Whether you're running a retail shop that is open on weekends or managing a manufacturing plant that runs 24/7, scheduling shift work depends on balancing your business needs with the needs of your employees. Developing a sound shift schedule ensures that your business runs efficiently and your employees are able to perform at optimal levels without undue stress or fatigue.

Selecting a Shift Cycle

Shift cycles can range anywhere from a week to several months. When it comes to evening and night shifts, research is mixed on whether a short shift cycle of one or two weeks is better for employees than longer periods lasting several weeks. When dealing with night shifts, it's more difficult on your employees' sleep patterns to change shifts quickly. But long shift cycles can be stressful if they deprive workers of the ability to spend evenings and weekends with friends and family for an extended period. This is why many employers choose a middle ground, using shifts that last two or four weeks.

Shifts and Sleeping Patterns

Everyone has an internal clock, called the circadian rhythm, which is disrupted with shift work. Because employees adjust to shifts better when their sleep is moved forward rather than moving backward in time, shifts should rotate forward from day to afternoon to night. Workers should be given a rest period of at least 24 hours after a set of night shifts before changing to days. The longer employees work nights, the more time off they should be given before the next shift rotation so they can adjust their sleeping patterns.

Shift Cycle Options

While many companies use two or three eight-hour shifts per day, a growing number are increasing shift periods to 10 or 12 hours so employees can take three or four days off each week. For example, if employees work 10 hours each week, they can accumulate 40 hours in just four days. Of course, employers must take care with such schedules to ensure that longer work schedules don't violate federal and state laws in overtime pay requirements. Employers may need to renegotiate labor contracts to accommodate changes in schedules. For weekend shifts, the cycles should be staggered so employees get at least every other weekend off for personal time or social activities.

Creating a Shift Schedule

You can use a spreadsheet program to create a shift schedule and many templates – available online at no cost – are designed specifically for these schedules. Rather than scheduling each employee as an individual, group your employees into two or more shift teams and schedule the teams. In a three-shift schedule, for example, Team A would be days for the first cycle, Team B would be evenings and Team C would be nights. Move each team forward one shift for the second and then the third cycle. In a business that works weekends and holidays, teams working these days can rotate to give all staff an opportunity to have certain days off.