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Future of Shift Work: Shift planning and rostering like a boss

Moving away from spreadsheets and inadequate systems

Effective shift rostering is vital to running a productive organisation with a happy, healthy workforce.

However, these aspects of shift work are often managed using systems, processes and software for time and attendance, HR and payroll that are simply not fit for purpose. This capability gap frequently leads to shift work being organised by spreadsheets…hardly a recipe for success.

The world of work is changing rapidly. You’ll need to adopt increasingly flexible workforce management approaches and software to respond quickly to change and meet employee expectations around working conditions.

In this instalment of our Future of Shift Work insight series we’ll be taking a closer look at shift planning and rostering best practice and technology. We’ll explore in detail how this will help you maintain a successful shift working environment now and over the coming years.

What are the fundamentals of shift planning and rostering?

In our experience these crucial elements of shift work mean something different in every organisation we work with.

What is shift planning?

Shift planning is about designing shift patterns that align demand with workforce capacity. It focuses on high level and long-range workforce planning to ensure you have the precise resource in place throughout the year, despite fluctuations in demand and employee availability.
E.g.  What shifts will give us the precise cover needed to meet anticipated demand in June? We need to avoid overtime and protect employee well-being.
Shift planning is the key to improving productivity, cutting unnecessary costs and ensuring your shift working practices are compliant and support employee health and well-being. It is also essential when modelling shift pattern, rota and roster requirements for blended or hybrid workforces and for creating positive shift working conditions that support recruitment and retention.

What is rostering?

Rostering is about identifying and assigning individuals to the shifts which cover demand. It includes day-to-day workforce management tasks such as absence management, employee scheduling, holiday management, shift swaps, time and attendance and the realignment of staff to changing demand or capacity.
E.g.  Jake has just phoned in sick, so we’ll need to find someone with his skill set to cost effectively cover the night shift. We must ensure there’s no risk Jake’s additional hours will lead to a breach of Working Time Regulations. 
Rostering is the key to ensuring inevitable changes are managed effectively, cover is maintained and employee work-life balance is supported. With the wrong software and systems rostering can be an admin intensive process, and when executed poorly, can lead to costly understaffing or overstaffing, compliance breaches and create unhappy, overworked employees.

Behind these simple definitions are nine important elements which influence the success of shift planning and rostering:

1. Demand & Capacity Planning

Forecasting your demand and capacity so you understand how they fluctuate and what level of cover is needed at any given point across a day, week, month, season or year.

2. Shift Pattern Design

Creating custom shift patterns that align employee or agency staff hours with demand forecasts to maximise productivity, efficiency and compliance whilst supporting employee well-being and work-life balance preferences.

3. Rostering

Automatically assigning individuals with appropriate skills and availability to shift patterns and intelligently adapting rosters in line with day-to-day variances to ensure output/service levels are maintained and compliance issues avoided.

4. Employee Scheduling

Ensuring employees are doing the most productive tasks at the right time and analysing data to improve your understanding of how to optimise operations.

5. Absence Management

Automating rules and processes (leave quotas, notice required to book etc) for managing holiday, overtime, sickness, training and any variations that impact availability so you can maintain a live picture of employee status and identify optimal and compliant cover.

6. Employee self-service

Enabling employees to co-manage their working time by independently organising shift swaps, bidding for vacant shifts, checking holiday availability and requesting time off.

7. Time & Attendance

Capturing hours worked, holiday balances and a range of workforce data to feed payroll and other systems, and improve shift planning and rostering decision making.

8. Compliance Checks

Ensuring shift patterns, rosters and rotas adhere to Working Time Regulations (and other legislation, standards and policies) whilst identifying risks and stopping rostering actions that may result in a breach.

9. Workforce Analytics

Tracking and analysing key shift work metrics to gain valuable management insights to feed workforce and operational strategy, planning and management.

Arrange a session with one of our experts where you can discuss the challenges you face and talk in broad terms about potential solutions and next steps.

What benefits can be delivered via best practice shift planning and rostering?

The return on investment of shift planning and rostering is considerable. Balancing demand with capacity and streamlining rostering processes unlocks significant and sustainable benefits for employer and employees.

Increased Productivity & Efficiency

Optimised shift patterns can increase productivity and efficiency by 55% and reduce labour costs by 15% (by eliminating unnecessary overtime and agency use).

Less Absence

Best practice rostering can deliver a 50% reduction in absence by reducing fatigue-related illness and improving job satisfaction (by supporting work-life balance and eradicating short notice shift working).

Reduced Administration

Streamlining shift planning and rostering processes can cut working time-related admin by between 25-75% (depending on scale and complexity), freeing up more time to focus on higher-value tasks.

Improved Retention

Factoring employee preferences and well-being into shift planning and rostering can reduce staff turnover by around 50% and improve your employer brand, dramatically reducing recruitment and onboarding costs.

Compliance Assurance

Avoiding breaches of Working Time Regulations, other legislation (e.g. health and safety, National Minimum Wage) and ethical standards can avoid expensive fines and costly reputational damage.

Better Accuracy

Feeding payroll and other HR systems with accurate rostering data can avoid costly mistakes such as under or over payment and the associated administration and frustration of putting things right.

Reduced Costs

Subscription to TRUE SaaS shift planning and rostering software (eg not on-premise or browser-based) lowers the cost of ownership and ensures you are always benefitting from the most secure, accessible, feature-rich version.

More Flexibility

Harnessing working time data, demand-led shift planning and responsive rostering means your organisation can adapt to external factors and ensure working conditions meet employee expectations.


Adopting the right shift planning and rostering software can facilitate change and evolve in line with your organisation’s growth and best practice.

What are the most common rostering challenges?

Balancing demand with capacity and streamlining rostering processes unlocks significant and sustainable benefits for employer and employees.
In dynamic shift working environments there tends to be a huge array of variables which impact shift planning and rostering.
These can range from demand and operational processes through to pay rules and employee preferences.
This intricacy and interdependency is often compounded by the ‘patchwork quilt’ of software (ERP, Payroll, HR) and processes (spreadsheets, paper, phone, face-to-face, email) used to deliver shift planning and rostering.Ultimately these issues have a huge impact on efficiency, productivity, compliance and employee well-being.


We’ve grouped the most common rostering challenges under three areas…

1. Shift work

Spreadsheets, time and attendance software and simple rostering apps are not designed to handle the nuances and complexity of shift work or provide the essential ‘forward look’ needed for optimised planning and management.
  • Difficulty making changes: Even simple tasks like incorporating a new shift pattern can take you days, if not weeks, and can lead to system instability.
  • Limited visibility: Getting a handle on who is working, or what their availability is going forward, is either impossible or very time consuming and frustrating.
  • Non-standard shift patterns: The system is unable to deal with night shifts, seasonal patterns or custom variants (i.e. patterns for working parents), leading to these being managed in shadow spreadsheets.
  • Compliance assurance: It’s difficult to roster compliantly because you can’t automatically see how many hours an individual has worked over a given period (including overtime).
  • Holiday complexity: Holiday management is handled using paper forms and spreadsheets, making it hard for you to check cover status and account balances. This challenge is often compounded when holidays need to be managed in hours as well as days (something which requires costly bespoke development in many software systems).
  • Shift swapping: Team members wanting to swap shifts creates a huge admin burden as many factors need to be checked manually each time (cover, skills alignment, working time regulations compliance, pay rates etc).

2. Technology

Many organisations struggle with the limitations of legacy on-premise workforce management software when trying to roster like a boss.
We regularly see the following challenges:
  • No single system: Data needs to be manually inputted across a ‘hotchpotch’ of non-specialist software and spreadsheets every time there is a change, taking time and frequently leading to errors.
  • No integration: Your rostering system doesn’t automatically ‘talk’ to other software, meaning you constantly manually extract and upload information to ensure people are paid accurately and other departments are kept up to date.
  • Poor usability: The system is clunky, frustratingly difficult to use, can only be accessed from one office-based computer and is slow to load or action changes.
  • Access to upgrades: The process of upgrading legacy rostering software is costly, painful, risky and you are always promised the functionality you really need will be “in the next version”.
  • Little ROI: The cost of maintaining and upgrading your software is high, new features are infrequent, expensive to buy and hard to implement.

3. Flexibility

Operating environments and shift working practices are changing rapidly, yet many organisations are unable to keep with the pace of change because of inflexible shift planning and rostering systems.
Some of the specific challenges we regularly see around this include:
  • Rigid frameworks: You cannot optimise shift work as the system struggles to deal with new shift patterns, rotas, rosters or rules (e.g., changing holidays from days to hours when moving from 8 hour to 12 hour shift patterns).
  • Lack of customisation: Key daily tasks cannot be automated or configured to your environment, so you end up having to adapt processes to fit the software’s limitations.
  • Speed of response: Any system changes cannot be configured by you and often take the software supplier months to process.
  • A lack of insight: Any contact you have with the software provider is either with a salesmen or technical help when there is a problem. Neither understand shift work, optimised shift planning and rostering or how to overcome the limitations of their system.

What does good shift planning and rostering look like?

If you want to ensure you’re shift planning and rostering like a boss, it’s important to consider the fundamentals and how you overcome the common challenges outlined above. Your approach needs to be underpinned by processes and technology to ensure optimising shift work is successful and sustainable.
Below are some key considerations:

Forward planning:

To avoid constant ‘firefighting’ you need to be able to ‘look forward’ at demand and cover and use this insight to make key decisions around shift patterns, rotas and rosters. The rostering system you use should provide easy access to information and automated analysis to support short and medium-range planning and ensure you are immediately alerted to any capacity and compliance issues.
Most importantly it should give you the tools to make changes quickly so you can maintain responsive rosters.


Harnessing real-time data is essential to shift planning and rostering like a boss. This means you need to have a centralised database which provides a complete record of essential workforce management information.
Your workforce management system needs to be able to capture and track every key metric in real time so that you can create optimised rosters and any costly errors, oversights or compliance issues are avoided. These data points should span everything from absence, holiday balances and shift swaps through to task progress, breaks and employee movement.

Lean processes:

Optimised rostering relies on good information and judgment. You need to therefore eliminate much of the time intensive, costly administration associated with planning, managing and monitoring shift work so you can focus entirely on making the right decisions.
Your rostering software should streamline and automate processes and present you with the information and tools to quickly execute changes. This includes everything from suggesting optimal cover within a roster, to using a rules engine to enable employees to book holiday and shift swaps themselves. It should also integrate effectively with your other systems such as payroll and time and attendance to ensure key data is transferred quickly and easily. This consideration is key in organisations with additional complexities such as a high number of employees, diverse pay rules, a blended workforce or multi-site requirements.


Shift planning and rostering is a highly dynamic element of workforce management, so your software and processes need to reflect this. Many organisations and shift workers are ‘trapped’ by the inflexibility of their rostering software, unable to optimise and adopt shift work best practice because it can’t be supported.
Change is constant, so your shift planning and rostering software and processes must be able grow and evolve to meet organisational and employee needs. It needs to be highly configurable and automatically anticipate and support changes to legislation, regulations and employee preferences.

Demand alignment:

You should be able to create and maintain an accurate demand model and forecast precise staffing requirements. This will ensure your shift patterns, rotas and rosters provide the right level of resource at the time it is needed. The workforce management software you use should provide a real-time forward view so you can assess demand and capacity whilst factoring in a range of variables (by shift, time of day, function, skill etc).
Ideally the system will provide modelling capabilities so you can create ‘what if’ scenarios. From this you can design shift patterns that will enable you to be more responsive and resilient to whatever changes come down the line.

Arrange a session with one of our experts where you can discuss the challenges you face and talk in broad terms about potential solutions and next steps.

What can SaaS Workforce Management deliver?

The emergence of SaaS technology has enabled Totalmobile to revolutionise shift planning, rostering and workforce management.

Many of the specialist tools you need to shift plan and roster like a boss can now be accessed via the cloud version of Organise which delivers significant benefits over spreadsheets or legacy on-premise software.


Spreadsheets & legacy software

– Extracting insights is a struggle
– Data is regularly out of date making it difficult to check and reconcile accurately
– Historic data input and actions are not recorded

SaaS Workforce Management 

+ Information held on the central database can be easily accessed and analysed when you need it
Any approved changes are instantly updated and reflected across the system, so users share the same ‘live’ view
Comprehensive digital records and change logs are stored on co-located servers providing resilience and a full audit trail


Spreadsheets & legacy software

– All changes need to be manually entered
– Creating optimal rosters takes a huge amount of time
 Data needs to be extracted and inputted into other systems including payroll, time and attendance etc
– All holiday/shift swap requests require significant employee and manager time with little transparency in decision making

SaaS Workforce Management 

+ Changes automatically reflect across the system (updated availability, balances etc)
Logic is used to auto-generate staff rotas that match demand and available resources
APIs provide a live data feed to other key HR systems
Employees can access live calendars and use streamlined request/approval processes using an app on their mobile phone


Spreadsheets & legacy software

– Files with sensitive workforce information can be misplaced/shared
– Human error (e.g. overwriting spreadsheet formula/data) and system corruption or failure has business critical impact

SaaS Workforce Management

Sophisticated encryption and best practice ensure data is held and accessed securely
Data is stored and recoverable from co-located hosting services


Spreadsheets & legacy software

 Infrequent improvements to capabilities and onerous installation processes
– It runs on expensive hardware which needs to be maintained and upgraded
– Rigid configurations and costly custom development
– Slow to implement and configure

SaaS Workforce Management

+ Regular upgrades with no installation requirements.
No need for servers or infrastructure maintenance
Flexible architecture making it easy to configure to your shift working approaches
Cloud access enables you to get the system up and running swiftly to maximise impact and ROI


Spreadsheets & legacy software

– The system can only be used on-site and in office hours
– Changes/input can only be enacted by certain individuals
– The system is understood and can only be used effectively by certain individuals

SaaS Workforce Management

Accessible on internet enabled devices anywhere in the world 24/7/365
+ Complete flexibility over permission levels
The system is easy to use with training and intuitive interfaces creating a shallow learning curve for all users

10-point checklist to appraise your shift planning and rostering system

Thinking about changing your shift planning, rostering or workforce management software?
Below are 10 key measures by which to appraise its capabilities..

1. Forward look

Does your system provide an accurate forward view of demand and cover, so you can optimise shift planning and rostering by quickly identifying what staffing levels are required to meet demand over a specific period of time? Can it help spot gaps, monitor compliance, manage exceptions and support a blended workforce? [Yes/No]

2. Optimised scheduling

Does your system help you analyse requirements and identify and assign the best sources of cover, so you can maintain productivity, compliance and employee work-life balance? Can it help you quickly assign employees with availability and skills to rotas and tasks? [Yes/No]

3. Automation

Does your system automate laborious manual rostering and employee scheduling tasks, so you can make changes quickly and accurately? Can it auto-generate staff rotas that match demand and available resources? [Yes/No]

4. Compliance

Does your system have a rules-based engine to ensure compliance with Working Time Regulations, legislation and other policies? Can it identify employees at risk and stop any actions that may result in a breach? [Yes/No]

5. Live balances

Does your system capture and analyse key data in real time, so you can see the live status of hours worked, variances (absence, sickness, annual leave, overtime, TOIL), attendance, movement, tasks, breaks? Can it do this by individual or team over any given period of time? [Yes/No]

6. Self-Service

Does your system enable employees to use their mobile devices to view shift calendars, request holidays, bid for available shifts and swap shifts with relevant colleagues? Can it support self-rostering and ensure all changes are compliant and automatically update the system? [Yes/No]

7. Cloud benefits

Does your system allow you to access it securely from any device, so you and colleagues can update it at any time from on-site or remote locations? Can it be configured and updated remotely? [Yes/No]

8. Integration

Does your system automatically feed real-time rostering information to T&A, Payroll and other HR or planning software? Can your system use APIs to reduce administration, duplication and the risk of errors? [Yes/No]
9. Security
Does your system adhere to sophisticated security methodologies and international standards? Can it protect employees’ sensitive working time information and maintain an electronic record of all actions? [Yes/No]

10. Insights

Does your supplier understand shift working and advise you on best practice? Does their system provide dashboards and reports that track key shift work metrics and support decision making? Can it help you respond to change quickly and target productivity, efficiency and wellbeing gains? [Yes/No]

What now?

Our shift work experts are keen to help you ensure your shift planning and rostering like a boss by sharing more best practice insights with you.

  • Shift Planning Clinics: Arrange a free remote, hour-long 1-2-1 session with our experts to confidentially discuss your shift work challenges.
  • Demo: Arrange an online demo of the shift planning, rostering and workforce management tools in our industry-leading cloud software Organise. Developed using our 30 years’ experience as the UK’s leading authority on shift work, it has been designed from the ground up to help you shift plan and roster like a boss.
For further information on our products, demo's and sectors we serve :
Edward Bell

Edward Bell, Totalmobile's Content Strategist, shapes and delivers compelling content spotlighting their unique SaaS solutions. With 6+ years in MarComs, his journey spans diverse marketing roles, driven by tech passion. Edward fuels Totalmobile's mission, educating and advocating for impactful solutions across sectors, ensuring ROI for customers.