Design an employee schedule that works

Radhika Sivadi

3 min read ·


When your store's extended hours collide with federal regulations regarding breaks and overtime, it makes scheduling employees tough. Retailers have to be especially careful to make sure they have enough staff to serve customers without losing profits to overtime.

Whether you use computer scheduling software, a simple Excel program, or a sheet of paper, follow these steps to create a system that works for you and for your employees:

  1. Set your hours. The kind of products you sell, as well as the competitive landscape, will determine your hours of operation. Will you be closed one day a week? Two days? On certain holidays? Most retail locations do a significant amount of business on weekends and, depending on the type of products you sell and your location, you may elect to stay open late on weeknights. You will also want to determine ahead of time for which holidays you will be open, when you will run holiday sales, and when you will close early.
  2. Set staffing levels. Next, determine how many employees are needed at a given time and whether you can get by with part-timers or need only full-time staffers.
  3. Understand the law. Prior to creating an employee schedule, you will need to familiarize yourself with all state employment laws pertaining to work hours, employee leave, overtime pay, and age requirements.

Creating the schedule
Once you have your own schedule in place and have established ground rules for your employees, you can create the employee schedule. To do this, you will need to:

  • Have enough personnel to cover busier times of the day.
  • Have enough personnel for sales, special promotions, and busier times of the year, such as the holiday season.
  • Consider who is on leave: sick leave, medical leave, disability leave, family leave, military leave, maternity leave, adoption leave, school leave, and emergency or disaster leave. You must also consider vacations and religious holidays that employees may need to take off.
  • Consider all other activities that may reduce your staff at any given time. For example, if you have several students working for you, finals week may mean that you lose half of your employees. Know ahead of time when employees are likely to need time off.

Once you write a schedule, make sure that your needs are covered with enough sales staff, stock people, and cashiers. If you train your employees to handle various responsibilities, you are in a much better position when one of your scheduled cashiers calls in sick. Flexible staffers are valuable. For ideas about cross-training employees, see How to Welcome Employees on Board.

It may also be in your best interest to provide incentives for employees who rarely call in sick or rarely need to change their schedules. You will also want to have backups for your schedule available. These may be part-timers with the flexibility to come in as needed. Hiring a diverse group of employees, such as a mix of students, full-time sales help, and senior, lets you cover your needs and those of your customers.

If possible, set up a regular routine whereby the same employees work on a set schedule each week. Of course, this gets more difficult as your business grows. As for lunch hours and breaks, make sure to stagger the schedule to properly cover all jobs at all times.

Set ground rules
Once you know your hours of operation, let employees know your rules about changes to the schedule. Can employees trade shifts with one another? How long are lunch breaks? How much flexibility will you grant about changing their hours? How much advance notice do you expect if an employee will be missing a shift?

Make sure your employees realize how important it is that they show up on time for all shifts. Explain that punctuality and attendance will be part of their annual review. For some guidelines on making reviews fair and effective, see Performance Reviews: A Guide for Managers.

Since there is tremendous turnover in many retail locations, more and more owners are trying to create a reasonably flexible structure. In fact, Best Buy has started experimenting with a program it calls ROSE, "results-only work environment," which allows workers to arrange their own schedules with their bosses in advance. This program has been successful at the corporate level but is still in the experimental stages at the retail locations. You may decide to adopt a flexible program, provided that you have sufficient guidelines to ensure you are always adequately staffed.

Ultimately, your employee schedule should meet your business needs without being overly rigid. Retail owners and managers must walk a fine line to ensure that the workflow remains steady while the turnover remains low. It takes time to train new employees, so keeping your current staff happy is part of the process. The best advice is to plan ahead, and ask your employees to do the same, so that you don't find yourself suddenly short-staffed.

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Radhika Sivadi