9 Steps to Creating the Perfect Employee Schedule

by Kelsie Anderson | Published on May 18, 2022

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Creating an employee schedule can be one of the most dreaded tasks for managers and small business owners. There are so many different schedules to balance, so many time-off requests to take into account, and so many projects or shift workloads to balance.

The number of details you have to take into account when making a schedule for employees goes on and on.

However, creating a staff schedule doesn't have to be so hard.

By following a few simple rules -- and utilizing the right tools -- making an employee schedule can become a more enjoyable task.

At a glance: Our tips for making the best employee schedule

  • Have a good understanding of how many people you need to schedule -- and who the best employee for the job is.
  • Get familiar with local and federal employment regulations to keep your schedules compliant.
  • Do your best to accommodate employee needs to keep staff morale up.
  • Find a tool that can help you keep track of endless time-off requests -- and maybe even automate your scheduling process.

How to create the perfect employee schedule

The key to drafting good employee schedules is to adopt a few best practices and look into time clock software, which will automate some of your scheduling needs.

Below, we'll take a look at some tips that will help you create effective schedules for your employees.

Step 1: Understand your staffing needs for the upcoming scheduling period

I was once scheduled for a Sunday afternoon as one of two servers. Looking at the schedule, I expected it to be a slow day. There was only me, one other server, a manager, and one guy in the kitchen.

But then a birthday party of 30 eight-year-olds walked in.

It turned out, this birthday party had been scheduled a month in advance. However, my boss had forgotten to put it in the staff schedule.

For the next three hours, I ran around with the one other scheduled server shouting frantic, on-the-fly orders to the one cook in the kitchen. Our manager made desperate phone calls to other people on staff, begging them to come in for an hour or two to help out with no luck.

Our other customers started to get angry because we weren't able to serve them in a timely manner.

Pretty much everyone left the restaurant frustrated and dissatisfied that day.

This is the type of situation you're setting your employees up for when you don't consider -- or simply forget -- what your staffing needs are. At any given time, you should know how many people you need in your office (or at your restaurant, or on a worksite).

Knowing how many people you need covering the bases ensures that your employees or clients are satisfied with the attention they receive, and that your employees don't consider quitting immediately from being overworked.

(Spoiler: I found a new job after my boss's scheduling mishaps happened one too many times.)

Pro tip: Know what kinds of projects, jobs, or special events your team will have to tackle during any given scheduling period. Schedule enough people to get the job done. Otherwise, you'll risk customer dissatisfaction and low employee morale.

Step 2: Schedule your best employees first

If you could pick any of your employees -- regardless of running into overtime hours -- to get something done, who would it be?

Starting with the employees you want to schedule because you know they do a good job is a good rule of thumb when it comes to creating a great staff schedule.

To do this well, you have to know the members of your team. How else will you know who does a good job, or who works well together? Ideally, you would know every staff member personally. However, this knowledge could also come from manager reports and recommendations.

Pro tip: Starting by scheduling your star employees means you'll be more likely to have a strong team assembled during any given scheduling period.

Step 3: Know the ins and outs of local and federal scheduling regulations

Disclaimer for this next tip: I'm not a lawyer. But one of my tips is that you need to obey the law.

This tip might seem like a no-brainer to you, but you'd be amazed at how many times in my foodservice career I was asked to break laws -- by managers, fellow employees, and business owners -- especially when it came to shifts and scheduling.

I don't think my colleagues were asking me to break the rules out of malice; they were probably just trying to get something done with as little friction as possible. Quite frankly, I'm not sure most of them were familiar with the laws they were asking me to break. At the time, I often wasn't aware I was being asked to break any laws.

Depending on where your business is located, your state’s or city's laws could add more restrictive laws on top of federally mandated ones. The city where I grew up, for example, had different curfews for minors. Those laws meant I couldn't work a late shift, even if my boss wanted me to.

Labor laws and regulations for scheduling typically deal with:

  • Overtime hours and associated pay
  • Time off between shifts
  • Advance notice of scheduling
  • Vacation, time off, or sick leave

Failure to comply with labor laws can result in fines or the requirement to pay overtime wages to affected employees, among other penalties.

Pro tip: Keeping track of changing regulations can be a headache, but it won't compare to the headache you'll have after filling out reams of paperwork and emptying your bank account for fines or legal fees.

Step 4: Take the guesswork out of scheduling by using templates

Let’s say you already know Employee A can't work on Tuesdays, so why wouldn't you use that as the default schedule? Schedule templates simplify and streamline the employee scheduling process. They also prevent costly mistakes and oversights that can turn a routine day into a nightmare for both managers and workers. Consult with your employees and create a schedule template that works for your team.

Starting with a schedule template can help you:

  • Keep track of regular time-off needs for various staff members
  • Cut down the time it takes to create a schedule
  • Give your team some stability and predictability for when they're expected to work

Pro tip: As often as possible, start from a default schedule. You can do this in a program like Microsoft Excel, or in a time clock tool, such as 7shifts or ClockShark, that stores templates for you.

Step 5: Take time-off requests into account

Imagine this scenario: You schedule an employee on a day they requested off in advance and through the proper channels. Now they're responsible for finding someone to cover their shift. If no one is available, they'll have to weigh the decision to call in "sick" -- and potentially get in trouble for playing hooky -- or come into work and miss an important event.

By ignoring this employee's time-off request, you risk making your employees stressed -- and likely angry. Unhappy employees don't stick around long and could end up requesting a permanent leave of absence in the form of a two-week notice.

While you can't make every time-off request work, you can do your best to honor the ones made in advance or for good reasons.

Pro tip: Frequently scheduling employees when they say they're not available isn't fun for anyone. Do your best not to schedule team members on days they've requested off.

Step 6: Do your best to create a schedule well in advance

The further ahead your employees can plan their lives around their shifts, the better. In fact, some cities have predictive scheduling laws that require a certain window of advance notice for employee schedules.

Even if you're not required by law to publish your schedules in advance, I recommend doing it anyway. Advance scheduling allows your employees to better anticipate when they work. So even if you can't accommodate a certain time-off request, they'll have more time to find a replacement.

More employees showing up to work when they're expected to -- without feeling overworked or after being called in at the last minute -- typically means more work gets done. And that likely means more money on your bottom line.

Pro tip: Giving your team advance notice of their schedules makes you look like a considerate boss and makes your employees happier.

Step 7: Create a platform where your team can communicate with each other -- and with you

A lot of these tips involve a certain degree of communication between you and your staff. If you can't easily let employees know when a new schedule has been published, your predictive scheduling methods aren't effective. And if they can't easily submit a time-off request to you, you can't honor their scheduling needs.

Carrying out many scheduling tasks requires an organized method of communication. If email or SMS works for you and your team, you can keep using those methods. However, a dedicated scheduling tool, such as Homebase or When I Work, can help cut down on back-and-forth conversations about shift swapping and availability.

Pro tip: Without organized communication, the rest of these tips are useless. Figure out how, when, and where you'll communicate with your team about scheduling.

Step 8: Solicit employee feedback about your scheduling methods

Your employees' professional lives revolve around the schedules you create. Their input is invaluable if you're looking to improve your scheduling skills.

Talk to your team about what they want to see from you in terms of scheduling. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • How would you prefer to communicate about time-off needs?
  • How far in advance would you like to know your schedule?
  • What's the easiest way for me to let you know a new schedule has been published?
  • Is there a better way to accommodate shift swaps or let you know there are open shifts on the schedule?

Pro tip: No matter how good of a job you're doing as the schedule master, there's always room for improvement, and your employees will always have an opinion about how you can improve. Go straight to the source if you're looking for ways to improve your scheduling strategy.

Step 9: Invest in a tool that can help you do all of these things

I've given you a lot of factors to consider when it comes to scheduling your employees. If it sounds like there are a lot of details to juggle, that's because there are.

Fortunately, time clock software can help you keep track of all your scheduling needs. A time clock tool can:

  • Help you create schedules in compliance with local and federal labor laws
  • Save your created schedules as templates
  • Track overtime and labor budgets
  • Serve as a self-service platform for employees to track attendance, request time off, and snag open shifts

Bonus: A lot of these tools offer a free option for smaller teams, so there's no reason not to check one out.

Pro tip: You don’t have to do all of your scheduling by hand. Both you and your employees will appreciate the speed and convenience of employee scheduling software.

Start creating schedules that work

By considering these tips, you can create schedules that both you and your employees will love. You'll have all of your staffing needs covered, and they'll be on the job at times that work for them. Plus, Uncle Sam will appreciate your attention to local and federal labor laws.

To start putting together one of these perfect schedules, do some research to find the right tool for your employee scheduling needs.

Here are some of our favorite tools for creating employee schedules:

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