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 look for in a free employee scheduling software. Finally, this post will share eight 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. 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. 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.
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.
- Instantaneously distributes the schedule when you send it out electronically.
- Allows you to make necessary adjustments quickly and easily.
- 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. 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.
- Employee availability and status (part-time vs. full-time).
- The positions that each individual is qualified to work.
- Time-off requests.
- Special events that may affect the amount of staff you’ll need for a particular shift.
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 nine 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 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. Group Chat Apps
One of the biggest challenges you face as a manager is distributing the schedule to all your team members. Chances are that when you examine the tools we’ve mentioned so far, you’ll see that they are not the most productive choices. That’s because your employees don’t use apps like Dropbox or Google Docs 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 WhatsApp comes in.
The unique thing about WhatsApp is that it allows 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. Here’s how.
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 WhatsApp. If you choose to use pen and paper, you can take a picture of the finished schedule and send it to everyone using WhatsApp. Distributing the schedule like this is an easy way to reach all your team members at the same time. Employing three different apps to get the job done certainly isn’t ideal, but it is a way to get around all the shortcomings that each individual app has.
The benefits of using a combination of free apps are instant communication and simplicity for your employees. The drawback is that all your employees have to download WhatsApp. And the app requires 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.
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 Time Clock helps you keep labor costs in check by letting you estimate and optimize your spending as you schedule. It also lets you input projected sales to get your labor percentage and avoid exceeding your labor budget or scheduling overtime. That’s a big plus for your business. But the benefits don’t stop there.
Sling makes it easy for employees to clock in and out right from their phones or mobile devices. And if you’re concerned about early clock-ins, Sling contains geofencing restrictions so employees can’t clock in unless they’re inside a certain area. When the work week is done, you can review and edit your employees’ hours and export timesheets for simple payroll processing.
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!