9 Best Practices for Creating Work Schedules (+ work schedule templates)

9 Best Practices for Creating Work Schedules

Plus: Free Employee Schedule Templates to Make Life Easy.

Creating Work Schedules

As a business leader, one of the most strategic things you can do is create a work schedule. According to David Maister, author and Harvard Business School professor, scheduling “is the place where the real strategic trade-offs between short-term profitability, client service, skill building, and retention are made.”

In other words, your weekly shift schedule deserves careful planning. When you schedule work could play a significant role in business outcomes. Employee schedules are especially impactful when it comes to retaining your talent.

The Big Picture

  • Employee work schedules are strategic tools to boost retention, performance, and productivity.
  • Creating a flexible strategy is the key to winning at schedule writing.
  • Software and downloadable templates can make writing schedules a cinch.

What is an employee work schedule?

A work schedule specifies the dates and times an employee is expected at work. Scheduling is a near-universal feature for workplaces. Your work schedule may determine your day-to-day responsibilities, in addition to your team.

It’s also a key factor in employee experience. Their schedule determines when they work, who they work with, and which clients they encounter.

Creating work schedules is one of the most important tasks for managers. Scheduling staff significantly influences day-to-day business operations. Creating a work schedule is a routine task, but it is still time-consuming.

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of schedule writing for the workplace. We also have some schedule templates to help streamline your process.

Work Schedule

Why Work Schedules Matter

Scheduling is extremely important to employee experience and business outcomes. Scheduled hours determine your direct collaborators (and can make or break the success of a team). For hourly workers, their schedule determines their income each pay period.

Research indicates that work schedules play a crucial role in employee retention. A recent study from the University of Chicago concluded, “The more hours employees work and the less hours fluctuate, the longer they remain employed.” Likewise, schedule predictability and flexibility impacts work/life balance, employee well-being, and work outcomes.

Types of Work Schedules

The type of work schedule may vary between different workplaces and different employees. Typically, a work schedule falls into 1 or more of the following categories:

  • Full-time. A full-time schedule consists of approximately 40 working hours per week.
  • Part-time. A part-time schedule typically consists of less than 35 hours per week.
  • Fixed. A fixed schedule consists of standardized, repeating shifts that do not vary week to week.
  • Flexible. A flexible schedule (a.k.a. flextime) allows employees to determine their working hours and days.
  • Floating. A floating schedule involves completing tasks on a non-weekly basis (i.e., machine maintenance).
  • On-call. An on-call schedule requires availability to be “called in” during specific times.
  • Rotating. A rotating schedule involves circulating employees between different shifts (i.e., day and night shifts).
  • Shift-based. A shift schedule requires employees to work in different time slots to fit hours of operation.
  • Split. A split schedule divides an employee’s day into 2 or more parts, with unpaid interludes in between.
  • Seasonal. A seasonal schedule requires employees to work for a temporary period, typically 6 months or less.
  • Alternative. An alternative schedule is any type of working arrangement that deviates from the traditional 40-hour workweek.
  • Compressed. A compressed schedule requires employees to work 35-40 hours in less than 5 workdays.
Best Practices to Create Work Schedules

How long does it take to create an employee schedule?

Creating an employee schedule is a complicated, tedious process for managers. Even though writing a schedule is a recurring task, research indicates that there is no way to predict how much time writing a schedule will take.

This is because of the unpredicted events that impact schedule fluctuations. For example, factors like PTO, employee turnover, and production process can create schedule conflicts.

Manual scheduling can take several hours to complete each week. Even if scheduling is automated, it can still lend itself to conflicts. Slight variations in employee availability requires communication to address, and response time is outside the scheduler’s control.

Some strategies can streamline the scheduling process. For example, using software to automate scheduling and manage PTO requests can be a significant time-saver. Many workplaces save time by repeating the same schedule each week with minimal variations.

Best Practices to Create Work Schedules

There may be no such thing as the perfect work schedule. However, you can make scheduling a fair process that makes most (if not all) of your employees happy.

Keep in mind: schedule flexibility is proven to increase both work productivity and retention. Likewise, 75% of shift workers would like a more stable and predictable schedule. With that in mind, these are our suggestions for winning schedule creation strategies.

1. Evaluate Employee Preferences

The first best practice of scheduling is to respect your employees’ preferences whenever possible. When someone is first hired, ask them to fill out a schedule availability form. (To make things easy, we’ve provided an example template in the next section.)

You should also audit employee availability frequently. Ask employees to update their availability on a quarterly basis. Encourage your employees to come to you immediately if a conflict arises.

2. Create a Fair Attendance Policy

Life happens. From time to time, your employees will need to miss work. They will also experience schedule conflicts that cause them to arrive late or leave early.

Some workplaces with shift schedules use a point system to punish employees for tardies and absences. However, such point systems can be problematic. They often don’t distinguish between causes for lateness or missed work, and can even be a violation of protected rights.

A fair attendance policy communicates that employees are expected to arrive on-time for scheduled shifts. It should also outline criteria for job abandonment (i.e., when failure to show up for work counts as a voluntary departure from the company), as well as disciplinary action (or what counts as “excessive absenteeism”). The Society for Human Resources Management is a good resource for creating an attendance policy.

3. Adhere to Labor Laws

When creating your schedule and absence policy, you should consult federal and state labor laws. As of 2023, 14 states require paid sick leave. Certain laws may also dictate how you go about creating schedules.

For example, in Michigan, the Employee Fair Scheduling Act states that schedules must be posted 14 days prior to the beginning of the workweek. Additionally, schedule modifications must take place more than 96 hours in advance of a given shift.

Other regulations may specify the amount of time between scheduled shifts. Regardless of law, it’s best practice to give employees at least 12 hours off between shifts. Research indicates that having less than 12 hours of rest before returning to work greatly increases the likelihood of occupational accidents.

4. Consider Workload

To create an effective schedule, you’ll need to determine when you’ll have the most staffing needs. Analyzing historical sales data will give insight into when you’ll have the most labor demand.

For example, if you’re writing schedules for a grocery store, you probably already know you’ll need extra staff around Thanksgiving. However, you might be surprised to learn that your shoppers tend to cause a rush on Saturdays at 2pm. By looking at your sales data, you’ll anticipate the crowd and know when you need all hands on deck.

Likewise, take project deadlines into account. This may reveal when schedules are tightest, like at the end of the month. With this insight, you can schedule to create workflows that optimize productivity and minimize disruption.

5. Publish Schedules Early

Publish schedules early and often. In fact, depending on where you live, this may even be required by law. A staggering 70% of shift workers report experiencing last-minute schedule changes. Unpredictable schedules hurt worker retention, and also can lead to under staffing.

Publish your new work schedule at least 2 weeks in advance. If possible, a month is even better. This will give employees ample time to anticipate potential conflicts and notify you of necessary changes.

6. Make Schedule Changes Easy

In addition to publishing your work schedule calendar as early as possible, make it easy for employees to swap shifts when needed. The option to conveniently alter their own schedules will not only improve your workforce’s availability. It also provides flexibility that will improve worker retention.

The best way to do this is to outline some ground rules for schedule changes. For example, for non-emergencies, employees should request changes a week in advance. You can also ask employees to coordinate their own shift changes by reaching out to co-workers who are available to swap.

Finally, you should create a system for documenting schedule changes, and update your official schedule to reflect the changes as soon as they’re final. We’ve provided a template for schedule change requests in the next section.

7. Avoid Common Schedule Errors

If you want to perfect your schedule writing technique, making them error-free is a no-brainer. Here are the 4 most common schedule errors to look out for:

  • Double-scheduling occurs when a single employee is scheduled for overlapping shifts.
  • Under scheduling occurs when employees aren’t scheduled for enough hours.
  • Over scheduling occurs when an employee is scheduled for more hours than they've agreed to work
  • Scheduling for the wrong position, like scheduling an entry-level employee as a shift leader.

Before publishing your schedule, double-check for these errors.

8. Note Who’s Willing to Work More

Want a win-win strategy for scheduling? Make a list of who’s willing to pick up extra work. If your shift is down a worker, you have a rolodex of employees to call on to fill the void.

This is especially helpful if you have part-time employees who work a shift schedule. A third of part-time workers would prefer to work more. Additionally, some full-time workers will gladly work longer hours in exchange for overtime pay.

We recommend polling your workers to see who’s open to extra shift every quarter. Encourage your workers to communicate with you about their evolving schedule preferences and availability.

9. Track Employee Time

Last but not least: use a time-tracking system to log employee time. For hourly employees and shift workers, a time clock is the most common solution.

A time clock will help you keep track of employee attendance, hours worked, and general productivity. This will help you optimize scheduling for business outcomes.

While a traditional punch clock might suit the needs of small businesses with one location, modern technology has given way to more advanced time clock software that can streamline multiple processes. For example, OnTheClock’s cloud-based time clock includes scheduling features, PTO tracking, and payroll integration.

In other words, time clock software with built-in scheduling can save you a lot of time.

Free Work Schedule Templates

Need help planning upcoming shifts? Here are six free employee work schedule templates to help.

Software for Creating Employee Work Schedules

If you’re ready to ditch manual scheduling, cloud-based software can help streamline the process


  • Designed with dispatchers in mind
  • $129/month for 5 users
  • 14-day free trial


  • Designed for appointment-based businesses
  • $49.99/month for 5 users
  • 14-day free trial


  • Designed for small businesses of all types
  • $35/month for 10 users
  • 30-day free trial

Ready to take the guesswork out of employee time tracking? Give OnTheClock a shot.

OnTheClock Employee Time Tracking

Written by

OnTheClock Team

OnTheClock is the perfect app for business that want to keep track of their employees' time without spending hours doing it. With OnTheClock, you can forget about the old way of doing things.

Do you want to know more about how OnTheClock works?

Leave Your Thoughts...

(required, will be shown)
(required, will not be shown)