Three essential tips for first-time rota planners

Anna Roberts & Phil Kendall

Apr 2020 ⋅ 4 min read

COVID-19 has changed work in almost every sector.

On this blog, we’ve already spoken about managing staff who are working from home for the first time. We’ve also talked about how businesses can use the UK government's various support schemes, including furloughing staff.

But plenty of other organisations find themselves in other new territory: having to operate a skeleton staff, or other new staffing arrangements, that meet customers’ or clients’ needs while keeping everyone safe.

Many schools, call centres, charities and online retailers fall into this bracket.

Rejigging staffing requires more thought about who should be working, and when. You might even need to plan a rota for the first time — at least for a couple of months or until things start to settle down.

So — you’re new to rota planning, but need something quick to set up that’ll see you through to the end of the crisis. And your new rota also needs to be as reliable and fuss-free as possible.

You’re in the right place.

#1 Don’t bother building a spreadsheet

However instinctual it might be, don’t immediately create a blank spreadsheet for your temporary rota. Instead, it’s probably more efficient to either use a pre-made template or proper online rota software, depending on how complicated your shift pattern is.

If you just want something simple to keep track of shifts, use a ready-made Excel or Google Sheets rota template. Spend some time tweaking it if you like, but don’t take hours and hours adjusting it or building your own bespoke solution — you’re not going to be using this rota for long, after all.

If your goal is to get a more complicated temporary rota built quickly, look into online rota software instead — it makes scheduling staff far quicker. Move shifts with drag and drop, copy complex patterns instantly, and add open shifts for staff to claim, if you like.

Rota software is less costly than you’d expect, and many providers (including us!) offer lengthy free trials, so the average cost over the period you’ll need a rota for will be relatively low.

Unless you’re an Excel pro, it’s really not worth the hassle of building your own spreadsheet rota from scratch, especially as this is a temporary situation, and not business as usual.

#2 Building a rota is usually pretty straightforward, but updating it isn’t

Most rotas for teams of, say, less than 20 people usually aren’t too complex or tricky to build, especially if you’re mostly concerned with staff coverage and not so worried about tracking hours or cutting costs.

But new rota-planners tend to struggle more when it comes to adjusting the rota, perhaps in response to an employee calling in sick or self-isolating, for example. That’s because you need to communicate all shift changes quickly and reliably — and that’s easier said than done.

Decide on a system that works for all your staff, but that can again be quite tricky — you can’t use Whatsapp if half your team aren’t on it, and you shouldn’t use emails if you don’t think your staff will read them promptly. Whatever method you choose, you need to be confident that your entire team will receive your updates about changes and cancellations — otherwise you risk staff showing up late, early, or simply not at all.

Again, the easiest solution is to use rota planning software that lets staff choose how to get notified of shift changes — whether through push, text, or email, or a combination of methods.

#3 Your rota doesn’t record hours worked — but you still need to

However good your rota is, it’s not an accurate picture of the hours your staff work. Staff might be early, late, or working overtime.

Even if you didn’t record time data in the past, your new working conditions may make it more important, for various reasons — such as safety, compliance, or just making sure staff are getting paid the right amount for their new working hours.

So, have a think about how you’ll record time. You can ask staff to fill in timesheets on paper, or use a clocking-in terminal on site. But both of these methods have their problems, whether with accuracy or simple hygiene!

Instead, at the moment it’s probably best to have staff clock in using an app on their smartphone — restricted by IP address or GPS, if you like —  that way, your team can clock in and out of their shifts quickly, securely, and safely, all while providing you with accurate data to run payroll from.


Whether you’re staggering hours, working from home half the time, or maintaining services with a skeleton staff, you need a rota. It might not be anything overly complicated, but it needs to work.

And yes, we know: when you read an article about rota planning on a website belonging to a company that makes rota planning software, you’re going to wonder if it’s a teensy bit biased.

The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is yes, but only because we genuinely believe that rota planning software will make things so much easier.

Save yourself the hassle: cut out the admin, emails, and phone calls, and take RotaCloud for a spin. It’s free for 30 days, and you don’t even need to enter payment info.

And if, at the end of all this, you use RotaCloud for the free trial and then decide to say goodbye once things have calmed down, that’s totally fine with us — we’ll just be glad to know that we helped out in some small way.