There’s no quicker or surer way to bring your day to a grinding halt than a scheduling mishap.  Either something goes wrong with your “flawless” plan or the employee you were counting on has something else come up and you’re left shorthanded.  There’s nothing left to do but grin and bear it and try to find somebody to cover the shift until you can get things sorted.

Unfortunately, by the time you have a scheduling meltdown, there isn’t much you can do about it.  But too many of these meltdowns can leave your remaining workers feeling stressed, alienate your longtime customers, and add an incredible amount of stress to your job.

If these mishaps sound familiar, you’re not alone – every business runs into scheduling meltdowns from time to time.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t prevent or minimize them in the first place.  In fact, there are a number of things you can do to keep your small business running smoothly with fewer interruptions in service.

1. Double Check the Schedule

This advice sounds too simple to be useful, but many times, scheduling issues start with the boss (or the person who writes the schedule).  Either this person gets confused during the act of scheduling (for instance, by confusing an employee’s request for time off) or becomes overwhelmed, pushing out a finished schedule before it’s given a second look-over.  Either situation sets you up for scheduling employees when they can’t (or don’t want to) work or leaving yourself over- or under-staffed on certain days of the week.

Double checking the schedule after it’s created (but before it’s posted) takes just a few minutes out of your day, but can prevent some major headaches later in the week.  It’ll help you spot those glaring errors (such as scheduling one employee to work in two different locations at the same time) easily and give you a chance to fix them before the schedule is published.

To make this type of review much easier to conduct, ask employees to request time off in writing and keep those requests in a single location.  That way, you’ll have them on hand when putting the finishing touches on your next schedule.

2. Hold Employees Accountable

Your employees should be mature enough to be responsible for their own schedules.  That means that they should write the schedule down (if necessary), follow it, and bring any potential issues to your attention long before they become crises.  You should expect that much of your employees and they should know you expect it.

They should also be dedicated enough to their jobs (and, by extension, your business) to work when they’re scheduled.  If they can’t, then it should be their responsibility to find a replacement.  If they simply want to switch shifts for a non-emergency, they need to find the coverage for you.  This will give them a new understanding of how difficult it is to change a schedule at the last minute and will likely make them think twice about trying to do so in the future.

If your employees repeatedly fail at being responsible, it may be time to implement some serious disciplinary action which goes above and beyond a simple “talking to.”

To deal with true emergencies when they do arise, you should have a plan in place to quickly find a replacement worker.  This might be a call list of employees willing to take on overtime or it might be a manager who’s flexible enough to absorb the duties of the absent worker.  If you use a program like When I Work, finding replacement workers might be as simple as sending a text message alert out to all available employees.

The specifics of your situation will depend very much on your unique business, but just about any company can come up with a contingency plan with a little advanced planning.

3. Plan In Advance (Way in Advance)

Speaking of advanced planning, it’s shocking that so many small businesses still only post a schedule a week in advance.  You wouldn’t plan other important aspects of your life with so little forethought, but managers regularly require employees to structure their lives on a week-to-week basis.  This is a bad habit to get into.  Not only does it increase employee frustration, it also crunches your time frame considerably – only giving you a few days to respond to any conflicts that arise.

Instead, try writing a schedule at least two weeks in advance.  You can go even further out if you think it will help.  Many small businesses have adopted scheduling on a monthly basis.  It may mean that much more effort is needed to create a schedule, but by having things “set in stone” so far in advance, you’ll run into fewer meltdowns over time.

4. Avoid Splitting Shifts (and Employees)

Things get messy when you try to get tricky with the schedule.  Split shifts and multiple locations mean that you have to juggle even more in your head when you’re writing a schedule.  As a result, the chances that something will go wrong multiply.

While some business (including many of those in the service industry) must schedule employees for multiple locations or two shifts in the same day, it’s best to avoid it if you can.  This may mean having to hire extra employees, spreading work out across the week, or somehow rearranging appointments to fit your schedule better, but it may be worth it in the long run.  And I’d be willing to bet that most of your employees will appreciate the simplification.

5. Get (Digital) Help

The pen and paper may have been your friends for years, but digital scheduling options give you much-needed flexibility like you’ve never had before.  In particular, you may want to consider using scheduling software in order to keep up with your growing business.  Digital programs offer many different features that a pen and paper can’t match, such as automatically tracking preferred days off, logging time off requests, and even alerting you if you’ve double-scheduled a single employee.

By eliminating the paper schedule altogether, you’ll make it easier for your employees to stay on track and easier for you to make changes when things jump the rails.  It may be hard to break out of your old routines, but investing in your business in this way can save you tons of time and scheduling headaches.

Happy employees are good employees – and the key to keeping them happy is good scheduling.  A proper work/life balance helps your employees stay fresh, on top of their game, and ready to work.  It’s your responsibility as the boss to make sure they keep their noses to the grindstone, but it’s also your responsibility to ensure that work isn’t wearing them down.  Schedule well and you will be rewarded.

Chad Halvorson Chad Halvorson is the CEO of When I Work, a mobile employee scheduling and communication app. When I Work simplifies staff scheduling and communication for more than half a million people in restaurants, retailers, healthcare providers, and countless SMBs around the world. You can find Chad on Twitter.
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