Shift Planning: 6 Steps to Plan Shifts Like a Pro

Labor costs are all over the place. Some employees are no-shows. Others are quitting. And instead of dealing with these serious management issues, you’re hunched over your desk, wasting time on a spreadsheet to plan next month’s shifts.

Sounds like a disconnected mess, but it’s not.

Shift planning is at the core of it.

Poorly-planned shifts are where a lot of your labor cost problems come from. Low productivity, bad attitudes, spotty employee reliability—it’s all woven together.

Shift planning is often relegated to nothing more than a chore. But in reality, it’s a technique that could flip that whole stressful script on its head. 

Use this guide to find out how shift planning can help you and learn:

What is shift planning?

Shift planning is used in industries that rely on shift work, such as hospitality, healthcare, or service industries. It simply means that you are scheduling out your employees to cover the work that needs to be done. 

Business owners or managers are usually the ones who take care of shift planning. Over time, shift planning has moved from handwritten paper schedules to spreadsheets to automated apps that make the process easier and more fluid.

That’s the overview, of course. 

What it comes down to, though, is that there are a lot of moving parts. You have to balance employee time off, overtime, vacation requests, and customer demand. Ideally, shift planning means you have a system that integrates all of these concerns by caring about the individual employee as well managing what each shift requires.

Whether you’re using a spreadsheet or an app, shift planning should be more than filling in a chart and plugging open shifts with random employees. It’s about matching employees with shifts in a way that’s ideal for everyone involved. 

There are a lot of tools and techniques you can use to make your business more competitive, but getting your shift planning right is the most basic and effective.

Benefits of shift planning

As mentioned, shift planning is more than sticking names on a chart. It’s planning, not indifference. There’s a method to the madness, and that method means shift planning has benefits when it’s done right.

Control labor costs

Poorly-planned shifts lead to two costly errors: understaffing and overstaffing.

If a shift doesn’t have enough workers, you’ll end up with overtime expenses as well as customer dissatisfaction. Both of those hit your bottom line. When you manage your labor costs (and deal with overtime issues), you really start to appreciate a well-planned schedule.

On the flip side, loading a shift with too many workers means you’re paying for labor you don’t need.

While you can easily see how under or overstaffing leads to visible problems, it can also contribute to employee turnover or overall dissatisfaction. Working employees too hard, or having too many on a shift so some don’t have to work as much, creates internal problems that fester.

Increased productivity

One of the top benefits of shift planning is increased employee productivity.

Having enough workers, with the right skills to meet customer demand, means you have a productive team. But there’s more to it than that.

Workers who want to work the shifts they’ve been assigned (or chosen, as we’ll discuss in a bit) are more productive. They feel like they have control over their life, and that you’ve heard their input on what shifts they prefer to work. There’s a feeling of ownership and responsibility when it comes to their work, that their voice matters.

The opposite of this is simply assigning people to shifts without any planning or concern for preference, skills, work-life balance, or other considerations.

Increased flexibility

If you’re using the right shift planning tools, you can inject some flexibility into your business. And that flexibility is a must-have in these increasingly changing and unpredictable times.  

As you’ll see, depending on how you choose to plan shifts, you may be able to adjust your shifts quickly based on fluctuating demand.

How to get started with shift planning

Each business and industry has its own unique challenges, so not everyone is going to take the same approach to planning shifts. However, when it comes to scheduling your employees, a basic path to success is similar for everyone.

1. Review your labor data

Before you do anything, take a look at your labor data to get an understanding of customer demand and other trends in your current workforce.

Here’s what you’re looking for:

  • Customer demand (both daily, weekly, and seasonally). High demand means more on shift.
  • Employees’ preferred (or despised) shifts. You’ll see this indicated in shifts with the most no-shows or swaps.
  • Skill sets required by each particular shift. You may need qualified individuals of a particular nature for each shift.

Some of this might not be made clear from the data you gather through attendance or sales records, but don’t worry. That takes us to the next step.

2. Consider your employees’ shift preferences 

Talk to your employees. They’re the ones working the floor, and they have valuable input that even the best data doesn’t reveal. 

They know which shifts they don’t like, and why. They might be able to alert you to a problem in a shift, whether it’s how it’s defined in the day (or night), or how well you’ve staffed it. You might think you got the numbers just right based on data, but you could be under or overstaffing it and haven’t caught on to the problem quite yet.

Remember, the goal for shift planning isn’t just to perfectly meet customer demand, but to also reduce employee turnover and increase productivity. Find out what makes them happy (and what irks them), and you’ll get a better idea of how to build your shifts.

3. Choose a shift plan

Now that you have an idea of what customer demand and employee preference are, you can structure your shifts. If you already have your shift structure in place, you can use that information to adjust within it.

Again, each industry will be unique. Some run 24/7 and others might simply require a morning and afternoon shift over a week or two. Some might require multi-day shifts (e.g. three off, four on), overnight shifts, split shifts, swing shifts, shift overlap—there are actually many approaches to shifts. 

4. Accommodate shift changes 

No matter how well you plan your shifts, your employees are always going to need adjustments. From pre-planned time-off requests to emergency call-outs, you’ll need a way to accommodate for shift changes. If you’re building the work schedule manually in a spreadsheet or on paper, this could cause some headaches, so you’ll need to be prepared.

You can always have some backup plans for shifts, with a list of employees you can call in. That’s fine for planned updates, but not an ideal situation for last-minute changes. Your best bet is to use a scheduling app like When I Work, so you can allow your employees to trade shifts right within the schedule. They’ll be able to swap or drop shifts, and other employees can volunteer to take those shifts. This gives your workers a voice over their schedule, which creates happier teams.  

5. Accommodate fluctuating demand

If there’s one constant in running a business, it’s change. Especially when you’re dealing with customer demand. Planning shifts to account for fluctuating demand always feels tricky, but it’s important to think about. Being under or overstaffed is not something you want on a consistent basis.

Make sure your shift planning is taking into account those times when demand seems to fluctuate the most. You want to be sure you have the data and insights you need to handle these times appropriately. Your shift planning system needs to be nimble enough to let you make quick changes so you can make sure you have the right contingencies in place. 


6. Choose the best shift tools

At this point, you’re ready to choose the tools you’ll use for shift planning. 

Yes, this is the last piece. It’s easy to put the cart ahead of the horse and let the tool set the course for your shifts, but it’s better to start with data, employee input, and structure, and then decide on the tool that serves you (so that you don’t serve the tool).

You’ll want to find a method or tool that accounts for everything so far. And that leads us to our next section on the best software for this purpose.

Best shift planning software

It’s entirely possible you’re going to stick with spreadsheets to plan your shifts. That may work for you.

But don’t forget: labor costs are almost always going to be your biggest expense—20%-35% of gross sales—and shift planning is in direct control of much of those costs. You can’t afford to get it wrong. Shift planning has moved beyond paper charts and spreadsheets.

When I Work is a tool that’s going to save you serious time and will reduce labor costs by helping you adjust quickly to changing customer demand, even as you make your employees happy with better scheduling. 

How does our shift planning app do this?

It starts when you set up the shift schedule framework. Set restrictions and requirements for overtime, swaps, drop shifts, and more. Then, let employees choose (or swap) the shifts they want using the app.

You build in what you need based on the trends and data, and the employees take it from there. It gives them great work-life balance, putting them in control of their life, while you get the coverage you need without surprise labor costs. Plus, you’ll start gathering even better labor data for future shift planning adjustments.

It’s easy to plan shifts like a pro when you have a tool with everything built in to make the whole process a snap, and you can get started for free today!


Shift planning is one of the keys to making your business successful. Not only will having the right plan help you bottom line, but it will also increase employee satisfaction and improve the customer experience. So how do you make sure you get it right?

The first place to start is to find the right way to plan shifts for your business. Using a scheduling app like When I Work helps you build the work schedule faster and update your shift plan quickly when you need to, in a way employees appreciate. You can try When I Work for free and see how it can help your business. Start your free 14-day trial today!  

Start your free 14-day trial of When I Work! Click here to start scheduling your employees today.

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