuring it to your needs, the right software will automatically consider your scheduling rules and requirements when creating schedules. Then, it’ll make it easy for managers and employees to communicate, change, update, and maintain schedules in real time.

Supervisors or schedulers should manage employee schedules and shifts on the organization’s end. However, employees should also have constant, immediate access and 24/7 visibility into their schedules. By allowing employees to view their schedules and request changes electronically, organizations can empower workers to co-own their schedules. This eliminates many tedious administrative tasks schedulers face and helps simplify the process for everyone.