Allowing employees to trade shifts lifts the burden from managers and scheduling administrators, positioning both sides as partners in ensuring full shift coverage. However, when employees are left to their own devices, shift trades are arranged informally—in break rooms, during private conversations, or via other unofficial communication channels—without managers kept in the loop.

In some businesses, employee shift trades are a daily headache for schedulers who rely on antiquated methods of scheduling and contacting replacement staff members. Managers who cannot efficiently double-check scheduling conflicts, potential overtime or employee qualifications often end up with understaffed shifts.

To avoid miscommunication and coverage gaps, organizations need to establish a clear written policy for trading shifts. Here is a short guide to help define the process requirements and goals.

 

Setting rules for submitting and managing shift trade requests

If the organization doesn’t have an official policy accessible to all staff members, shift trades will be arranged ad hoc, which is inefficient at best and erratic at worst. The executive team should instead introduce clear guidelines for both employees and supervisors, with precise instructions on how to submit, manage, and record a shift trade request. It is particularly important to make the policy visible in the workplace and via internal communication channels, so employees have a clear reference point and understand what is expected from them.

It will take some time for a team to get used to the new rules, especially if the initial shift trading process was entirely unstructured, but the long-term gains in terms of productivity and accurate record keeping will be well worth it.

 

Empowering employees with flexibility, but keeping control

A systematic approach to shift-trading doesn’t have to jeopardize flexible working hours. Its purpose is to enhance collaboration and the accountability of each member of the staff.

With a defined process, employees should still feel free to organize shift trades on their own, but they need to be held responsible for the shifts they release or accept, as well as for keeping managers in the loop. Managers, on their side, have to be in charge of the final approval, so they can keep an eye on how the schedule changes affect productivity. That way, supervisors remain in control of the shift schedules, while employees still have leeway for handling unexpected circumstances.

 

Keeping track of employee availability and qualifications

One of the most common issues with employees taking charge of shift trades is that they don’t have a high-level view of the entire staff and shift requirements. Even when they find an accountable and qualified colleague to cover for them, they cannot always predict how that change in the schedule will influence the team or their productivity.

It is up to the managers to ensure that schedule changes cause minimal disruption, both to the rest of the team and the customers. Regardless of the good intentions of the employees who agreed to swap shifts, one or both of them may not be the best fit skill-wise or their availability might change. Moreover, managers need to be aware if proposed shift trades will cause overtime costs or coverage gaps in case of overlapping shifts.

 

Minimizing the impact of last-minute changes

When shift trades are announced and arranged with enough notice, both managers and employees have enough time to adjust to new staff schedules. However, the more common use case is arranging a shift trade at the eleventh hour. When time is of the essence, the shift trading process should include a mechanism to instantly notify managers and employees available to take the shift. The optimal solution is a mobile app that holds all scheduling information, which staff members can access wherever they are. Instead of lengthy phone calls, an instant messaging system—emails, SMS, and push notifications—can be used to promptly inform relevant stakeholders about schedule changes.

 

To keep the shift trade process in check, scheduling administrators need proper tools to help them coordinate without adding tasks on their plate. Manual scheduling without a built-in communication mechanism and a view of employees’ availability and skills makes efficient shift trading virtually impossible. Managers have no way to check if the shift coverage will be adequate, nor the employees have an insight into their colleagues’ availability and skills.

One of the solutions is deploying an online scheduling software which serves double duty—as a cloud-based system of record for employee data and as a scheduling engine. That kind of a platform is valuable to employees, who can easily trade shifts with available and qualified peers, as well as to supervisors, who can monitor the entire process and only be required to approve the trade. This way, not only is the shift trade arranged in a timely manner, but it can even be finalized in a matter of minutes, which is a life belt in case of last-minute absences or emergencies. It is definitely a worthy investment for businesses with fluctuating staff schedules and 24/7 coverage.