Small Biz Advice: Setting the Schedule Straight


holly-photoHolly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly also heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books–their next meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 7pm,  reading Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life.

Holly is also hosting free, 30-minutes strategy sessions at The Yard.  Email her to sign up, or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How

Dear Holly,
I own a small retail shop in Brooklyn with approximately 35 employees.  Completing the schedule each week is a complete terror.  My employees are a mix of full-time and part-time employees.  I try to be a nice boss and allow my employees to have flexibility at work, but things seem to be getting out of hand.  Schedule requests come in daily and I feel overwhelmed trying to accommodate everyone’s needs.  I don’t want to seem like a mean boss and tell people “no,” but I’m at the end of my rope and don’t know how to make this situation work for everyone.  Please help!

Thank you,

Schedule Me Straight

Dear Schedule Me,
This is such a common problem with businesses that are dependent on hourly workers.  We create these situations because we want everyone to like working for us, but ultimately without some minimal structure and guidelines, the schedule quickly becomes a total nightmare.  Not only that, your openness to anything goes is deeply undermining your authority as a leader.

It may be hard to hear, but you must retain some sense of control in your business if you want your staff to respect your leadership and do what you need them to do.  Many owners think that if they are accommodating to staff, the staff will work better.  This is only true to a certain degree; you must have boundaries and guidelines to keep things working smoothly.

Here’s how you can fix this problem and still allow for your staff to have flexibility.  You don’t have to go to the other extreme and not honor any time off or schedule change requests.  There’s a happy middle where everyone can get what they need to feel good about their work.

Here are five questions you should ask yourself and then establish a clear policy for each:

1. When do you make the schedule and when is it posted for staff?  It’s important that staff knows that the schedule is made at the same time every week and posted on the same day every week.  Clarity and consistency count toward your credibility.

2. When is the deadline for schedule requests from staff and how must schedule requests be submitted?  Here you need to be clear when the schedule requests are due.  For example if you make the schedule on Monday, all schedule requests must be in by Sunday at midnight.  You may even want to have staff request time off at least one week in advance.  I strongly encourage you to have all schedule requests be in writing.  It makes things much more clear and creates a record for you as well.

3. How many staff can request time off at one time?  Is this a first come, first served policy?  Many times, retail businesses fail to establish this type of policy, but it can be crucial especially during your busiest seasons.  Depending on your staffing needs, you may want to put a policy in place that says only two employees can request time off each week (or whatever number works for your business) and that it is first come, first served.  That way it forces your employees to think ahead and not bombard you last minute.  This way too, you reduce the stress of having too many employees off at one time.  Know how many you can accommodate and stick to that number.

4. How should staff request time off for emergency, and what constitutes an emergency?  This is important because as I’m sure you know, emergencies will happen.  You want to make it clear to the employees what they should do in case of emergency.  Should they call you?  Are they responsible for covering their own shift in an emergency or will you handle that problem?  And be very clear on what constitutes an emergency.  Usually illness, death, accidents are considered emergency.  Having your best friend fly in from Michigan is not.  I know it may sound silly that you must clarify the definition of what constitutes an emergency, but believe me it’s vital.

5. How should an employee go about getting a shift covered if they have already been scheduled but would like to take the day off for a non-emergency?  This is one of the biggest headaches when it comes to scheduling hourly workers.  Many business owners like to offer their workers the flexibility to take a day off if something comes up, like an audition or a chance to go see the latest, greatest band play.  If you want to create a work environment that honors these types of requests, you must create a policy and stick to it.  Here are some key points to consider:

–Is the employee responsible for covering their own shift in a non-emergency?
–Should they call you to confirm who will be covering for them?
–Should they email you the changes?
–How many hours before their shift must they notify you?

These are all good points to consider when making this policy.  Make sure you are clear on who is responsible for filling the shift, how you need to be notified and by what time.

If you have written policies for each of those points, your scheduling will be infinitely less stressful.  Remember that it’s not just about writing the policies, it’s about making sure that each employee is clear on them (I like to have them sign off on it and give them a copy to keep).  Also, be sure that employees know what the consequences are if they do not comply.  Policies without consequences are useless.

Most importantly, be consistent.  The first time you don’t stand by your policies, you lose the respect of your employees and your authority as a leader.  It’s very hard to regain trust after that, so be consistent with everyone from the start and your new policies will surely be a success.

Good luck!


One Response

  1. Snezan Cebic -

    this situation is easy to solve:

    write a weekly/monthly schedule taking into account the number of hours your employees want to work:
    post the schedule on a shared calendar like Google.
    finally, make the person on the calendar responsible for finding a replacement.

    Time off can be set in the calendar 2 weeks in advance and they invite you to the calendar that way you can approve or disapprove.

    Once the person on the schedule becomes responsible for finding a replacement, you don’t have to worry anymore. If you want to know who is working today, you can have them put the replacement in the comments. Offenders will have their hours reduced.

    use technology to make your life easier 🙂


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