8 Simple Tips to Help You Schedule Employees

In this article, you’ll delve into the complexities of employee scheduling and discover eight actionable tips to streamline the process while ensuring fairness. From identifying potential scheduling abuses by both managers and employees, to leveraging technology for efficient scheduling, you’ll gain insights into creating a schedule that respects your employees’ needs and boosts overall productivity.

Key takeaways:

  • Recognize and address both employee and managerial scheduling abuses.
  • Employ on-call scheduling ethically by setting clear expectations from the outset.
  • Understand the unique dynamics of your business and staff to inform scheduling.
  • Facilitate open communication and a user-friendly system for schedule changes.
  • Use technology, like scheduling apps, to improve accessibility and efficiency.

Your employees juggle school, families, or additional jobs… and you are trying to juggle all of that in your employee schedule. It’s not easy, and it’s a serious enough topic that the U.S. Congress took to creating legislation to govern it through “The Schedules That Work Act.” While the goal was to protect employees who might be harmed by unpredictable scheduling techniques, business owners know that scheduling employees is never an easy thing and have as much vested interest in the process as anyone.

Good news: It doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are eight simple tips to help you schedule employees more effectively:

1. Identify true scheduling abuse.

There are two people scheduling abuse comes from: your employee, and you (or your scheduling manager).

Let’s start with employees. Most of your employees are great. They want to do a good job and they aren’t there to cause problems. When they ask for a schedule change, they truly need it. They aren’t trying to get out of work or in any way manipulate you or other employees to get better shifts. Schedule abuse might be:

  • Constantly asking for Friday or Monday schedule changes.
  • Asking to leave early multiple times a week.
  • Switching with people to get shifts that have higher tips.
  • Avoiding shifts with onerous tasks (stocking shelves, inventory, etc.)
  • Being a no-show when informed that you can’t find a replacement and they must come into work.
  • Asking for last-minute changes to their schedule without a legitimate reason (e.g. family or medical emergency).
  • Always having the same or similar emergencies that keep them from working their scheduled shifts.

If this is happening, you should be able to identify it with your employee scheduling software. Additionally, use what you’ve (hopefully) laid out in your employee handbook regarding the handling of the matter. Talk to the employee in private to learn if there really is a crisis in their life or if they are abusing the schedule.

When you (or a manager) are the purveyor of scheduling abuse, it looks a bit different.

  • On-call scheduling. This often takes the form of on-call scheduling, which means you schedule an employee to work at a certain time, but it is only potentially going to be used. If they aren’t needed, they aren’t called in. On-call scheduling prevents them from working elsewhere, but doesn’t guarantee them any work or income. On-call scheduling is super convenient for the employer, but is a terrible way to treat employees.
  • Canceling at the last minute. In a way, canceling an employee’s scheduled shift at the last possible moment is a bit like on-call scheduling. They  have no time to work elsewhere or make other plans, but you aren’t stuck paying them because you didn’t need them. Once in awhile, an employee might enjoy a day off here and there, but for most hourly employees, especially, they need that income. Last minute schedule cancellations hurt their budget in a big way.
  • Scheduling and updating schedules right down to the wire. Some employers only create the schedule for workers a few days in advance (and some, only hours, which is much worse). Doing this makes it impossible for your employees to make other plans, and their entire life, whether social or grabbing shifts for other jobs, is in limbo. If your business doesn’t already have a policy, consider one in which this is not an acceptable practice.
  • Extending employee shifts past their scheduled time. Forcing or expecting employees to stay past their scheduled time is completely unfair. While they may do it to grab the extra hours or because they are afraid to say no, you need to ask them if they are willing to do it instead of expecting that they’ll do it. If they can’t or won’t, they should not be penalized. This is an area where the scheduling abuses or behavior of other employees can have an effect on your better employees. If someone isn’t showing up for their shift on time, others have to pick up the slack.

Business owners usually don’t mean to abuse how they schedule employees. You’re looking after the bottom line, after all, and you are trying to find the perfect balance between having enough employees working without paying for too many. You don’t want to be understaffed, nor do you want to be overstaffed. And you might have one-off scenarios that require you to make a last-minute adjustment, or ask an employee if she could be on-call. But scheduling abuse as described above will cause employees to quit, and you shouldn’t make them a habit.

Once you know what scheduling abuse looks like, you know whether or not you’re dealing with a disciplinary problem or a true scheduling problem. Treating a scheduling problem as if it were a disciplinary problem, or vice versa, will cost you valuable employees.

Remember, you are trying to keep your employees, not drive them away. Abusive scheduling by you, or allowing scheduling abuses by other employees, will send your best and most valuable resource packing.

Invest in employee scheduling software, you can boost productivity at your organization and use the time you save to grow other areas of your business.

2. If you must use on-call, hire specifically for that.

Again, on-call is a great tool for employers, because it provides a bank of workers without expending money unless needed.

When an employee is hired understanding they are going to be on-call, they know what they are getting into. On-call only works when the employee has agreed to the terms you have laid out and they understand clearly what it involves. When using this specific approach, you:

  • Must have dedicated on-call policies in your handbook, both detailing what is required of employees and of you.
  • Will attract people who like the idea of on-call and are actually looking for that kind of work.
  • Are probably going to find employees who don’t need the job as their sole financial lifeline, but have other interests.

On-call does not work for people who don’t agree to it first, or don’t understand that it doesn’t mean a steady paycheck. You must be clear about that before moving to on-call.

3. Know your business.

It is impossible to schedule employees well if you don’t know your own business. In order to create a successful schedule without veering into abusive techniques, you must know:

  • Build your schedule with more slots for when it is busiest. What hours, days, and months you are the busiest. Understand the seasons, the lunch hour rushes–whatever applies to your business. Hint: Look to your scheduling software to provide insight into these things. 
  • Schedule the right kind of employees. You need employees to cover every task necessary. You don’t need all cashiers or all cooks. Figure out what it takes to keep everything running smoothly.

Under-schedule, and you’ll get burned out employees and frustrated customers. Overschedule and you’ll have employees standing around losing motivation to do anything while you lose money.

4. Know your employees.

Do you have mostly college or high school employees? Do you have a lot of moms or dads who have to drop their kids off at school and pick them up? Would it be easier to change the shifts to account for this?

Knowing your employees’ life schedules is crucial for helping your schedule shifts accordingly. When you know your employee, you can schedule compassionately and not make them dread constantly asking for a schedule change. This requires asking the right questions.

Here are some questions to ask to get to know your employees better:

  • Do you prefer morning, afternoons or evening shifts?
  • Are you looking for part-time or full-time employment?
  • What’s your class schedule like for the semester?
  • What are your strengths in this position?
  • Do you have any overtime restrictions?
  • Do you have any vacations planned that we should know about?
  • Which holidays are the most essential you have off?

5. Know how to communicate your schedule.

Are you a dictator when it comes to your schedule?

If your employees don’t understand the how and why behind the schedule they are told to work, resentment can grow. At your meetings or through regular employee communication, give them a heads-up on why, for example, the coming weekend you are scheduling more than usual, or why it’s so important to have three people on the morning shift even if it seems unnecessary.

Be able to explain why your schedule is as it is, how it functions, and why the employee is allowed (or not allowed) to make a schedule change. Show them the bigger picture so they see how the work they do, and when they do it, affects the business.

6. Make it easy for employees to legitimately ask for schedule changes.

How difficult is it for an employee to ask for a change in their schedule? Do they have to go through 20 questions and the third degree and a lot of accusations? Again, unless you have an employee consistently abusing your schedule, you should want to work with him. That means:

  • A system for asking for changes. Does the employee just call your business and tell whoever answers they can’t come in tomorrow and then hang up? Do they send a random text? Or do you have a specific procedure of who to call and how to get permission? It should be a part of your employee handbook, including who to call, how much notice to give, and what happens if you don’t follow the procedure.
  • A specific communication tool. Older employees might prefer the phone, while younger ones want to send a text message. It can be difficult to field all of the information across different communication platforms. Be sure your employees understand what method to use when communicating schedule changes. When I Work allows you to find replacements on the go. Once you are notified that someone can’t make a specific shift, you can turn around and notify eligible employees immediately that you are looking for a replacement.
  • A policy on behind-the-scenes changes. If an employee finds a shift replacement without your help, does that create a problem for you? If it does, make sure they know you must be aware of the schedule change. If it doesn’t, great. Some employees may find friends to work their shift when it arises. Still, you need to stay on top of this to know whether or not you have an employee who is abusing the schedule. It is easy for that “friend” to start to feel resentment, even if they keep taking the shift.
  • An understanding on what scheduling abuse is. Your employees need to know what you consider to be too much as far as schedule changes, and under what circumstances changes aren’t allowed. Be clear in the handbook about what you consider schedule abuse.

Basically, as long as employees know what you expect from them if they need to change the schedule, and that you won’t be giving them a hard time within the policy limits you’ve set, things will go smoothly.

If you notice a great employee struggling with a particular shift on a particular day, consider that you need to permanently adjust the schedule and avoid putting them there at all. The dread of asking for a schedule change can make an otherwise great job lose its luster. Make it easy for your great employees, if you can, but taking note of times when they consistently can’t work and see if you can find a different scheduling arrangement.

7. Find employees who are interested in working additional shifts.

Some employees have lives that are complex and busy and they are not going to be interested in changed or extra shifts. They shouldn’t be penalized for this. Instead, find employees who are:

  • Willing. Not all employees want to pick up extra hours. You don’t want someone working who doesn’t want to be there; it will affect the other employees and customers. Ever been to a restaurant and had a server complaining about how much they had to work? It’s not a pretty experience.
  • Flexible. Some employees have more flexible lives and are able to take on shifts. Others may want to, but their flexibility is limited.
  • Qualified. You must know which employees are qualified to work in available slots in the schedule.

You can manage this data in a spreadsheet or even something as basic as a list on a piece of paper, referencing it to use for a phone call or text message.

The When I Work app makes quite simple by offering up available shifts to the employees you’d like to offer them to. Send it out to the list and the first to respond will get the shift.

8. Make it easy for employees to access the schedule.

Is your schedule a piece of paper tacked to a break room wall? Do your employees have to frequently stop in or call your business and ask other employees to run back there and check the schedule? This wastes time–both the employee on the clock who has to stop working to relay the schedule, and for the employee not on the clock.

Making your schedule available online so that everyone can access it easily from where they are is a huge help. Additionally, sending out alerts or messages to let them know when changes you’ve made affect them help, too. Employees are busy; they might forget to check if you don’t personally message them.

You might consider:

  • When I Work: It’s the easiest way to schedule, communicate, and track time with your employees. With When I Work, your employees get 24/7 access to their work schedules via their smartphones and the web app. They also get shift reminders, can clock in and out from their own devices, and can use the app to make schedule change requests (swaps, drops, and time off). To make scheduling even easier, the auto-assign feature automatically assigns unpublished OpenShifts to employees for you to review and publish.

Save 8 hours/week by scheduling with When I Work

Sign up and schedule your employees for free.

  • Google Drive: Using a spreadsheet or a Google Doc, you can create a schedule in the cloud and share it with your employees. Set it to read only for them, and use the various features (comments, notes, etc.) to help with communication. Google spreadsheets, for example, will send an email to a person if you mention them in a comment using their handle. You can also notify everyone who has access to your online schedule when changes are made to a document. Employees can use the mobile app for Drive to monitor the schedule, as well as their computer. While it’s not a high-tech solution, it is simple, free, and something you can do right now to create more accessibility for all of your employees.
  • Windows OneDrive: Similar to Google Drive, you can create your spreadsheet or document in the cloud and give specific employees access to it. Employees can use the mobile app or any web browser to check the schedule.


Scheduling problems lead to unhappy employees and, ultimately, unhappy customers. You want neither, because both are costly to replace when they leave. When it comes to scheduling, flexibility, communication, and understanding are the key to keeping everyone happy.

Employee scheduling tips: FAQs

Q: What is the “Schedules That Work Act”?

A: The “Schedules That Work Act” is legislation introduced by the U.S. Congress aiming to protect employees from unpredictable scheduling techniques. It was created in response to concerns about employee scheduling challenges.

Q: What is scheduling abuse?

A: Scheduling abuse can originate from either the employee or the employer. Employee-initiated abuse includes behaviors such as leaving early multiple times a week, avoiding tough shifts, or frequently requesting last-minute changes without legitimate reasons. 

On the other hand, employer-initiated abuse includes practices like on-call scheduling without guarantees, last-minute cancellations, and constantly updating schedules at the last moment.

Q: Why is it important to know your business when scheduling?

A: Knowing your business is essential to schedule effectively. It helps determine busy hours, days, and seasons, and ensures you allocate the right number of employees for specific tasks. This prevents understaffing or overstaffing, both of which can affect productivity and profits.

Q: How can understanding employees’ personal schedules help in employee scheduling?

A: Knowing your employees’ personal schedules, like when they have classes or need to care for their kids, allows you to schedule shifts more compassionately. This reduces the need for constant schedule changes and can improve employee satisfaction and retention.

Q: How can employers simplify the process of schedule changes?

A: Employers can simplify this by having a clear system for requesting changes, using a specific communication tool, and establishing policies on behind-the-scenes changes. Ensuring that employees understand what is expected when they need a schedule change can prevent misunderstandings and make the process smoother.

Q: How can employers identify employees open to working extra shifts?

A: Employers can keep a record or database of employees who have expressed a willingness or shown flexibility in taking up extra hours. This list can be referred to whenever there’s a need to fill in gaps in the schedule quickly.

Q: What is the advantage of using When I Work for scheduling?

A: When I Work offers features like 24/7 schedule access, shift reminders, and an auto-assign feature for OpenShifts. Employees can also make schedule change requests and clock in/out directly from the app, making the scheduling process more efficient.

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