Creating employee work schedules has historically been a time-consuming and tedious process. As restaurants resume operations under new government mandates, social distancing guidelines and, in some cases, new business models, planning those schedules to meet today’s widely fluctuating market conditions can be nearly impossible using traditional methods.

To illustrate just how volatile the market has been, When I Work’s data revealed a general upswing in employment activity among restaurants going into July, which correlated with increased consumer demand. However, those gains started to wane after the July 4th holiday as confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to increase and consumers didn’t venture out as much as anticipated. Then, in the second half of July, there was a significant increase in restaurants’ hourly employment activity, particularly in states that initiated public mask mandates.

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This see-saw nature of consumer demand can make even the most seasoned scheduler run screaming into the night.

Fortunately, a scheduling approach that gained traction in healthcare several years ago is finding its way into the hospitality arena—restaurants in particular. Flexible self-scheduling allows managers to define scheduling needs based on customer demand, while enabling employees to select, trade and fill shifts themselves. The practice enables managers to create schedules faster, with less effort, and gives hourly employees more control over their work life.

While flexible self-scheduling isn’t new (pre-pandemic growth rate of the practice was about 20 percent per year in the restaurant and hospitality industries), I believe we’ve reached a COVID-19-fueled tipping point, and it’s unlikely those who’ve adopted it will go back to traditional ways of scheduling. In fact, there has been a 60 percent increase in the adoption of self-scheduling among restaurants over a span of just six to nine weeks.

My Burger, a family-owned quick-service chain based in Minneapolis, recently adopted the practice and is already reaping the benefits. “Self-scheduling has helped us maintain an employee pool since we resumed operations earlier this summer,” says John Abdo, president and owner of MyBurger. “With customer demand so unpredictable, we haven’t been able to plan ahead as much as we used to. Now with self-scheduling, we simply create a shift pool and invite employees to raise their hands to say, ‘I’ll take this or that shift’. As demand goes up or down on a daily basis at our various locations, we can add more shifts or move them around as needed. Employees quickly see the opportunity and can pick them up through their phone app.”

How to get started

Managing self-scheduling manually can be challenging and slow. One of the most effective ways to implement the practice is to use an hourly workforce management software that allows for self-scheduling and enables managers and employees alike to develop and manage the shift schedule from their mobile devices.

Once the software is in place, determine how many shifts are needed for each position based on demand forecasts. If the customer load is uncertain, focus on establishing minimum shift coverage. It’s also a good idea to plan schedules at least a week out so coverage is stable and employees have some lead time to choose and confirm their shifts.

Once essential shift coverage has been established with employees, communicate to them that if demand picks up during the week, they’ll receive a notification about additional shifts they can pick up and add to their work schedules. The key here is real-time, or as real-time as possible, engagement with the team. Whether you rely on text messaging, email or a mobile app, some level of communications technology is necessary.

There also has to be a willing mindset across leadership and team members to adjust to the new business practice, along with a modest time commitment for implementation and education. The small cost in time, technology and education is worth it, according to Abdo. “The days are over of scrambling to contact employees when someone needs to switch a shift or find someone to fill in for them, and then waiting and waiting for anyone to get back to us to confirm if they can pick up that shift,” he said.

The metrics support My Burger’s enthusiasm for flexible self-scheduling. Businesses that adopt it report that they resolve scheduling conflicts and issues 20 percent faster than when not using it. What’s more, flexible self-scheduling allows for the management of unpredictable flow of demand and gives employees more flexibility and autonomy in their lives. Flexibility, autonomy and employee empowerment are not only competitive advantages, they are also key to survival and revival during these uncertain times.

Chad Halvorson is the Founder and Chief Experience Officer of When I Work, a complete employee management platform used by over 150,000 workplaces that ensures restaurants have reliable shift coverage, engaged employees, and can make faster decisions through integrated scheduling, time tracking, and team messaging.

Employee Management, Outside Insights, Story