Rotating Shifts: A Manager’s Guide to Rotating Schedules

If you’re always working different shifts, or stuck on a difficult shift (like nights), it’s hard to balance your personal life with work. You’re at work so many different days of the week, or inconsistent hours each day. Or you never see the light of day and your family while they’re awake.

That’s the reality for many of your employees, and it’s one of the reasons employees leave a job for one somewhere else.

That’s where a rotating schedule comes in. 

You can keep your shifts running smoothly without putting an unfair schedule burden on employees. We’ll show you how a rotating schedule works, give you some examples of rotating shift schedules, and help you set up what works best for you.

What is a rotating schedule?

While there are no “good” or “bad” shifts, there are definitely shifts that your employees prefer for one reason or another. Some shifts make employees happier than other shifts.

A rotating schedule takes that into account. 

The idea is to set up the schedule so that everyone works through the shifts they like and those they don’t as they’re rotated through the different shifts over time.

Rotating shift schedules help strengthen your team, because employees get to work with others as they rotate across shifts. They expand their own personal network with other people, discovering different ways of working. Until you’ve worked all of the shifts, you’ll lack the experience and a chance to understand a complete picture of how everything functions. This is particularly important if you allow shift swaps; sooner or later, they’ll probably pick up a different shift. It’s better if everyone has experience working all of them.

There are financial considerations, too. 

For some industries, like restaurants, rotating shifts gives every worker a chance at making better tips during high volume shifts. If you’re stuck on a low volume shift, you’ll never get the great tips. Giving every employee an equal opportunity when it comes to different shifts helps improve engagement and morale. It also prevents monotony.

Employers benefit too, of course. 

For one thing, the mixing of employees helps in training new employees, exposing them to others who can show them the ropes and the tricks of the trade. Plus, they get a more flexible workforce who are able to pick up shifts when someone is absent and employees whose talents are spread out across all the shifts.

And with rotating shifts, you avoid some of the frustrations that employees have over their schedule, such as favoritism.

How a rotating shift schedule works

Even though a rotating shift means changed schedules, it’s done in a cyclical way. 

Your shifts might be morning to afternoon, and afternoon to night. Or you might have set up day, swing, and night shifts. If you’re open 24/7, you might have four shifts.

A rotating schedule means that employees work a particular shift over a set amount of time. Employees on a rotating schedule might work the same shift on different days (rotation of days), or they might actually work different shifts (rotation of time).

The more cyclical your schedule, the easier it is for employees to balance work and personal life.

Different types of rotating shifts

There are four main types of rotating shifts.

  1. Frequent: Weekly changes to the shifts mean an employee might go from working the day shift to the night shift within the week. This can be hard for people to adjust to both physically as well as in planning personal time.
  2. Slow: Changes to the shifts happen over several months. This may help with adjusting to work nights and then days, as well as provide stability for planning personal time.
  3. Weekend: This is a basic approach in which employees take turns working weekends. This gives everyone a chance for a weekend off.
  4. Partial: Some employees will always work a fixed shift, while others are on a rotating schedule. This may be due to employee qualification requirements, the need for skilled coverage, or necessary continuity for each shift.

It’s clear that nearly every business can put the rotating schedule to use, in some form, whether it’s just as simple as alternating weekends, or as complicated as switching shifts during the week.

Create a rotating shift schedule for your business

Planning your shifts is important for everything from labor costs to customer satisfaction. But when it comes to setting up a rotating schedule, it doesn’t hurt to think of your employees first.

With night shift work, especially, avoid making the same employees work them. While some may prefer or even request it, it’s best to not deprive the same people of sleep or the ability to have personal time in the evenings.

With that in mind, the process is simple.

  1. Break up your day into shifts. How you break up the hours into shifts depends on your business. If you’re open 16 hours a day, you could break it up into two eight-hour shifts. If you’re open 24 hours a day, then you’d be looking at four eight-hour shifts.
  2. Determine coverage. Again, depending on your business, you may not have the same amount of employee coverage for each shift. Determine how many employees, and any special skills, that must be present for each shift. Some shifts may be busier than others, and require more employees.
  3. Create teams. How you create teams to cover the shifts depends on whether you have the same number of people on every shift, whether some shifts have more, and if you’ll be mixing the employees or having the same team work together.
  4. Determine the rotation. Will you use the frequent, slow, weekend, or partial approach? Will it be a mix? Again, keep in mind what’s best for your employees and your company culture, as well as the industry you’re in. What works for a hospital isn’t necessary for a restaurant. 

An example of this might be creating two teams for two eight hour shifts. Team one might work the first shift for a week, while team two works the second. The following week, the teams will switch shifts.

There are always going to be complications. You’ll have to manage time-off requests, which will lead to shift swapping among employees. Keep an eye to make sure one employee isn’t getting stuck with the same shifts due to that swapping. It’s easy to miss if you’re only keeping a bird’s-eye view on the teams instead of the individual.

Varying schedule options

Varying the rotation schedule is where you can really customize the rotation concept to be a perfect fit for your teams. There are several approaches you can use:

  • DuPont schedule: This 24/7 system uses four staggered teams working two twelve-hour shifts, which comes to 42 hours a week during a four-week cycle. Each team works four consecutive nights, followed by three days off, then they work three consecutive days, with one day off before switching back to nights. Finally, the fourth week of the schedule gives the team seven consecutive days off before the whole cycle starts over again. 
  • Pitman schedule: This system is similar to DuPont in that you have four teams working two twelve-hour shifts. However, it’s over a two week cycle.
  • 24-48 schedule: With this system, you’ll have three teams working 24-hour shifts. After a shift is complete, they have 48 hours off.
  • 4-3 schedule: Using six teams with overlapping ten-hour shifts in a three-week cycle, this system gives you full 24-hour coverage with no gaps at the shift change.

There are other options, and you can customize based on what you need. But you can see that there’s real flexibility in how you create the teams, define the shifts, and set up the rotation cycle. 

Examples of what a rotating schedule looks like

Some of that may sound complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. 

Using automated scheduling tools, When I Work makes it easy to create shifts and schedules that makes any of these rotation cycles possible. Instead of manually creating a paper work schedule, When I Work lets you set up the rotation in the system, block out the teams, and assign the shift rotation cycles. 

Here’s what the different types of schedules might look like:

DuPont schedule

Example of a DuPont schedule

Pitman schedule

Example of a Pitman schedule

24-48 schedule

Example of a 24-48 schedule

4-3 schedule

Example of a 4-3 schedule

Rotating shift schedules give everyone an equal chance to work on preferred or less preferred days and shifts. They provide you with better coverage while giving employees a chance to better balance work hours with personal life. 

Think about the scheduling challenges you’re having in your business. With all of the different types of rotation scheduling to choose from, determine which one is best for your team, and to get started with scheduling software that can make it a reality sooner rather than later. You can sign up to start building a better work schedule right now.

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