In the hospitality industry, people matter. And we're not only referring to customers and guests.

Your employees are the heart of your business. Without them, it couldn't operate.

Exceptional staff provide exceptional service that delights first-time guests and keeps customers coming back for future visits again, and again, and again.

But even the best employees can't run a restaurant single-handedly on a Friday night. That's where rota planning comes in. A good rota matches staffing resources to requirements as closely as possible, so that your budget is respected without compromising service.

Building a staff schedule that achieves these goals is easier said than done, however, particularly when you've got a business to run!

Hospitality businesses face unique rota planning challenges, thanks to:

  • A high proportion of part-time staff with different hourly contracts
  • A high proportion of temporary/seasonal staff
  • High fluctuations in staffing requirements within each day (i.e. lunch and evening service for restaurants)
  • Last-minute bookings that drastically change staffing requirements at short notice

Every bar, restaurant, and hotel is different, but we've assembled some scheduling tips that we reckon can ease the rota planning headaches of hospitality businesses.

Step One: Build a rota template without assigning staff

Instead of slotting shifts in for each employee, build a rota template for the next week, two weeks, or month that matches your expected staffing requirements for that period.

Don't worry about being too precise with shift times at this stage — a rough draft will do.

You can build this template within rota planning software, a spreadsheet, or even on paper.

This gives you a rough template that forms the foundation of your rota.

Step Two: Separate rotas based on role or location to improve visibility

Building a rota for dozens or hundreds of employees, from chefs to cleaners, gets confusing quickly — both for you and your staff. It can also make budgeting issues harder to spot.

To make things clearer, break your rotas down based on role or 'location' (say, front of house, kitchen, cleaning). This is particularly effective if there's little to no overlap in roles (your front desk receptionist doesn't take their turn as a waiter or a room attendant).

With separate rotas, you can also break down costs by role or location. This helps you detect under- and overstaffing issues, and resolve them quickly, while still staying within your budgetary constraints.

Step Three: Refine shifts based on hourly fluctuations

If you know how the needs of the business change within each day (point-of-sale data can be a big help here), start refining shifts based on these requirements. For example, you might need four waitstaff on hand during the 6-9pm peak on a Friday, but that doesn't mean you need to schedule those four staff from 3-11pm.

Instead, stagger start times and shift lengths so that your needs are covered without increasing your staffing costs unnecessarily. For example, those four waitstaff could work shifts of 3-11pm, 5-11pm, 5-9pm and 3-9pm, respectively.

Make sure you've got shifts covering your restaurant's opening and closing, or 24-hour coverage for your hotel's reception, or whatever other requirements you have.

At this stage, also begin thinking about staff preferences for shift lengths, and the number of contracted hours you have to work with.

Step Four: Think carefully about the role of split shifts

Most staff dislike split shifts, as they often mean needing to stick around at work even if they're not being paid. However, if you have some staff who live locally, split shifts might be more appealing.

Alternatively, you could leave it up to your staff to choose whether or not to take split shifts. Publish a set of 'open shifts' that aren't assigned to anyone, including what you imagine to be split shifts of, say, 10-2 and 5-9. Employees could claim both halves of the split shift or just one, depending on their preferences and circumstances. You'll need to use rota software if you want to do this efficiently.

If you have a sufficient number of employees, you should find that all shifts are claimed. Test this system out for a couple of weeks; if you find that shifts are going unclaimed, you'll need to either hire more help or force split shifts on your existing staff — that or tinker with the rota to reduce split shifts or do away with them entirely.

Step Five: Publish early

The sooner you can publish your rota, the better. You might need to tinker with it in the future (and you'll need a way of communicating these changes with staff), but giving your staff plenty of time to view their shifts is in everyone's interests.

There's more time to deal with leave requests, shift swaps, and resolve any clashes or mix-ups.

Step Six: Consider moving to 'collaborative' scheduling

Building and managing a rota for so many staff is incredibly time-consuming. One of the easiest ways to cut back on rota management is to have your employees do it for you!

This might involve employees arranging shift swaps between themselves, or claiming open shifts without you having to approach them.

For self-service rota management to work, you need to have a system in place that constantly communicates these changes to everyone affected — and that also gives you the final say over the rota.

If you're a spreadsheet pro, you could probably build a system that'll do just that — but for most managers, specialist rota planning software is a better option.

Take a look at our previous blog article about self-service rota planning to learn more about this time-saving method of staff scheduling.

Step Seven: Build contingency plans

We've all endured staffing disasters where a key member of staff doesn't show up and it takes you hours to find a replacement — if you're able to find one at all.  

Take the time to figure out contingency plans for situations like this. Perhaps build a list of staff who live nearby and can work at short notice, or use rota software with a notification system whenever new shifts are up for grabs.

You won't be able to plan around every eventuality, but by using your experience of past incidents, you can reduce the cost of your most common staffing disasters.

Step Eight: Decide on rota systems and processes, and stick to them

Rota confusion occurs when different managers have different ways of managing the schedule, when employees aren't sure when they can expect their rota, and when staff don't know how they should request time off or communicate unavailability.

Wherever possible, work to counteract these potential mix-ups by standardising your rota systems. Ask yourself:

  • How far in advance can staff expect to see the rota?
  • How will the rota be distributed?
  • How do employees submit holiday or unavailability requests?
  • How will employees find out if these requests have been approved or denied?
  • What happens if the rota needs to be amended?
  • How will these changes be communicated?

...and so on.

Get this information down in writing and distribute it to your employees and the other rota managers. If, like most hospitality businesses, you have many seasonal staff, having a document with all this info on will prove invaluable.

Final thoughts

We get it: rota planning is the last thing you want to do with your work day. But if you want to maintain your usual standard of service, needs must. After all, the more efficient your rota management is, the better — not just for you, but your employees and customers too.

Want more rota management tips? Check out our complete guide to employee scheduling.