Setting Employee Work Schedules: A Manager’s Guide

Creating employee work schedules is one of the most important steps in running an efficient business. It requires being on top of several moving parts and using problem-solving skills to make schedules work for both employees and your business.
 

Depending on your business’s needs, you can use a range of methods to schedule employees — from sitting down with a pencil and paper each week to using automated scheduling software.
 

Use this manager’s guide to evaluate the various types of work schedules to implement or adjust and how you can choose one that works for the needs of both your business and your employees.
 

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What is a work schedule?

Work schedules refer to the specified days and times that an employee is expected to complete the tasks of their employment position. The schedule that an employee works can impact their work responsibilities, payment, work benefits and federal and state law requirements.
 

Why is employee work scheduling important?

Beyond knowing that all shifts and work will be covered, here are some of the benefits of implementing effective employee scheduling practices:
 

  • Saving time: Using efficient scheduling procedures can reduce the amount of time you spend making adjustments and dealing with logistics, allowing you to focus on high-level leadership tasks.
  • Ensuring legal compliance: Good employee scheduling procedures also help you comply with legal requirements about full-time vs. hourly employees, ensuring that each employee gets the appropriate number of hours each week.
  • Establishing consistency: Being strategic about schedule-making lets you have a good idea of who will be working each week, allowing you to manage employees more effectively. It also allows you to seamlessly delegate scheduling to managers or other employees.
  • Determining labor costs: Over-scheduling employees results in wasted wage expenses, while under-scheduling employees could leave your company short-handed. Good scheduling can also reduce turnover costs associated with replacing an employee.
  • Increasing customer satisfaction: Scheduling employees based on their skill sets allows you to improve service to customers and clients.

Efficient employee work schedules also boost morale and increase retention. If a manager consistently makes last-minute schedule changes or assigns employees to shifts when they’re unavailable, employees may feel disrespected and frustrated. Streamlined schedules that are easy for them to understand and require minimal changes build a culture of respect and set a positive example for time management.
 

10 examples of employee work schedules

Here are some examples of employee work schedules you may want to implement — depending on your business needs, industry and the availability of your employees
 

Full-time schedules

While the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t define “full-time,” full-time typically includes a work schedule that is at least 40 hours per week. Generally, full-time employees work for the same days or hours each week. Some full-time employees might be paid on an hourly basis, while others receive a salary. Due to the extensive amount of time on the job, most organizations offer benefits to full-time employees, such as vacation days, sicks days and health insurance.
 

Example: A full-time schedule is typically Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. with an hour lunch break.
 

Part-time schedules

Part-time schedules are any schedules with less than full-time hours. These schedules often allow for greater flexibility, granting employees the availability for other work or responsibilities. In most cases, part-time employees don’t earn the same benefits as full-time employees, and their schedules may change from week to week.
 

Example: A part-time schedule could be Monday from 10 a.m.–2 p.m., Wednesday from 11 a.m.–2 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. for a total of 17 hours in one week.
 

Fixed schedules

A fixed work schedule has a determined set of days and hours that remain the same throughout the duration of employment. Prospective employees and their managers agree upon hours before the employee begins work. Both full-time and part-time schedules can be fixed schedules.
 

Example: A full-time fixed schedule could be Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m.–5 p.m., and a part-time fixed schedule could be Sunday-Thursday from 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
 

Flexible schedules

Flexible schedules are similar to fixed schedules but are generally less strict. In a flexible schedule, employees need to work a certain number of hours, but the time that they come to work and leave can change. Some flexible schedules require employees to be in the workplace for “core” working hours, but they choose when they arrive and leave.
 

Employees might work certain hours in the office and complete the rest of their work at home or remotely elsewhere.
 

Example: A flexible work schedule allows employees to arrive at work anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and leave between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m from Monday-Friday.
 

Rotating shift schedules

In a rotating shift work schedule, employees work a series of day and night shifts determined by the employer. Rotating shift schedules are common in industries that operate 24/7, like health care and hospitality.
 

Example: A rotating shift schedule could be four shifts during the day, three days off and then four night shifts.
 

Split shift schedules

Split shifts separate an employee’s shift into two parts. An employee works part of their shift, clocks out and then clocks in later for the second part of their shift. Split shifts are common in the hospitality, transportation and food and beverage industries.
 

Example: A waitress might work the first shift for the breakfast rush, clock-out and then return to work during the busy lunch rush a few hours later.
 

On-call schedules

An on-call schedule means an employee is available to work for a certain amount of time if they’re needed. The employee still works their normal shift, then they’re on call once they leave (typically late into the night). If a shift is short-staffed or there’s an emergency, their manager calls them to help. On-call shifts often rotate between employees.
 

Example: An on-call schedule could be Thursday-Sunday from 5 p.m.–12 a.m. every other week.
 

Seasonal schedules

Seasonal work is temporary employment (either full-time or part-time) for a specific season. Seasonal work schedules are common in retail settings, as well as businesses that rely on weather conditions (e.g., ski resorts, pools).
 

Example: Retail stores might bring on additional customer associates during the holidays. An organization that focuses on landscaping might only offer employment during the warmer months.
 

Freelance schedules

Freelance work is a type of work agreement in which a contractor completes work tasks but is not considered an official employee of the business. They are often paid at the completion of a project rather than for the number of hours they work. Freelance workers can work on a schedule that meets their needs but often do not qualify for work benefits.
 

Related: Weekly Timesheet Sample
 

Compressed schedules

With a compressed work schedule, employees work a set number of hours over fewer days. This type of employee work schedule is often best implemented in office settings, but can also be implemented across industries with the right planning.
 

Example: A full-time, compressed employee might work four 10-hour days rather than five eight-hour days.
 

Related: The 40 Hour Work Week: Pros and Cons of Alternative Schedules
 

How to create employee work schedules

Refer to these nine steps when you sit down to create your next employee work schedule:
 

1. Identify resources

Be sure you understand your financial and staffing resources. Outline your budget for wages, determining how many hours you can afford to pay employees each week. This step helps you avoid common pitfalls, such as an employee earning overtime pay that was not in your initial budget.
 

If you hire outside contractors to provide staff support, factor those costs into your budget and consider how they’ll influence your need for shift-based employees.
 

2. List needs for each shift

Especially when shift work scheduling, consider your personnel needs for every shift category. Decide whether you need someone in a leadership position to supervise or if all employees are qualified to work independently. Retail locations, for example, usually need a manager or keyholder to unlock the store in the morning, make deposits to the company safe and lock up at the end of the day. At a restaurant, you may need to have a host, a line cook, a server and a dishwasher on every shift, regardless of customer volume.
 

Consider things like:
 

  • Will you allow employees to swap shifts and if so, what is the process?
  • How will you manage time-off requests?
  • How flexible can you be with scheduling?
  • What type of schedule makes the most sense for the business?

3. Anticipate demand

Consider your peak times. Analyze your sales history to determine what time of day you see the most customers or clients. If you usually have more customers in the evening, schedule extra employees to support the demand and provide attentive service. Prepare to schedule more employees for high-volume periods around the holidays and local events, using past experience to make projections about your staffing needs. Note on a calendar which shifts have a lot of anticipated customers and which shifts you expect to be particularly slow.
 

If you experience busy months, temporary or seasonal employees could be an option.
 

4. Collect employee preferences

Talk to your employees about their availability and keep clear records of which shifts they can work. Collect information such as whether they prefer to work an opening shift, a swing shift or a closing shift and how many days per week they want to work. Some employees may have firm boundaries, especially if they have a class, childcare responsibilities or another job. Others may be more flexible and able to fill in on a moment’s notice.
 

Once you have each employee’s availability, write them out on a master calendar to see if you have any significant gaps. For example, if none of your employees are available to work on a Friday but you have more people than you need available on other days, you may need to hire staff members with different availability or have a team meeting to decide how to fill the gaps.
 

5. Review past schedules

Gather past schedules and study them to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Look for patterns by making note of how often employees have to switch shifts and who ends up working at each time slot. Compare the original schedule you created to who actually worked each shift and identify what caused changes. Reviewing old schedules can help you make small adjustments so that you can create a functional, accurate schedule on the first try.
 

6. Create a plan for replacements

Make a policy for employees to call in sick and find coverage for their shift if they are unavailable. Determine whether employees need to get approval from management before swapping shifts or if they should simply text their coworkers to trade schedule assignments.
 

Related: Attendance at Work: An Introduction
 

7. Research federal and state laws

Failing to follow federal and state laws regarding employment can lead to expensive fines. Researching the associated laws for each type of work schedule that you’re considering can help ensure that you follow these laws.
 

8. Use a schedule maker

Automate your scheduling process by downloading schedule making software or using online schedule making tools. Simplify the scheduling process by using an app that your employees can download to view their schedule, trade shifts and request time off.
 

Related: Employee Work Schedule Template for Your Business
 

9. Post the schedule

Set a specific day of the week that you will post the schedule so that employees know when to start planning their week. Communicating the schedule is just as important as creating it. Give employees enough time to look it over and raise concerns by posting the final schedule well ahead of the workweek.
 

Best practices for setting work schedules

These tips can help you create a work schedule that meets the needs of your employees and business:
 

Ask for feedback

Many employers set schedules based on the needs of the company rather than through employee input. To encourage engagement and productivity, ask your employees for feedback on your current scheduling system. Your employees will know when exactly peak times occur, so they can tell you when you need to schedule extra staff. Employees who actively take part in their schedule are also more satisfied.
 

Define scheduling rules

Use regulations, policies and general work processes as defining factors in your schedules. Certain individuals, such as employees with more tenure, might have more freedom than others within their schedule. Ensure that these rules and regulations are in your employee handbook and each hiring contract so employees can refer to them whenever they have questions.
 

Related: New Hire Onboarding Checklist
 

Define clear expectations when hiring

Family and life responsibilities can impact when an employee is able to work. If you need to fill in any employment gaps for a certain work schedule, being clear about schedule requirements in the job description will attract employees who are willing and able to work that particular schedule. For example, you could include “requires occasional nights and weekends” in your job posting.

Employee work schedule FAQs

What are some of the best ways to set and update work schedules?

There are many scheduling applications available that businesses use internally. It helps them stay current, set recurring reminders and set special dates for unique events. There are many types of software and applications you can use that allow employees to submit requests for time off and send you reminders for filling a day. You can also create a spreadsheet or use a calendar.

How do you determine the best work schedule for your business?

Assess your needs, determine your peak hours and research the amount of time it takes to accomplish daily tasks. Different types of schedules work best for specific businesses. Choose a type of schedule and experiment with it first. If you need to make changes, such as adding an on-call schedule, give your employees plenty of notice.

Should I assign someone to manage schedules and shifts?

Depending on the type of business and number of employees, you could delegate scheduling tasks to your managers. Managers have a better sense of how many employees they need for each shift and communicate often with their team. If you have a small business with little variation in scheduling needs, you don’t necessarily need to assign someone to manage shifts.

How should I introduce a drastic schedule change to employees?

Before initiating the change, meet with your employees and explain your reasoning. Ask for feedback and try to honor any accommodations your employees may need.

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Last updated: Jan 06, 2021