Scheduling employees in a restaurant is a monumental task. There are many variables to take into consideration, and you need to make sure your business continues running like a well-oiled machine.
So what’s a busy manager to do? Well, there are many ways to crack this nut. It might be fun to have blindfolded monkeys throw darts with employee names written on them at a blank schedule. But that probably wouldn’t produce the best result.
Of course, there are more effective ways to create a work schedule. Using pen and paper, for instance, is a time-tested technique. There are also several varieties of free employee scheduling software. While most of these scheduling tools aren’t specifically designed for scheduling, one system is—Sling. We’ll explain more about Sling a bit later.
This article will start by discussing the pros and cons of both pen-and-paper scheduling and software scheduling. We’ll also tell you why software is the hands-down winner. Then we’ll go over exactly what qualities you should be looking for in a free employee scheduling software.
Finally, this post will share 12 free employee scheduling software tools and how they work in the restaurant setting.
Pen And Paper VS. Free Employee Scheduling Software
Despite decades of technological advancements and the advent of software for just about every conceivable demand, some restaurant managers still prefer using pen and paper to make their work schedules. Fair enough. That’s how things were done for a very long time, so it certainly serves its purpose.
And the good, old-fashioned pen-and-paper method does have its advantages. For starters, it doesn’t require anything more than, well, a pen and a sheet of paper. As long as you know your employees’ and your business’s needs well, this simple system still works. On top of that, it doesn’t require familiarity with any computer programs or software.
However, the pen-and-paper process is not without its drawbacks. For one thing, it’s not very conducive to rapid mass distribution. This method relies on either posting the schedule and making sure everyone sees it or producing a copy for each employee and then making sure you get it in everyone’s hand.
Another disadvantage is that pen and paper schedules aren’t the easiest to adjust after they’ve been passed around. Any changes to the schedule require another round of printing and distribution.
What about free employee scheduling software? Let’s start with the downside. As with any computer program, there’s sure to be a learning curve. It takes a little time to learn the ins-and-outs of any new system or process, and free employee scheduling software is no exception.
Until you become acquainted with the software, it might feel a bit cumbersome. Using free employee scheduling software also assumes that all of your employees have access to the internet and a device they can use to get online.
This might seem like an issue, but a recent study from Pew Research Center shows that 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Those numbers are even higher for younger people: a full 92 percent of Americans aged 18-29 own a smartphone, and the figure drops only slightly to 88 percent for Americans aged 30-49. So it’s not unfair to assume that virtually all of your employees will be able to get online easily.
Now for the advantages of free employee scheduling software. Here’s a list of the amazing things employee scheduling software does:
- Automatically saves your schedule every time you create one. So you can use a previous week’s schedule as a template and then make any necessary changes, like time-off requests, before sending out the new schedule.
- Instantaneously distributes the schedule when you send it out electronically. There’s no need to track employees down to make sure they’ve seen the new schedule. With software, the schedule is received the moment you send it.
- Allows you to make necessary adjustments quickly and easily. The updated schedule can be instantly sent out once again after the changes have been made.
- Cuts back on the amount of paper your business uses. This reduces costs and helps reduce paper waste, which is better for the environment.
Even the most basic software can provide all of these benefits. And advanced, industry-specific software can actually do much, much more. That makes it pretty clear that software trumps pen and paper, because software offers all the advantages of the pen-and-paper method, and then some. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but using free employee scheduling software will save you time and money in the long run.
Let’s talk more about what you should look for in your scheduling software.
What To Look For In Free Employee Scheduling Software
When making your schedule, there are a number of factors that you have to consider. Any free employee scheduling software worth its salt should take those changing elements into account, too. Here are some of the variables your employee scheduling software should allow for.
- The varying needs of your business for every shift. Perhaps you only need four servers on the floor for a weeknight shift, but you may need 10 servers for a Friday or Saturday night.
- Employee availability. Some folks may only be able to work at night, while others are only free during the day. You will also need to consider whether each employee is part-time or full-time and see to it that everyone is receiving the appropriate number of shifts.
- The positions that each individual is qualified to work. You probably have employees that can fill different posts—as either a host or busser, for example. But you don’t want to schedule someone for a position they haven’t been trained to do. Make sure you don’t put a busser behind the bar.
- Time-off requests. This one can really throw a wrench into your schedule. If several of your strongest employees have all asked for the same time off, making the work schedule becomes even more difficult.
- Special events that may affect the amount of staff you’ll need for a particular shift. Everything from holidays to local festivals to graduation weekends to national sporting events needs to be considered.
In addition to all of that, a truly superb employee scheduling software should also alert you when there’s a potential problem. For example, if an employee is scheduled for too many shifts and will have overtime hours, that should be made clear in case changes are necessary.
So what program can handle all of these tasks? Let’s have a look at 12 free employee scheduling software tools and find the right one to help you conquer the employee-scheduling feat.
Comparing Free Employee Scheduling Software Tools
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.
5) 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.
6) 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 specific 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?
7) Microsoft Outlook
Calendar software like Microsoft Outlook can be an excellent replacement for pen and paper, word processors, spreadsheets, and their cloud-based counterparts. And chances are you have a free scaled-down version of Microsoft Outlook on your computer already. So what makes Microsoft Outlook a viable (though not ideal) choice for free employee scheduling software?
Microsoft Outlook is much more amenable to scheduling because it was created with that in mind. Times, days, weeks, months, and even years are already present and can be manipulated with ease. In addition, creating shifts, which on most calendars would be tasks or appointments, is as easy as clicking a time slot and labeling it accordingly.
So while Microsoft Outlook is a large step in the right direction, it still shouldn’t be classified as the best free (or paid) employee scheduling software option.
For one thing, Microsoft Outlook was made for the use of a single individual. Because of that, it can be a bit difficult when you have to schedule more employees than you can count on one hand.
For another thing, Microsoft Outlook wasn’t created with overlapping shifts, rotating shifts, night shifts, and other complicated scheduling practices in mind. Remember, it was intended for one person who could only be in one place at a time.
Microsoft Outlook also faces the same distribution challenges that make native word processors and spreadsheet programs like Word and Excel obsolete (e.g., they’re not cloud-based). That’s not to say that you can’t make them work. It’s just that there are better solutions out there for free employee scheduling software.
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.
9) A Group Chat App
One of the biggest challenges you face as a manager is distributing the schedule to all your team members. You have to consider questions like:
- What’s the best way to get the schedule into every employee’s hand?
- Would giving them a physical copy be the most efficient and timely method?
- Do they have email and do they check it regularly?
- Are websites like Dropbox the easiest way to make the schedule available?
Chances are that when you examine your answers to the above questions, you’ll see that those solutions are not the most productive choices. That’s because your employees don’t use apps like Dropbox regularly other than for work. Instead, they’re using group chat apps to stay in touch with their friends.
Why not distribute your schedule through an app they’re already familiar with? That’s where these group chat apps start to shine.
The unique thing about group chat apps is that they allow you to exchange messages (texts) with one or all of your employees without paying SMS fees. You can use the app to get your schedule into everyone’s hands instantaneously.
Keep in mind that group chat apps do require a smartphone or mobile device with cell service. If one or two of your employees don’t have a smartphone, you’ll have to come up with another way to reach these individuals.
Here’s how to use a group chat app to distribute your schedule.
Let’s say you use Excel or Word to build your schedule. You can store the finished file on Dropbox and then send the link to your team members using a group chat app. If you choose to use pen and paper, you can take a picture of the finished schedule and send it to everyone using the group chat app.
Distributing the schedule like this is a quick and easy way to reach all of your team members at the same time. Employing three different tools (e.g., Word, Dropbox, a group chat tool) to get the job done certainly isn’t ideal (we’ll discuss the ideal solution at the end of this article), but it is a way to get around all the shortcomings of each individual tool.
The benefits of using a combination of free tools are instant communication and simplicity for your employees. The drawback is that all of your employees have to use the tools you use. They’ll need to download them and then learn how to use them. That shouldn’t be too difficult since they’re probably already familiar with these types of messaging apps, but it could be much simpler.
Requiring that your employees download two or three separate programs to access their schedule is a bit much. First, they’ve got to learn how to use them. And for some programs (like Excel), the learning curve can be quite steep. Second, those programs take up valuable space on their devices.
It would be better if you could just text a link and be done. That’s the premise behind the next (and best) free employee scheduling software tool. You send your employees a link to a cloud-based document, and they can access it anywhere, anytime.
No need to download multiple complicated, memory-heavy apps to their device. No learning curve that could make accessing and reading the schedule difficult. Just easy schedule access at the click of a button or tap of the screen.
10) Google Drive
Another viable free scheduling software option is Google Drive. If you’re using MS Word, MS Excel, Google Docs, or Google Sheets to create your schedule, Drive is a quick and easy way to make the schedule available to a large number of your employees with just a few clicks.
With Google Drive, you can create shared folders and give specific individuals access to those folders. You can create one folder where everyone can view the schedule.
You can create another folder just for servers. You can create another just for kitchen staff, one for bartenders, one for hosts and hostesses, and one for managers. All you need to set up permission to access these folders is an email address.
Then your employees can view the information via a web browser on any smartphone, tablet, or computer.
As familiar and widespread as Google Drive is at the moment, it only addresses the distribution issue within your scheduling process. It does nothing to alleviate the pain of actually creating the schedule.
Yes, you can use one of the other free employee scheduling software tools listed above to build your work plan, but, as we’ve seen, those don’t really make the process any easier.
Trello is another free tool that you can use to make organizing your team easier. Trello is a web-based list-making application that lets you and your employees work collaboratively to get more done.
Trello’s boards, lists, and cards enable you to organize and prioritize work projects in a flexible and rewarding way. Like Google Drive, you can create Trello boards for different positions within your business and give each member permission to access that board.
Trello also integrates with a number of the apps on this list (like Google Drive, Dropbox, Docs, Sheets, and others) to meet your team’s unique business needs.
And, no matter where you are, Trello stays in sync across all your devices so you can collaborate with your team anywhere, anytime. Trello even works in real-time so that when someone moves a card, it moves on your board at the same time — no matter what device you’re using.
Within the Trello cards themselves, you can add members, assign labels, make checklists, set up due dates, start a discussion, and much more.
Trello, though, is more of a task or to-do list than a full-service employee scheduling tool. Yes, you can attach documents, spreadsheets, and files to the Trello cards, but this is more of a distribution channel than an app that can actually streamline and simplify the scheduling process.
Trello does have a calendar tool, but, like Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar, it wasn’t designed to coordinate more than one or two people. You can make it work with three or more employees, but it’s going to be difficult, tedious, and confusing to read.
There’s no need to add more issues to the scheduling process when you can harness the power of an app that was specifically designed to remove all the problems and make organizing your team one of the easiest jobs you’ve got.
Let’s examine the best free employee scheduling software tool in more detail.
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 their teams together, keep everyone informed, and build better company culture. What more could you ask for in a free app!
For more free resources to help you manage your business better, organize and schedule your team, and track and calculate labor costs, visit GetSling.com today.