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How to Manage and Minimize Trading Shifts at Work

  • Payroll
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 11/13/2019

How to Manage and Minimize Trading Shifts at Work
Shift swapping can cause a lot of frustration to workers and managers alike. Learn the best practices to improve your shift trading policy and procedure.

Table of Contents

If you're in charge of scheduling shifts, you know what a delicate balancing act it can be. There are many important factors to consider when building an effective labor schedule, so unexpected changes to that plan can be a challenge to an otherwise well-oiled machine.

Still, sometimes changes are necessary and unavoidable. Fortunately, with proper labor forecasting and a well-established shift swap policy, your employees can continue trading shifts at work as needed without interrupting your scheduling routine.

The challenges of shift swapping, dropping, and covering

Scheduling employees to work is a necessary part of running a business. With that, there will likely be employees who need to swap shifts from time to time. But these scheduling changes can be a source of frustration for managers, and even costly to the business.

Shift swapping occurs when two employees trade scheduled shifts with each other. Shift dropping occurs when one employee willingly gives up a scheduled shift to another without taking on any additional hours in return. Shift covering is when one employee voluntarily covers a shift that was originally scheduled for a coworker. Depending on company policy, each of these can be done with or without the knowledge of the management team, and each presents its own unique set of problems that can have negative consequences for the business.

What are some common shift trading problems?

Although individual employees may not necessarily understand the problems that trading shifts at work can create, managers know that uncontrolled shift swapping can cause many problems for a business, which may include:

  • Unexpected payroll expenses. When an employee trades shifts with a higher-paid staff member, this can add unexpected payroll expenses to the shift, making it harder for managers to control payroll properly and utilize payroll dollars in the most efficient way.
  • Decline in service or production. When an employee trades shifts with an inexperienced coworker, this can cause a decline in service or production, resulting in more man-hours required to complete the same amount of work.
  • Miscommunication among staff. When shift trading occurs without the consent or knowledge of the manager, this creates an opportunity for confusion about which employees should be working which shifts.
  • Unclear accountability. Without clear documentation on shift swapping between employees, managers won't necessarily know whom to hold accountable. If no one shows up to work the shift in question, managers need to know whom to contact, and they need a paper trail of proof for which employees agreed to the swap, and when.
  • Uncovered shifts. If the shift trading process becomes too complex, employees may decide that it's just easier to call in sick instead, leaving the business and other employees short-handed.

Which industries struggle with shift swapping?

Large employers with nontraditional scheduling arrangements — such as hospitals, restaurants, and retail establishments — may struggle with managing shift swaps more than traditional office environments or white-collar industries. Schedules in these companies tend to be more influenced by holidays, weather patterns, seasonal trends, and local factors. Since schedules are constantly changing, creating a fluctuating work environment, employees may have a harder time keeping up with the needs of the business. Companies in these industries can benefit from an improved shift change policy and procedure, especially when technology, such as shift scheduling software, is used to streamline the process.

How to improve shift change policies and procedures

Most scheduling confusion stems from a lack of consistency in the shift changing process. Last-minute schedules can cause excessive needs for shift swapping. Lack of documentation around shift trading can cause confusion and lack of accountability to employee schedules. The absence of a strong managerial presence may lead to employees sidestepping traditional shift-trading policies and covering shifts on their own. All these issues can be problematic and costly to the business, but they can be minimized by taking the following steps to improve the company's shift scheduling practices.

1. Maintain an open-door policy

Shift swapping problems are magnified when managers aren't notified in advance. Often, this occurs because employees fail to notify managers for fear of being turned down, or the manager is simply never around to be notified. In such cases, employees may try to change shifts without managerial consent, figuring that as long as someone shows up to work, everything will be fine. Maintaining a visible presence for your employees can help ensure that they feel comfortable coming to you with any schedule changes or concerns.

2. Review and keep track of all shift changes

Employees should be trained that any changes to the posted schedule should be reviewed and approved by a manager. A formalized shift change policy and procedure can help minimize many of the negative consequences that could result from swapping shifts at work, such as extra labor costs (including unscheduled overtime), employee no-shows (due to confusion), or errors made by improperly trained staff (when an employee trades shifts with another who isn't qualified to do the job). As a manager reviews and approves each change, it should be documented in a central location so all other managers can be properly notified of any scheduling updates.

3. Allow shift swaps only among qualified workers

Within any business, not all employees are equal. Some employees are only trained for specific tasks, while seasoned employees can likely handle considerably more workload than someone who is still relatively new. Some employees may also already be scheduled close to the maximum number of hours per week to avoid overtime, while others may be strictly limited to a capped maximum number of hours that can be worked within a single shift or a single week. When managing shift swaps, all these restrictions must be considered to determine which employees are qualified to cover an available shift.

4. Develop a consistent shift-scheduling process

When schedules are prepared several weeks in advance, most employees will be able (and willing) to plan outside activities around their work schedules or notify you before the schedule is made if a conflict arises. Some jurisdictions now require that a certain amount of advance notice be provided to employees for work schedules and schedule changes. For example, "fair workweek" laws in Oregon and New York require large retail and restaurant employers to provide seven to 14 days' notice of schedules and on-call shifts. This legislation also requires employers to pay additional hourly rates or stipends to employees for last-minute schedule changes or on-call shifts (typically with less than 72 hours' notice). Similar policies have also been enacted in California and Washington, while Pennsylvania and Illinois have predictive scheduling policies that are slated to go into effect in 2020.

5. Build a shift swap policy

Review your policies for specifics concerning scheduling changes and managing shift swaps. Even if your business doesn’t have a handbook, consider a policy that clearly states:

  • When employees will receive upcoming shift assignments
  • Deadlines for submitting schedule change requests or shift swaps
  • The process for getting approval for a shift swap
  • Disciplinary procedures that may occur when failing to comply with the scheduling policy

Setting these clear expectations can help corral employees who would otherwise push boundaries on schedule changes and swapping shifts at work. Check for any local, state, or federal statutes that might apply to your business and confirm that your policy complies with any advance-notice requirements concerning schedules. Sticking to a detailed policy can help you avoid unexpected labor costs, unhappy employees, and innumerable shift-trading problems.

6. Use shift scheduling solutions

Creating employee schedules by hand can certainly be a chore. Scheduling technology can automate most of the process, including the coordination of a shift swap if needed. With an online time and attendance solution, managers can facilitate the scheduling process efficiently and minimize the need for last-minute shift swapping. This technology can also minimize the added costs associated with trading shifts at work. Good shift-swapping software allows employers to set restrictions on specific shifts, ensuring that only qualified employees are considered for coverage.

How your company can benefit from improving your shift swap process

By investing time and effort into improving your shift trading process, your company can reduce unnecessary distractions and costs associated with scheduling changes, but it can also take advantage of many internal benefits.

Freedom and flexibility for shift workers

Work/life balance is important to many workers, and the ability to change work schedules when important life events arise is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy balance. By allowing your workers the freedom and flexibility to change schedules when needed, you can maintain a happy, engaged workforce.

Effective communication among staff and management

By creating a streamlined shift swap process, you can minimize miscommunication among your employees and managers. Your management team especially will appreciate the advanced notice of any scheduling changes, which can help them better prepare for a productive shift.

Saved time and money

Ineffective shift swaps can cost the company time and money, so an improved shift-trading process can result in significant financial savings. By carefully controlling how and when shifts are traded, you can ensure that necessary shift trading doesn't result in excess labor or overtime costs.

Transparency and accountability

Clear documentation resulting from a transparent shift change policy and procedure can help managers better hold all employees accountable for scheduled hours. This can minimize both intentional and unintentional miscommunications, ultimately resulting in a lower absenteeism rate among your employees.

Employee conflict prevention

When misunderstandings related to shift trading occur, they can lead to workplace conflict among employees. Establishing a clear, easy-to-follow process for all shift trades can minimize shift-swap frustration between employees and take the guesswork out of scheduling changes when they're needed.

Working together to minimize shift-swap frustration

If the shift swap process is transparent, and employees and managers are happier working together, they are more likely to work toward a common goal. By incorporating these habits into your scheduling routine, you can avoid the frustrations of shift swapping while still allowing your employees the freedom and flexibility to preserve a healthy work/life balance.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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