Scheduling hourly staff is a difficult balancing act for managers. On the one hand, you have to preserve margins by keeping the schedule lean and assigning only as many people as you need to meet customer demand. That means you sometimes need the flexibility to change the schedule in the days leading up to a shift. On the other hand, employees need flexibility too. Last minute scheduling changes make it harder for them to meet family obligations, work a second job, make it to class, or manage other aspects of their daily lives. But a reasonable shift swap policy can enable managers to meet the needs of both their business and their employees.

Some managers may think that allowing shift swaps creates too much uncertainty for the business. However, you probably do more damage overall by not giving employees some control over their schedules. In one survey of retail managers, 62% said they’d had sales associates quit due to ongoing scheduling conflicts. Data shows that replacing someone in that kind of high-turnover, hourly position costs about 16% of the employee’s annual pay, which translates to between $2,000 and $3,500 for one employee making $10 per hour. If your scheduling practices are contributing to higher turnover, the total costs will probably lose you more in the long run than shift swapping would. And as we’ll see, shift swapping may not be a drain on your business at all.

But if you’re going to implement a shift swap policy, the question remains: How do you balance the needs of the business against employees’ needs for flexibility?

How a win-win shift swap policy adds value

Last year, researchers from the Center for WorkLife Law teamed up with The Gap to answer that question for themselves. In addition to implementing rules around schedule stability — for instance, disallowing on-call shifts — they gave employees at several Gap locations access to a smart phone app that let them offer shifts they didn’t want to all their co-workers, who could grab them on a first-come, first-served basis.

Both enthusiasm and participation among employees was high: during the 30-week trial period, 62% of employees used the new shift swapping app. The company was concerned that older employees would be reticent to participate; surprisingly, 46% of workers over the age of 50 used the app to swap shifts. 95% of part-time associates said the ability to trade shifts helped them adjust their work schedules around their personal lives, while 97% praised the system for helping them get more hours when they wanted them. Overall, shift swapping appeared to be a huge win for staff.

From the business’ point of view, the shift swap policy didn’t do much to disrupt store operations. 72% of shifts posted a week or more in advance were picked up by other employees — though that number dropped to 50% for shifts posted one to three days in advance, and fell to 30% for shifts posted a day or less in advance. So while their odds dropped if they waited until the last minute, the data shows that employees could usually find someone to cover a shift. In many of those cases, employees likely just wouldn’t have shown up for work — and anecdotally, managers reported a sharp decrease in no-call, no-show absences when testing the new policy.

Perhaps most surprisingly, giving employees more control over their schedules seems to have actually improved performance for the participating Gap stores. Sales rose 7% at these locations — not from any increase in foot traffic, but due to better conversions and larger purchases. This suggests that salespeople were more effective when shift swapping was available to them, perhaps due to lower stress or heightened enthusiasm for the job.

What should your shift swap policy look like?

The Gap’s experience shows that shift swapping can benefit both the employees and the company. You just need to come up with a policy that gives staff as much flexibility as possible while still ensuring the company’s needs are met.

To that end, there was one key downside of The Gap’s experiment that you should know about as you write out your own shift swap policy. Some managers reported that they often didn’t have the right people in place, as the shift swap policy removed their control of the roster. As one manager put it, “I have A players and F players, and recently I’ve been getting a lot of F players walking in the door at the same time…”

If you’re a manager, you can probably relate to this. Your staff all have varying levels of experience, training, and skills. When you build the schedule, you try to account for that and make sure you always have at least some employees you can rely on to do their jobs effectively, without consulting you — especially if the shift is going to be busy.

With that in mind, here are some of the rules you may want to consider adding to your shift swap policy:

  • Limit who can swap shifts with whom. This gets at the issue we raised above: You don’t want every employee to have access to every shift. At the very least, staff can’t swap shifts with someone who works a different position from them. You may also want to limit staff to swapping shifts with someone who has similar experience, training, or performance. If you use a shift swap app or workforce management software, you can probably set it to automatically limit shift swaps based on these characteristics. But if you’re managing shift swaps manually, this could get tricky.
  • Require manager approval. If you can’t automatically limit shift swaps to employees of the same position or skill level, you may need to tell employees they have to get approval on shift swaps from you or whoever the manager is for that shift. Even if you can manage those nuances automatically, you may want give managers veto power in case unforeseen circumstances render a specific shift swap unworkable.
  • Create a deadline. We recommend telling employees that they have until, say, 12 hours before a shift starts to trade it to someone else. For one thing, managers need to be able to look at the final roster and plan for the day ahead, without the risk it changes in the interim. Plus, the data from the Gap case study shows that shifts are unlikely to be picked up this close to game time, so why let employees set themselves up for disappointment?
  • Include sensible limits. You’ll want to make sure your shift swap policy includes rules for how many hours people can take on. For instance, you should prevent overworking by limiting employees from working too many consecutive days or shifts — this is especially important if their job has any safety concerns. If your business has a “no overtime” policy, you should account for that as well. Likewise, you should include rules to prevent people from putting too many shifts up for grabs at once — the shift swap policy should never be a stand in for requesting time off.
  • Put the responsibility on employees. Let staff know that the person whose name is on the schedule is the one responsible for filling the shift. Employees may come to you with stories of misunderstandings or broken promises when it comes to shift swapping, but it’s not up to you to listen and assign blame. Make it clear that employees will bear the consequences of any shift-swapping snafus.

You may have other rules to add based on the unique complexities of your business. But regardless of what those rules are, you need to make sure they’re clear, concise, and easy to understand. As a rule of thumb, try to make sure your shift swap policy fits onto one page — anything more than that is probably too complicated.

Make it work for both sides

Businesses need stability and reliability in scheduling, while employees need the flexibility to adapt to life’s changing circumstances. But these requirements don’t have to be at odds. A carefully planned shift swap policy can accommodate both sides and ensure that both the business and the staff get the schedule they need.

Team Nowsta

Nowsta is the easiest way to schedule, manage, and pay hourly staff.

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