April 11, 2024

How to create shift schedules: A complete guide


Shift scheduling is an essential part of meeting the needs of organizations across many industries. However, maintaining compliance, ensuring a healthy work-life balance for employees, and matching demand requires an efficient, transparent shift scheduling process that management teams often struggle to get right. Complex scheduling policies and a lack of workforce visibility can make effective scheduling a time-consuming, error-prone task. And without an efficient process that meets the needs of its operations and employees, an organization’s reputation and bottom line both suffer.

To overcome these challenges, your organization needs a strong shift scheduling process that supports accuracy and compliance, helps workers maintain their efficiency, bolsters a positive employee experience, and enables you to meet operational goals. Here, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about shift schedules, including why they’re beneficial, various types, key components, and how to create a shift schedule that works for your organization and employees.

What is a shift schedule?

A shift schedule is a list of dates and times employees are expected to work that ensures labor coverage across different work periods. Also known as shift work schedules, they allow employees to rotate their working periods without requiring the organization to sacrifice its operating hours.

Because they offer great flexibility for both an organization and its employees, shift schedules are common in industries with extended or 24-hour operation times, like healthcare, public safety, manufacturing, and hospitality.

Benefits of shift schedules

Effective shift schedules offer significant advantages to the organizations that implement them and the employees who work for them. When properly leveraged, shift work schedules can:

Support compliance with labor laws

Scheduling is a critical part of supporting compliance with labor laws—such as meal break rules, minor work rules, and student worker thresholds—and industry-specific rules like minimum staffing requirements in public safety and Hours Per Patient Per Day (HPPD) in healthcare. Strategic scheduling is also important for enabling compliance with union collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that often contain legally binding provisions for employee work hours. Following these laws helps organizations avoid the financial and reputational risks associated with non-compliance penalties.

Allow time for employees to recover between shifts

Especially in industries like healthcare and manufacturing that often have extended operating hours, it’s essential that employees have the time they need between shifts to rest. Adequate recovery time ensures they return to work healthy, engaged, and ready for any challenges that may arise—which is crucial for maintaining staff and customer or patient safety. Fair Workweek Laws in the state of Oregon and some cities throughout the U.S. even require rest periods for employees and penalize employers who don’t offer them between shifts.

With the right process, an organization can schedule worker shifts to optimize recovery periods and, in turn, maximize employees’ energy and attentiveness while on the job. This helps employees avoid fatigue and burnout. Well-planned shifts make it easier to grant recovery time without risking compliance issues, losing operational efficiency, or negatively impacting the employee experience.

Ensure operational efficiency, work-life balance, and employee empowerment

Instead of scrambling to figure out which employees can work at specific times to fulfill business demands, shift schedules enable organizations to streamline their workforce operations. An effective shift scheduling process that’s backed by intelligent tools automates scheduling tasks without tacking on time-consuming, burdensome duties for already-busy staff schedulers.

Successful shift scheduling software makes it easy to identify and resolve scheduling conflicts, create rotations, and copy and paste shifts for maximum efficiency and a better bottom line. Plus, it helps organizations retain talent by creating schedules that match employee availability and preferences, showing employees that their management teams care about their work-life balance. And when organizations empower employees to co-own their schedules through self-service tools, they feel seen and valued by their employers, they’re more likely to be engaged in the workplace.

Keep budgets on track

Controlling unnecessary spend can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, especially when it comes to creating schedules. Poor schedules can lead to issues like unnecessary overtime, legal fees, worker attrition, and low productivity, all of which negatively impact the company’s ability to stay on budget.

Effective shift schedules help organizations prevent:

  • Runaway labor costs
  • Fines for non-compliance with labor laws and CBAs
  • Lost time due to scheduling errors
  • Mismatching coverage to demand
  • Preventable expenses due to miscalculations

Effective shift scheduling is beneficial regardless of the type of schedule you use, but some types offer more advantages to certain organizations or industries than others.

Scheduling doesn’t have to be painful. Learn how an automated scheduling platform can streamline your process.

Types of shift schedules

Depending on your organization’s needs, there are several different types of shift schedules that might work best for your team and your operations. Here are some examples you might consider:

1. Fixed shift

Employees who work fixed shifts typically begin working at the same time on the same days each week. For example, a worker may have a fixed shift from 12 p.m.–8 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and those shift details don’t change from one week to the next.

A fixed shift can offer greater stability and predictability than other types of shift schedules because employees always know when they’re expected to work, when their shifts will end, and the number of hours for which they’ll be compensated on a weekly basis.

2. Split shift

A split shift is a schedule in which the employee works two or more shifts in a single day with a break of at least two hours between shifts. Split shifts can be useful for scheduling in restaurants, for example, where there are several surges in customer demand throughout the day. The need for employee coverage will likely increase during mealtimes and wane between them, so a restaurant may use split shifts to meet service needs without having to pay employees during downtime.

It’s important to note that fair workweek laws in some jurisdictions prohibit the misuse of split shifts by requiring employers to provide employers with additional pay to cover the cost of leaving and returning to work throughout the day.

3. Rotating shifts

Rotating shifts allow workers the same level of stability as a fixed shift without having to follow the exact same schedule every day or week. By contrast, though, rotating shifts do change in a predictable pattern depending on coverage requirements. These types of shifts are common in many industries with organizations or agencies that have non-standard hours, such as the public safety sector, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and transportation. Organizations might use rotating shifts to promote fairness by making sure the same employees don’t get stuck on difficult or less desirable shifts every week.

One example is a 4-on/4-off shift schedule. This method involves working four 12-hour shifts on four consecutive days and then having four consecutive days off. Trucking companies often use 4-on/4-off schedules because they allow drivers to deliver goods on time and have adequate time to rest before getting back on the road.

4. 24/7 shifts

A variant of rotating shifts, the 24/7 model allows organizations that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week to maintain constant coverage. 24/7 shifts are also common in public safety because they allow agencies to operate around the clock.

For example, firefighters often have a Kelly Schedule, which consists of a nine-day cycle that works like this:

  • 24 hours on
  • 24 hours off
  • 24 hours on
  • 24 hours off
  • 24 hours on
  • Four days off

5. Graveyard shift

The graveyard shift refers to the overnight or early morning working hours during which an employee is scheduled. Organizations that schedule employees for this shift use a system that allows them to operate 24 hours a day by splitting each 24-hour period into three shifts, with the third shift sometimes known as the graveyard shift. Here’s an example of a three-shift scheduling system:

  • First shift: 8 a.m.–4 p.m.
  • Second shift: 4 p.m.–12 a.m.
  • Third shift/Graveyard shift: 12 a.m.–8 a.m.

Some organizations combine this type of scheduling with other formats, such as rotating shifts, to ensure fairness. Others don’t need to implement additional strategies to cover the graveyard shift, as some employees prefer to take their downtime during daylight hours.

6. On-call shift

With on-call schedules, employees must be available to work within a specific time frame in case their employer needs additional coverage. Nurses who work on-call shifts, for instance, don’t physically report to their place of employment until or unless they’re needed. However, they’re required to be easily reached and ready to go to work if a manager needs them during that scheduled period.

Because on-call shifts require the employee to be prepared to work at a moment’s notice, they often receive higher compensation than those who work other types of shifts. Employers may use on-call shift scheduling because it guarantees someone is always available to handle emergencies or other issues as they arise.

7. Overtime shift

An overtime shift is any shift during which an employee works beyond their normally scheduled working hours. Overtime can be costly in terms of wages, employee burnout, and increased compliance risk—the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states that employers who willfully or repeatedly violate overtime pay requirements can receive a penalty of up to $1,000 per violation. However, it might be necessary under certain circumstances. For example, an organization that’s usually open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday might schedule members of their DevOps team for an overtime shift so they can launch a new website without disrupting web traffic during peak times.

Once your organization has determined the right type of shift schedule for both your business and its employees, it’s essential to understand what to include when actually creating one.

Shift schedule components

The components of a shift schedule depend on factors like the type of schedule you use and the needs of your organization, but here are a few necessary elements to include regardless of your approach:

Shift length

The length of each depends on the organization, industry, customer needs or expectations, and employee capabilities. While a 12-hour shift is common in healthcare, where patients require 24-hour attention, it wouldn’t make sense for a restaurant that’s only open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Before you decide on the ideal length of shifts, be sure to consider how they might impact your ability to serve customers or patients, how they may affect your employees’ work-life balance, and how they’ll contribute to your bottom line.

Schedule format

Next, you’ll need to choose the type or types of schedules that best suit your organization’s, workers’, and customers’ needs. Depending on shift lengths, you’ll likely need to examine applicable labor laws and other rules to decide which schedule strategy (or combination of strategies) will allow your company to remain compliant.

For instance, will it benefit your organization, workers, or customers if you:

  • Offer the same shift schedule each day/week?
  • Rotate different shift patterns throughout the week or month?
  • Require overtime shift coverage?

Once you’ve nailed down the key scheduling factors for operational success, you can make an informed decision about the type of shift schedule that will best support your workforce.

On-off work patterns

On-off work patterns refer to the days employees work and the days they have off. These patterns may include the number of days an employee works, the specific days they work, or both. An HR professional, for example, may work Monday through Friday each week and have Saturdays and Sundays off. Retail workers, on the other hand, might work on Saturday and Sunday and then have two varying days off between Monday and Friday. On-off work patterns generally reflect an organization’s business needs.


Shift locations are crucial for organizations that serve customers in more than one location or those that employ on-call workers. It’s essential that employees understand where they’re expected to show up to complete their shift so that there’s no lapse in coverage. For instance, a restaurant with three locations must clearly inform their employees in advance about which venue they’ve been scheduled to work. If not, workers may mistakenly show up to the wrong location where their labor isn’t needed.


One of the reasons that shift scheduling is often so complex is that organizations may schedule employees in multiple positions, each with different requirements for qualifications, skill sets, locations, and job roles. It’s imperative that the organization uses these position details when building and managing their shift schedules. Some roles require more recovery time than others, too, so keeping these considerations at the forefront of decision-making is a vital part of successful scheduling.

Once you’ve determined how to approach each element of your shift schedule, you can start creating one that helps you reach your organizational goals.

How to create a shift schedule

The process of building a shift schedule will vary slightly depending on the type of shift schedule and method you use to do so, but here’s a basic set of steps you can follow:

1. Determine which shifts you need covered

Before you can start forming your schedule, you’ll first need to evaluate the key elements we covered above. Historical and current data, operational goals and KPIs, number of employees, and your labor budget will all help you flesh out this primary step. By evaluating these factors in detail, you can avoid issues like understaffing, overstaffing, overtime, and noncompliance down the road.

2. Assign shifts to the right employees

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s a bad idea to schedule an employee to work a shift that they’re not qualified for or available to work. Without visibility into worker preferences, availability, and skills, you run the risk of failing to meet organizational needs and breaching labor laws or company policies.

Getting to know your employees and assigning them to the right shift is an absolute must, but doing so requires a reliable method to track:

  • The skills and qualifications needed for each shift
  • The skills and qualifications of each staff member
  • Expiration dates on applicable licenses and certifications

For example, a police department may need 10 officers for a shift, but they might also require that four of them speak Spanish and two are K9 units. To schedule this shift without placing a hefty burden on scheduling administrators, they need tools that help them easily track, store, and access these details and then build a schedule accordingly.

Learn how Humanity can automate your shift scheduling process—with employee skills and qualifications in mind.

3. Review and update your scheduling practices

A shift scheduling process should never be set in stone, but should instead evolve to reflect necessary changes. Organizations should use both historical data and real-time reporting to identify how the metrics they’re tracking compared to their budget and how scheduling stacks up against demand. Then, they should examine current scheduling practices frequently so they can fine-tune and improve their shift schedules over time to reap better results.

4. Use shift scheduling software


While manual processes are labor- and time-intensive and prone to human error, employee scheduling software can help ease the burden. The right tool can empower the organization to:

  • Align with labor budgets
  • Consider their employees’ skills, strengths, and qualifications when planning shifts
  • Stay in compliance with labor laws, CBAs, and internal policies
  • Streamline and automate communications
  • Tame the chaos of daily shift management, such as filling call-offs or dealing with shift changes
  • Schedule to match their demand

While it’s simply unsustainable to expect a human to manage and adapt to the myriad ever-changing details involved in shift scheduling, intelligent software can handle the process with ease.

5. Communicate the schedule

If the perfect shift schedule falls in the woods, but no one is around to hear it…well, you get the idea. A well-crafted shift schedule is only effective if it’s shared with those it impacts, so it’s essential to have a strong method for communicating the schedule with your employees. You’ll need an efficient, reliable communication system, a process for easily publishing the schedule in advance, and tools that empower workers to co-own their schedules.

The easiest, most dependable way to ensure successful communication around scheduling is to invest in a tool that offers a mobile solution. That way, workers always have instant access to the most up-to-date schedules, can quickly notify one another of any changes, and can pick up last minute shifts as soon as they become available.

The right shift scheduling solution can streamline communication and alleviate the burden of scheduling to accommodate the complex needs of any organization.

Automate your shift scheduling process with TCP Software

Shift schedules are often an effective solution for organizations looking to ensure proper coverage while also ensuring a positive employee experience and maintaining profitability. But getting it right requires transparency into various workforce and operational details that can be difficult to nail down. Without the right scheduling platform, organizations often face issues like improper staffing, underworked or overworked employees, and labor law compliance risk. This can lead to problems like unnecessary costs, legal fees, employee attrition, and low productivity and morale.

That’s why TCP offers configurable employee scheduling software that maximizes an organization’s bottom line by improving accuracy, efficiency, compliance, and the employee experience. With powerful tools that take the guesswork out of shift scheduling, TCP’s solutions help companies avoid costly scheduling errors, mitigate risk through automation and rules, automate schedule creation and communication, while offering standout flexibility, transparency, and longer-range visibility into shifts. As a result, you never have to choose between meeting your goals and keeping employees happy, no matter how complex your scheduling needs are.

Learn more about how TCP can help your organization streamline scheduling for greater efficiency, or talk to an expert today to see how you can improve your time and attendance processes.