How to schedule staff in a fast-paced, ever-changing workplace

Anna Roberts

Apr 2020 ⋅ 6 min read

Many of the country’s trickiest rotas are in businesses and organisations where the standard 9-5 simply doesn’t cut it, and there’s no such thing as business as usual. Demand, and the resources available to meet that demand, change quickly. And with standards to meet — whether for service or regulatory reasons — coordinating the rota can sometimes feel like a never-ending battle.

During this public health crisis, some sectors (namely healthcare and essential retail) are finding that their usual rota management processes aren’t holding up in the face of high levels of sick leave, rapidly increasing demand, and other changes brought about by social distancing rules.

In this article, we’re going to look at the most important parts of rota planning in such a fast-changing environment. We’ll mainly talk about sectors like healthcare and care homes, but it all applies to many other types of businesses, too, such as essential retail.

Three priorities

When you’re managing a rota that changes at least daily, there are three things you should focus your energies on. Sure, other things are important to get right, but without these basics your ever-changing rota will barely be functional.

  1. Can staff access the most up-to-date rota at all times? Are they notified when it’s updated?
  2. Does the rota use accurate and up-to-date data? Can staff rely on it to be correct?
  3. Who is responsible for which parts of rota planning and leave management? Can any tasks be assigned to other managers, supervisors, or the employees themselves?

#1 Access

If your rota changes often, staff need to be able to view the most up-to-date rota quickly and easily — and ideally, they’ll be notified whenever a change is made.

Pinning the latest rota to the wall or only allowing access while on site isn’t good enough if your schedule changes frequently — not only is this frustrating for your staff, but you’ll be inundated with calls asking you to confirm shift times.

Instead, the rota needs to be available on a cloud service — whether you upload a spreadsheet to online storage services like Dropbox or build the rota within a cloud service such as Google Sheets. We recommend the latter option so you don’t need to complete the extra ‘upload’ step.

The platform you choose also needs to be mobile-friendly so staff can check their shifts from their smartphones as well as desktop PCs.


To reduce mix-ups and save you and your staff time, the rota system you choose should also automatically notify staff when the rota’s been updated. For example, if your rota is in Google Sheets, employees with access can go to Tools → Notification Rules and receive an email whenever a change is made. If you’re a little more technically minded, you could also write a script or macro that sends emails when particular conditions are met.

If you’re struggling with notifications, rota planning software is the best route to take. Notifications are sent automatically when a shift is published, changed or deleted — but only to the relevant employees. Employees can also tinker with their notification settings so they’re informed of shift changes through their preferred channel, whether that’s text message, email, push notification, or a couple of them in tandem.

#2 Accuracy and reliability

There’s no point improving access to the rota if staff can’t rely on it to be correct. This problem’s more difficult to fix, particularly if you’re scheduling dozens, or even hundreds of employees.

To build a reliable, accurate rota, you need information for each employee, including:

  • Roles they’re qualified to work
  • Locations they can work at
  • Contracted hours
  • Dates of any booked annual leave
  • Dates of any booked training/other absences

You also need to know:

  • Required staff coverage across the entire period
  • Your staffing budget

That’s a lot of information to collate, and in fast-paced teams, it changes all the time. You need to build bridges between each of these sources of data, and store it in a single place (if possible), which you then use to build the rota. Ideally each of these systems would feed through into the central ‘store’ automatically.

If you use rota planning software, you can combine things like HR data, leave dates, and contracted hours information with your rota, so you can instantly see which staff are available and qualfied to work on any particular day or shift.

You can also do this in software like Google Sheets with an array of different spreadsheets, Google Forms, and some macros or scripts.

With so many sources of information, and so many different ways to tackle the ‘accuracy’ issue, your best bet is to dedicate some time to evaluating your whole rota planning system. If that’s not possible, try to implement some quick fixes for now:

  • Use a cloud-based rota planning platform and import current employee information, leave data, shifts and existing time data where feasible
  • Use a single channel for receiving and processing leave requests, whether it’s email, a Google Form, or rota software — make sure it’s accessible for everyone.
  • Ask all staff members to ensure their contact details and personal information are up to date.

And if you have some time to spare, we recommend taking bigger steps:

  • Map out the entire flow of relevant data through your team, and who’s responsible for updating each route. Where can employees request leave? Who processes these requests? Who informs the rota coordinator of annual leave? What format is the leave data sent to you in?
  • Make a note of every instance of manual data entry along each branch. Think about where you could simplify these data flows and eliminate manual data entry, which as well as being time-consuming can lead to mistakes.
  • Investigate tools like Zapier and IFTTT to automate data transfer between different sources.
  • Evaluate the software you currently use for rota planning. Where do inaccuracies slip in here, at the final stage? Does it prevent you from scheduling staff in roles they aren’t qualified for? Does it warn you if there’s a clash of shifts, or if an employee’s on holiday when they’ve got a shift scheduled? If not, look into other options, like macros, scripts, or other rota planning software.

These long-term solutions take work and coordination across teams, and in a rapidly changing environment, it’s rare that you’ll have the time to sit down and carry out such a thorough evaluation. But if you can, it’ll drastically help with the reliability of your rota — which is key in such an environment.

#3 Know your responsibilities — and delegate some

As we alluded to above, rota planning responsibilities tend to extend beyond the main rota coordinator, with other managers and supervisors responsible for various parts of the process, particularly leave management and approving shift changes.

Even if you don’t have time for a full review of rota planning at your workplace (as mentioned above), make a list of different staff members or groups and the responsibilities they have. Make sure that employees know who to contact about various rota planning issues, and check that the information in your employee handbook is up to date.

Delegating responsibilities

If other managers or supervisors are better suited to understanding the rota requirements of their team, delegate some responsibilities to them; it saves everyone’s time. Control permissions using the tools in your spreadsheet software, such as password protection and view/edit permissions based on email addresses. If you use rota planning software, you have complete control over the data that managers can view and edit.

Self-service rota planning

You can go a step further and give employees more of a say in their shifts, with ‘self-service’ rota planning. There are a few ways you can do this, but bear in mind that most require online rota software — it’s very tricky to do this using a spreadsheet.

  • Publish ‘open shifts’ that qualified staff can claim on a first-come, first-served basis, instead of assigning 100% of the shifts yourself.
  • Have staff share their availability to work, which you can see on the rota as you build it.
  • Give staff the option to say they’re unavailable for a shift, directly on the rota.
  • Let staff arrange shift swaps between themselves — but you still get the final say, if you prefer.

Wrap up

In a fast-paced business, the rota is never set in stone. That’s why you need it to always be available to employees, whether they’re at their desk or out and about. And when they check it, they need to be able to trust that their shifts are correct. If not, they’ll ring you or message you to make sure the rota’s accurate — and no one’s got time for that.

And when the rota is adjusted, it needs to be done quickly and accurately. Delegating some responsibilities to other supervisors or employees means that the rota more accurately reflects the needs of each team.

We’ve shown you some quick fixes and longer-term remedies to scheduling when shifts keep shifting. We know we’re biased, but online rota planning software is probably the best tool you can use to tackle the problems of rota accessibility, accuracy, and easy delegation.

Head to to learn more.