You’ve got better things to do than build your staff rota - but there’s no avoiding it!
Sure, it’s easy enough to plan a staff rota if all your employees work nine-to-five, Monday to Friday - but you still need to cater for leave requests and holiday management.
While that sounds straightforward enough, even employing a single hourly worker starts to complicate matters. Now it’s essential for you to track hours worked during each pay period to make sure staff are being paid correctly.
When you rely on part-time or hourly staff to run your business, rota planning becomes perhaps the most important admin task there is.
The increasing popularity of flexitime and other flexible working arrangements means that staff schedules are becoming more important in traditional office environments, too.
Despite this ever-present and growing need for employee schedules, many companies still struggle with rota planning and management.
In fact, the average rota takes over five hours a week to plan and manage - that’s more than 11 days each year.
It’s little wonder that managers hate building rotas.
There’s an alternative.
Rota building doesn’t have to be time consuming. It shouldn’t be an admin task that you dread.
With some adjustments to your rota planning processes, you can cut your weekly rota planning time by two-thirds.
That’s what our complete employee scheduling guide will help you achieve.
This guide will look at...
We know that many small businesses find it hard to schedule staff quickly and efficiently - that’s why we assembled this guide.
We hope you find it useful!
Let’s get started.
Simply put, a staff rota should ensure that the correct number of staff with the required skills are working at the right time, subject to labour budget constraints.
If you manage the rota at your business, you’ll know that it’s not quite as easy as that.
So, what are the characteristics of an ideal rota from a manager’s perspective?
Rota mismanagement frustrates employees and might even cause a dip in morale — your rota needs to work for your staff, too.
Here’s what employees want from a rota:
These ten points act as the ultimate rota wishlist.
Now, go through the list and weigh up which points your current rota system achieves. Be honest!
Many businesses struggle to attain four or five entries on the list - and it can be difficult to imagine achieving all ten points.
However, some businesses are using today’s technology to plan highly efficient rotas that work for managers and employees alike.
Most importantly, this technology no longer costs an arm and leg - and it’s accessible to businesses with one or a million employees, and every company in between.
Of course, there’s no single rota building method that works perfectly for all businesses. It all depends on the size, complexity and structure of your rota.
Let’s look at your options.
Every retail store, hotel, GP’s surgery and cafe does their rotas slightly differently.
Whatever method you use to build your rotas, consider the reasoning behind your choice.
If your answer is “it’s how we’ve always done it,” then it’s probably time for a rethink.
Switching up your rota system is one of those tasks that’s easy to delay indefinitely. You’re just about managing with your current approach, despite its flaws, and the disruption caused by changing just doesn’t seem worthwhile.
By doing your research and finding a system that works for you, long term gains will quickly outweigh any short term disruption.
We asked almost 200 RotaCloud clients to tell us how they built their rotas before switching to RotaCloud. Here are the results:
So, you’re certainly not alone in using an Excel spreadsheet! Let’s look at each of these methods in more detail.
With more than half of businesses still using rotas built using Excel, it’s certainly a popular choice. Managers use this ubiquitous spreadsheet software to plan rotas on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, perhaps linking with other Microsoft software to communicate changes to employees. Excel can also be used to analyse attendance and other rota data.
One-in-five respondents use good old fashioned pen and paper to plan their rotas. Many rota managers prefer this tactile method of planning schedules, and it’s often quicker than using a spreadsheet - particularly if your team is small.
Google Sheets is the search engine giant’s spreadsheet software. It’s web-based, free, and contains many of the same features of Excel, but with a slightly different format and user interface. Sheets is cloud-based, so your rota is saved on a remote server and can be accessed by users with viewing privileges from anywhere. You can also give specific managers editing privileges as required.
According to our survey, Word-based rotas are just as common as schedules made in Google Sheets. Word is best used for simple rotas with few employees. Some managers use tables within Word to display the rota, while others simply use text or bullet points.
Rota management systems are stand-alone software packages designed specifically for rota planning. There are free and paid versions - online versions tend to charge monthly subscriptions and usually offer free trial periods.
Features vary depending on the system, but usually include leave management and time tracking alongside basic rota building features. Cloud-based rota systems can be accessed from any device with an internet browser or the relevant app.
On-premise rota management software works as above, but the software is hosted on your office PCs instead of in the cloud. These systems are often used by larger enterprises and tend to pre-date cloud solutions.
Here’s a table summarising your options:*
*Please note: this table displays information for a typical rota system of each type. It may not be accurate for all systems.
Whatever rota format you use, building an effective rota ultimately boils down to the same fundamentals.
Creating a rota from scratch is one of the more tedious (and challenging) administrative tasks at any business.
But if you’re switching to a new rota system, hiring your first employees, or don’t use rota templates, it’s an unavoidable task.
Diving head-first into rota building is tempting - you want to get it over and done with, after all. However, you’ll actually save more time (and build a better rota) if you take a more methodical approach.
Here’s how to do it. (Click here if you’re already a rota-building pro and want to skip this section.)
First off, you need to gather some figures and other information relating to the rota you’re building. This includes:
These bullet points dictate the number and variety ‘open shifts’ on your rota. These are the shifts you know you need to fill. Leave, availability, skills and roles all limit the employees who are able to work each shift. Hard-to-fill shifts should be assigned first.
Your labour budget should (ideally) be a guideline rather than a rule to rigidly follow. If you find that you’re constantly over budget, it points to a deeper problem at your company.
The more employees you have, the more difficult this process will be - but often building the rota is just the start of the process.
Once you’ve established your rota over a set period (usually a week, fortnight, or a month), it’s far easier to build the rota for future periods.
If your shift pattern is relatively straightforward, you should be able to duplicate your rota template across multiple periods without much trouble. You’ll need to make adjustments based on workload, staff availability and the other information we mentioned above, but the overall pattern should be the same. This should be a breeze if you’re using rota software.
A shift pattern adds certainty for employees and managers alike, but don’t forget to add rotations for shifts that are particularly disliked (or liked) by employees, so that your rota’s ‘fair’. For example, no-one enjoys working the Friday evening shift, so switch up which employees are assigned to it so that no-one works the shift more than twice in a row.
Sure, this may be common sense, but it’s easy to overlook the nuances of each shift when rota planning tends to be tedious and time-consuming.
Here’s where rota management errors start to creep in, and we begin to see a big difference in the efficiency of the various rota formats.
You need to have a system in place to manage every step involved in making a change to the rota, such as:
If you use a rota management system or Google Sheets with an array of add-ons, these tasks are relatively straightforward. You’ll spend far more time managing changes with Excel, Word, or pen and paper.
What’s important is that you have some kind of system in place to manage each of these steps. Employees and rota managers alike must be aware of how these systems work, so they don’t accidentally bypass them and use alternative approaches.
Here’s an example from Adventure Golf Island, an adventure golf complex based in Scotland.
The team used to use a spreadsheet for rota management, but found that making changes constantly led to confusion. Multiple rota versions were emailed out two or three times, leading to staff mistakenly following older versions of the schedule.
Adventure Golf Island switched to online rota software (RotaCloud) and immediately saw improvements in how rota changes were managed. Staff now receive notifications instantly when their rota is changed, and can check the rota online (on their PC, laptop, or smartphone), safe in the knowledge that they’re viewing the most recent version.
You don’t necessarily need to switch to specialist rota software to manage changes efficiently; you can set-up other systems, such as:
Whichever system you choose, stick with it for a while before making any changes or trying a different approach.
OK, that’s enough of the nitty-gritty of rota building. Now we’ll look at more general employee scheduling best practices that apply to almost every rota.
If you take anything from this guide, make it these five rules! They form the foundation of effective rota management, regardless of the platform you use.
If, after following all these tips, you still find rota management a huge chore, don’t resign yourself to struggling with staff schedules for years to come!
These time-saving tips will require you to switch up your approach to rota management, but in return you’ll free up hours every week.
First, try increasing the emphasis on self-service. At the very least, this can mean letting employees arrange shift swaps with their colleagues (subject to a manager’s final approval) or asking staff to add their contact details to your rota software.
You can take the self-service approach much further by allowing employees to claim their own shifts or swap shifts with colleagues at all times, subject to certain constraints. You can also have systems in place for employees to proactively share their availability patterns.
Self-service is made easiest through specialist rota software, but you might be able to figure out a self-service system for spreadsheet-based rotas or even pen and paper rotas.
Of course, the level of self-service you allow will depend on the nature of your business, its rota, and whether or not you trust staff to manage their own rotas!
It’s also smart to have a series of contingency plans in place for ‘rota emergencies’. These plans will help you stay calm when you’re set to be short-staffed at short notice
Think about situations such as:
Your contingency plans should help you quickly source employees and relief workers, or show you how to adjust shifts so that all hours are covered appropriately. You could even make backup recruitment plans - have job adverts written and ready to be published in case you suddenly need to hire extra staff.
Contingency planning may require an upfront time sink, but the hours of disruption saved certainly make it worthwhile in the long run.
Of course, you can’t predict and plan for every situation, but you know your business and are best placed to understand the form rota emergencies might take.
If you aren’t using rota software, save time by standardising admin processes such as holiday requests. Create holiday request forms and host them on your intranet or company shared folder. Try using Google Forms for this if you’re not sure where to start.
Make it clear that you won’t accept holiday requests made via any other method. The rota manager will find it straightforward to assess leave requests if they’re all submitted in a standard format.
If you build your rota with software, we recommend learning keyboard shortcuts to speed up the management process. For reference, here are some keyboard shortcuts for Excel (Windows, Mac) and Google Sheets. RotaCloud users will be familiar with using the shift key when adding shifts.
Now that you’ve built a rota that works for your business, you’ve done the hard part.
The next stage is optional, but it’d be a huge waste of valuable data if you skipped over it!
We’re going to look at how you should export, analyse and use your rota’s data to make business decisions, such as:
If your rota is scrawled across several Post-it notes, it’s probably not wise to base business decisions off this less-than reliable data source. However, if you use rota software (or a spreadsheet) for rota management, your data is likely to be reasonably accurate.
In rota planning, inaccurate data is often as a result of human error - you don’t want data filled with typos to form the basis of a business decision!
It’s also important to understand that scheduled hours aren’t the same as actual hours worked. To measure the latter, you need a system for clocking in and clocking out.
Clocking in and out is common for hourly workers in retail and hospitality. This might involve logging into a company PC, entering a PIN at a terminal or through a mobile app, or even via fingerprint or iris scanning. For most companies, however, paper timesheets are still the norm.
Recording actual hours worked on paper always gives you some data quality issues. Employees aren’t known to be 100% accurate or honest with their timesheets - they might claim they started at 9 am even if they were five or ten minutes late. This inaccuracy might seem insignificant, but when compounded across multiple employees and multiple shifts, the costs soon mount.
Another source of inaccuracy with paper timesheets emerges when inputting their data into a spreadsheet. Despite the manager’s best efforts, errors always sneak in when entering data in this way.
If your time data is collected digitally, that’s one source of error eliminated. It’ll also reduce time ‘theft’, as the time of each clock-in is automatically recorded by the system.
If you’re using a spreadsheet to collate time and attendance data, you’ll need to take the time to set up formulas to turn raw timesheet data into useable information. You’ll only have to use relatively simple functions to calculate payroll - but be certain that they’re accurate!
The easier alternative is to use rota software with a time and attendance add-on. Here’s how it works.
Essentially, clocking in and out data is automatically fed into the software as it’s collected. It can then be used for payroll or turned into graphs via the software’s reporting section.
This approach significantly reduces the chance of error while eliminating the need to transfer data to other software for analysis.
You can use spreadsheets to generate graphs based on the data in your rota. Reports fulfill a similar purpose in rota management software, but without the need to manually create or tweak the graph.
Graphs turn data (lists of numbers) into information (useful facts). Even the most mathematically-minded managers would prefer to see a visual representation of rota data over a long list of numbers!
You could create graphs and tables to see total hours per employee, location, by role, or in total. You can use these graphs to track attendance, leave uptake and allowances. If you track actual time worked, you can examine how actual hours worked weigh up against scheduled hours.
The possibilities are endless! In fact, there are so many metrics to track that it can be difficult to choose which to focus on. Here are some rota and attendance metrics you might want to investigate.
Using data to make decisions isn’t always the best idea. If you plan to use employee schedule data to make business decisions (such as dismissals), it’s worth bearing some things in mind…
DO look beyond numbers
Data doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t tell the whole story either. When making business decisions (particularly those that might determine whether or not an employee is fired), find out the rest of the story. Speak to employees. Talk to their supervisors and coworkers. Gain a complete picture before jumping to conclusions based on numbers alone.
For example, an employee might have a very high Bradford Factor score that is grounds for dismissal - but if they’ve been taking time off to care for a terminally ill family member, it’s hardly fair to fire them.
DON’T use low quality data
If you can’t trust that your data is reliable, complete and accurate, don’t take it into account when making important decisions. Admitting to your boss that you don’t have the figures to back up your arguments might sting, but at least you aren’t making an important business decision based on faulty data.
DO be careful with percentages
Percentages are a neat way of translating large figures into more palatable forms, but percentages can be misleading. Maybe an employee had a 200% increase in sick leave compared with a previous year. That sounds damning, but what if it means that the employee had two sick days instead of the previous’ year’s one day off? Always present percentages in context.
DON’T be selective with data
Your decisions should be informed by data. You shouldn’t pick and choose data to back up a decision that you’ve already made. If your boss (or your employees) find out you’ve been cherry picking data in this way, they won’t be happy.
To recap: you’ve chosen a format for your rota. You’ve built a schedule that works for managers and employees alike. You also understand how to analyse rota and time data, and how to use this data to make decisions.
All that’s left to cover is rota troubleshooting. Let’s solve your scheduling problems...
If you’re having specific rota problems, we’re here to help. Let’s take a look at some of the most common employee scheduling headaches and how to ease them.
Problem: Confusion over rota versions
UK Golf Academy Director Craig Stephenson’s biggest rota nightmare was confusion over rota versions. During the Christmas season in particular, Craig was concerned that some of his employees might not know about the amended version of the rota.
Wanting to avoid a stressful Christmas in the future, Craig looked for better options for version control. He settled on RotaCloud, employee scheduling software which automatically notifies employees of any changes to their shifts - even over Christmas!
Employees check one version of the rota and make a note of their shifts. They’re unaware of any more recent versions of the rota, meaning that the wrong staff turn up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Problem: Shift swapping confusion
Shift swapping is incredibly useful in most circumstances, but without manager approval, it can cause headaches - and make a mess of the rota.
Problem: Messy leave systems
If you’re often left short-staffed because your approach to leave management is a little chaotic, it’s time for a better system.
Problem: Time theft
You’ve got a strong hunch that certain employees regularly inflate their hours on their paper timesheets, but you’ve got no evidence that it’s taking place. You know that you can never eliminate paper timesheet fraud entirely, but you’re worried that your staff are starting to take advantage of your current system.
Problem: Employee availability is highly variable, so rotas often need to be amended
If students make up a significant portion of your workforce, you’ll know how frequently their timetables change. You want the rota to work with their schedules, but it’s a massive hassle to continually need to adjust the rota based on ever-changing availability patterns.
Problem: Rota planning is extremely time consuming
Sheffield Hallam’s Sports Operation Team manage 50+ employees across five locations. After switching to employee scheduling software from their spreadsheet-based rotas, they saved 40-50 hours each week on rota administration.
According to a RotaCloud survey, the average rota planner spends over five hours a week on rota planning (that’s before adopting RotaCloud, of course!). The more employees you manage, the trickier it is to assemble the perfect employee schedule.
Problem: Employees can only check the rota at work
The rota’s pinned to the staffroom noticeboard, and any amended rotas are simply placed over the top of the old version. This system works fine most of the time, and saves you the hassle of sending copies to staff, but you’re tired of having to field phone calls from staff double checking their shifts, or, worse, failing to check if the rota’s been updated at all.
Problem: Our current rota system is highly complex and only a couple of managers know how it works
Your rota system might work like a charm, but it’s not an easy system to learn how to operate. You’re concerned that you won’t know how to manage your spreadsheet or rota software if and when your current rota planners leave.
Problem: Our rota isn’t integrated with our timesheet/leave system/HR platform
It’s frustrating when different systems within the business can’t talk to each other. Every time you need to copy, paste and reformat data between systems you introduce more errors and waste more time.
You’ve made it to the final section of our employee schedule guide.
It’s been a long journey, so let’s look back upon the topics we visited:
We’ve shown that employee scheduling doesn’t need to be scary.
It doesn’t need to take up hours every week.
Instead, rota management can be quick and easy.
To achieve this, you need to put it in some work to set-up or overhaul certain systems - not just the rota system you use, but also your approach to leave requests, shift swaps and more.
But don’t let this act as a barrier.
Putting in work early on will reduce your rota headaches later. By setting expectations amongst managers and employees alike, you’ll minimise miscommunication and prevent costly scheduling mistakes.
We put this guide together to help all businesses get to grips with their rotas. There is no perfect rota management system for every business - it all depends on the nature of your rota and your specific requirements.
But if you have plenty of hourly staff working over one or more locations, we’d like to put RotaCloud forward for consideration.
We’ve worked hard to turn RotaCloud into a fully-fledged rota planning solution that’s incredibly user friendly. A simple interface disguises a wealth of features.
We’ve also added an impressive Time and Attendance system, letting you see how actual hours worked match up with what you planned on your rota.
With reports, leave management, availability options and dozens more features available, RotaCloud is one of the most comprehensive rota systems out there - without sacrificing ease-of-use.
Over 1000 businesses like yours use RotaCloud to improve employee scheduling.