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Rosterlab: our official guide to rostering

Getting input from your staff

Staff are the key

Rostering starts and ends with your staff. The most expensive part of a roster is staff retention. Staff take a long time to train and a long time to hire; staff leaving interrupts business and revenue streams, and staff leaving can often lead to a skills shortage. 

To retain your staff, start by asking, what shifts do your staff actually want to work? This is key to staff happiness. Allowing them to have a sense of flexibility in their life. For staff with very stable lives, an unchanging roster is best, one that stays familiar from week to week. For working parents and young people, lives can often change rapidly. Young people start a new hobby; soccer moves from Wednesdays to Tuesdays; if they have too fixed a schedule, they'll have to quit. What if a parent needs every Tuesday afternoon off to care for a child or other family member? Some parents would love to take off from 3:00 p.m. until after dinner. Reaffirm your staff's choice to work for you by giving them the work-life balance they deserve. 

People also have their own preferences about working styles. Most staff like longer shifts. 3 twelve-hour shifts in a row, and you can get all your working hours out of the way for the week. But for some, the idea of this is exhausting. Giving your staff a choice of shift length can be another way to tailor rosters to each individual staff member.

Flexible rostering

To accommodate everyone's situation, we recommend a flexible roster be adopted. It should be open to changes on a month-by-month basis and accommodate all of your staff's individual needs and specific rostering requests as best as possible. 4-6 week rosters allow for flexibility but also give predictability in people's schedules.

We recommend that your staff enter their requests for the next roster each month. Firstly, they should enter their red requests which are requests that are critically important to them. A medical appointment, a three-day weekend holiday with friends, an important exam. Then they should enter requests for the rest of their rostered days. They shouldn't be forced to enter a request for every day, as often, it just doesn't matter, and flexibility is important when you're creating a roster in the next step.

The culture also must be instilled that most requests will be granted only if reasonable. If everyone requests every weekend off, no one will be available to cover the ward. Give visibility to your staff about what requests other staff are making. Trust that they will cater to some extent to the organisation's needs, if only that it makes it more likely that their requests will be granted. With a reasoned approach, all red requests and >90% of total requests can often be granted.

It's also important to ask your staff how they would like to be rostered when they haven't filled in requests, or you can't grant their request because of a shortage somewhere in the organisation. Ask them whether they like longer or shorter shifts, whether they like weekends, nights, how many shifts they prefer to work in a row and other niche rostering aspects specific to your organisation.

This will give your organisation a huge strategic advantage; if your staff leave for another organisation, their requests will not be considered as precisely, and they will not have the same degree of flexibility towards the needs of a changing busy life. Also, instead of taking “sick leave” or making constant shift swaps because your staff are not happy with the shifts they are receiving, they will be much more satisfied with their requested roster.

How Rosterlab helps

We have an app tailor-made for allowing employees to make red requests and regular requests for their next roster. They can also input what they like in a roster and see what requests other nurses are making for maximally effective self-rostering. 

How to do it in a spreadsheet instead

Start an Excel online workbook or Google sheet and let your staff fill it out online. Make it clear which cells can be filled out and how many red requests the staff are allowed. Add formulas to calculate the number of staff working at each shift and potentially skill mix to show your staff where they should be placing shifts.

Create the roster for the next period

Now you know what all your staff want to work for the next roster period. It's time to make the roster. This is the most challenging part of the whole process, and if you get it right, it will save you many hours down the line. If people get what they want, there will be fewer "sick days", shift swaps, and roster management tasks. This part is like a sudoku, except all the numbers have their own feelings and personality.

Firstly, the more you can automate checking your roster while you are constructing it, the better. Ideally, you want an application or formulas that check that you're meeting staff requests, skill mix, staffing matrix, contractual regulations and roster construction preferences. All these features are included in RosterLab free. Some of these can be done by someone with moderate excel experience, and some will require an excel expert.

Start building the roster by copying in all the staff requests. From here, there are two key strategies for rostering, the first is to start off by filling up difficult-to-fill or critical shifts. Often, night shifts or out-of-ward shifts are the most restricted contractually, so these need to be filled first, followed by morning and afternoon shifts. The second strategy is to start by filling up the most highly skilled staff. These staff are often critical to spread around shifts to ensure there are always highly skilled and senior staff available to guide the other staff in the ward.

Once all shifts and staff have been filled up, there is a last-minute adjustment phase. Look for stretches of shifts that end right before a shortage or start directly after it. Breaking the middle of a stretch of shifts is particularly challenging.

When balancing your employee requests and ward requirements, this part of the process can take hours on a spreadsheet or manual rostering application, but it is:

100% fully automated by RosterLab. We analyse billions of combinations and show you rosters that a human could never think of. We automatically maximise your employee's happiness while staying within the resource requirements of the organisation.

Now that you've created your roster, it's time to send it off to your staff! If you've made a good roster and have empathy for your staff's lives, preferences and requests, then this should be a joyful moment!

Publish and maintain your roster

Now you've got your roster, how are you going to send it out to your staff and manage it for the next roster period?

Regardless of how you publish it, recognize that your roster is a living document and is bound to change substantially over time. People's lives are ever-changing. Even within the month or so of a roster. Staff will get sick, and staff will want to swap shifts as new priorities come up in their life, but you still need the right staff showing up at the right time.

Also, although you've filled out the roster as best you can, you may still be a little short. Often you will need to ask your most understanding employees: who is willing to pick up an extra shift.

The better you've made your roster; the fewer changes are required. So putting a little effort upfront to ensure your staff are happy will go a long way in decreasing the amount of management your roster will require.

How Rosterlab helps

Our app distributes a live version of the roster to all staff that they can view on their phones/tablets/computers. We also allow open shifts to be automatically posted to fill gaps or make up for staff who are sick.

How to do it manually instead

How to publish the roster via a spreadsheet instead: start an Excel online workbook or Google sheet which shows the roster and ideally nothing else. This roster should not be able to be changed by staff and will reflect the latest version of the roster.

How to manage changes with emails/messaging service: This part gets a little tricky if you're still doing things manually. It often involves messaging or calling a bunch of staff who have days off to see if they will come in. Considering you can't do this in parallel, as you're not sure who will accept what, making sure all your staff are picking up the shifts that they want most involves both empathy and tact.