Scheduling employees in a restaurant is a monumental task. Chances are, you’ve got a handful of handwritten time-off requests. Then you’ve got the regular availability to contend with. Not to mention the variable availability that rears its ugly head on a daily basis. And let’s say you do manage to get a schedule put together that, on the surface, looks like it’s good for everyone. It’s not going to stay that way for long.
The seeming futility of setting any type of scheduling in writing is enough to make you want to ignore availability and time-off requests all together. But that idea is not good for the business. It’s not good for employee (or customer) satisfaction. And it’s not good for employee retention. What’s more, an employee who is “forced” to work is often resentful and won’t do their job at the high standards you expect. This lackluster performance can impact profits and sales in a bad way.
The best way to schedule is to communicate with your team and create a process that takes staff needs into account. Start with a system that keeps track of employee availability and can handle changes to that availability in real-time.
Most scheduling tools aren’t specifically designed for scheduling, but one system is—Sling. What form does that system take and how can you use it to produce the best, most acceptable schedule possible? This article shares nine free employee scheduling software tools and how they work in the restaurant setting.
Comparing Free Employee Scheduling Software Tools
1. Pen and paper
Pen and paper can be a very simple way of creating a schedule but it does have its limitations. For one thing, it’s not very conducive to rapid mass distribution. The pen-and-paper method relies on posting the schedule and making sure everyone sees it, or on producing a copy for each employee and then making sure you get it in everyone’s hand.
Another factor is that pen and paper isn’t the easiest to change nor does it help you create the best schedule by notifying you of conflicts.
Microsoft Word (or some other word processing software) is basically just glorified pen and paper. Word processing software was created with the written word in mind, not scheduling. Sure, it can get the job done, but you’ll have to put some major effort into getting it right and making it collaborative.
Even if you do decide to use Word as your schedule maker, it’s still not super conducive to rapid mass distribution. Like pen and paper, a Word document requires another step to get it into your employee’s hands. That step could be printing it and posting it or handing it out. It could be emailing it to all your employees (as we’ll discuss below). Regardless of your choice, it’s still another step that makes your life just that much more difficult.
And while a Word document is easier to change than pen and paper, it’s still not the most user-friendly tool out there. Formatting a Word document to reflect your business’s work schedule can be a daunting task that may require hours upon hours just to set up. Plus, if you update a Word document, you’ll have to resend the whole thing and then make sure everyone sees the new version.
In addition, you won’t see a Word document let you know when you’ve scheduled someone to work during a time when they’re not available. Yes a Word document is a step up from the pen and paper, but it’s only a very small step. And while it is more-or-less free, there are certainly better free alternatives out there. Keep reading to find more.
Excel is a more common replacement for pen and paper. Excel doesn’t have the formatting restrictions that plague Word when the latter is used to make a schedule. Excel allows you to easily resize rows, columns, and even individual cells.
So while it’s much more flexible as an employee scheduling tool, it still suffers from the distribution problems that keep the previous entries from being your go-to solution. You’ll either have to print and distribute your Excel schedule or email it to all your employees.
Excel was designed as a database and accounting tool. It is in these tasks that it excels (no pun intended). Like Word, it can be made to work as a scheduling tool, but it’s still most at home crunching numbers.
Let’s switch gears for a moment and consider distribution—how you get your schedule into your employee’s hands. Yes, posting your schedule or handing it out personally does work, but it’s much easier to send your schedule via email. You simply create a mailing list or group that includes all your employees, attach your Word or Excel schedule, and hit ‘Send’. It requires very little effort to use. It can also reach a large number of people quickly.
Even though it’s easy, it may not be the best bet for getting your schedules out there. What with texting, instant messaging, and chatting becoming the norm, some people don’t check their email very often—if at all.
Dropbox is another option that can facilitate your schedule distribution. With Dropbox, you first create your schedule, then upload it to Dropbox where you can specify who is allowed to access the file. Dropbox can then be instructed to send notifications to all parties involved via email, text, and various other means to let your employees know that a new schedule has been posted.
In some ways, it’s better than email because it can reach those who don’t check their email very often. Like email, though, it’s another step in the difficult process of scheduling. Is there a way to combine the creation process and the distribution process into something a bit more streamlined? Read on to find out.
6. Google Docs
Google Docs takes the creation of your employee schedule and puts it firmly in the cloud. You create your document online. It’s saved online. And you can specify who has access to the document. Then, like Dropbox, you can send notifications via various methods to all your employees.
Once that’s done, your document is available anytime, anywhere. Your employees just need to access Google’s document editor (which is pretty much everywhere) to view or print the schedule.
With Google Docs, the distribution has been streamlined considerably, but the creation still leaves a lot to be desired. Like Word, Google Docs was meant for text-based projects like letters and reports. As such, it’s most powerful features are focused along those lines and not toward making the scheduling process easier for you.
7. Google Sheets
Google Sheets—Google’s cloud spreadsheet program—is much like Excel in that it makes the formatting of the schedule that much easier by allowing you to resize rows, columns, and cells. You can also add color-coded blocks to delineate employees and include tasks and responsibilities in a more logical and visually appealing way.
Google Sheets, like Docs, can be distributed quickly and easily by sharing the document with specified users. Those users can then access the document whenever and wherever they choose.
The ease of distribution is certainly a plus and the fact that Sheets is much easier to manipulate for scheduling purposes than Docs makes it a better choice amongst free scheduling tools. But is there yet a better option?
8. Google Calendar
Google Calendar combines the ease of online creation and distribution with the power of a calendar specifically designed for scheduling. Google Calendar replaces Docs, Sheets, Word, Excel, and, yes, pen and paper.
Though Google Calendar was originally designed to be a personal calendar, with some work it can be altered to schedule multiple employees. From either the day view or the week view, you can click on a time to add an event. You can then label that event (with the worker’s name or duties) and specify the duration (say 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.). You can color code the event for easier viewing, attach email addresses to the event for simplified communication, and set up automated notifications to keep your employees informed.
Though Google Calendar may look like the answer to your scheduling prayers, it can be a bit tedious if you have more than 4 or 5 employees. In addition, it can be difficult to decipher if you have overlapping shifts and other complicated scheduling.
Above all, the tools mentioned to this point weren’t designed with restaurant scheduling in mind. Only one tool was.
Sling was designed specifically for retail and restaurant business owners. Because of this, Sling simplifies the scheduling process like none of the other free options on this list. In fact, it is the easiest way to schedule and communicate with your employees. And it’s free!
On top of all the intuitive tools you’d expect from an app that’s dedicated to scheduling, Sling provides guidance and helps you avoid conflicts with up-to-date availability and time-off requests. Sling even notifies you of overlapping shifts or double-bookings.
Sling Tasks allows you to assign jobs and follow their progress. You can create to-do lists and assign by name, group, location, or position. You can even set due dates and reminders as completion time approaches.
Sling Messages and Newsfeed make communication a breeze. You don’t have to rely on email or some other third-party app. You can communicate directly with employees on Sling and send messages to individuals or groups. You can even share work files, photos, videos, and links when you communicate.
Sling is the most powerful restaurant scheduling tool available. It reduces the time it takes to create and manage schedules and helps managers bring team together, keep everyone informed, and build better company culture. What more could you ask for in a free app!