Shift swaps: How to make them easier for your retail employees

Heard of a “shift swap”? Shift swaps, or when one employee trades shifts with another, can have many benefits for your business. Employees appreciate the autonomy and flexibility, and it can save you from handling every aspect of scheduling on your own. Afterall, you’ve got enough to worry about, right? 

Of course, coworkers trading shifts doesn’t come without drawbacks. Without approval or oversight, shift swaps can cost you overtime or lead to a gap in skills or experience. To manage shift swaps without the stress, you should have a clear policy in place and make sure everyone on your team knows the rules. 

The best way to streamline shift swapping in a retail environment? Some great shift trading software.

What is a shift swap?

Shift swapping is when one employee trades shifts with another. This typically happens when an employee can’t make it to their scheduled shift and needs someone to cover them—so they trade shifts with another employee that’s available to work during that time period. Shift swapping is also known as shift trading or a shift trade.

Let’s look at an example. 

You’ve already scheduled shifts for the next week, and everyone’s signed off on them. You have an employee that’s scheduled to work 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, but a last-minute personal issue comes up. This leaves them unable to work their scheduled shift. They can call a teammate that’s scheduled to work Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offer to trade spots. If their colleague agrees to trade and management approves the change, that’s a shift swap. ‍

Employees want or need to swap shifts for a number of reasons, including:

  • Last-minute personal issues or emergencies
  • Preference for a specific time slot
  • Scheduling conflicts
  • Preference for working with certain people

To avoid problems with scheduling and staffing, managers should keep a few things in mind. 

A shift swap should generally be an even trade. This means the total number of hours each employee works stays the same, despite the change to the schedule. In the example above, employees traded one 6-hour shift for another—the same amount of hours, just on a different day. If staff members start swapping shifts of different lengths, it could potentially lead to unwanted overtime.

Both employees should also earn the same hourly rate and have the same level of experience. If a staff member earning $15 an hour trades with someone who earns $18 an hour, it has an impact on your budget. And if a junior employee is trading with a more senior teammate, they may not have the experience required for the shift.

Because shift swaps can affect important things like overtime hours and labor costs, it’s important for managers to have some oversight. A quick review of proposed trades will save you time, money, and frustration when it comes to scheduling.

The benefits of shift swapping 

Scheduling can be messy and time consuming, and the thought of allowing shift swapping might feel like an extra layer of complication. However, giving your employees more control over their hours can have a lot of benefits. Here are some of the ways shift swapping can make employees happier. 

More flexibility and better job satisfaction

Allowing shift swapping gives your employees more control over their work schedule and more flexibility for their personal lives. We hear from staff and owners everywhere that freedom, autonomy, and flexibility are good for employee morale, productivity, and retention. In a recent McKinsey survey of over 1,000 frontline retail employees in the US, workers said that the number-one reason they’d stay at a job was flexibility. When it’s tougher than ever to attract and retain employees, a shift swapping policy might be something to consider.

Time off without losing money

Trading shifts allows employees much-needed flexibility and time off without financial consequences. Workers aren’t just giving a shift away, they’re trading for another. This means they don’t have to stress about their personal lives or their monthly earnings. At a time when most employees would choose flexibility over better pay, it’s nice to be able to offer them both. 

Build staff camaraderie

Shift swapping builds a culture of trust and teamwork among coworkers. When employees feel supported in the event of family emergencies, last-minute concert tickets, or mental health days, they’re less stressed, more productive, and more likely to stay. Something as simple as allowing shift trades can help employees feel like part of a team. Plus, Gen Z can enjoy the gamification aspect of adjusting schedules in just a few quick clicks.

The challenges of shift swapping 

There’s no denying that shift swapping has its benefits for your employees, but let’s look at some of the drawbacks. Here are some of the challenges you might face when you allow coworkers trading shifts.

They might cost you overtime

If employees start trading shifts of different lengths, it could end up costing you overtime. If you don’t set any shift swapping policies or you’re not approving trades, it’s easy for employees to pick up some extra hours without you even knowing. Some team members may even intentionally trade shifts to earn some overtime pay—and without a policy in place, who can blame them? Unwanted overtime can have a serious impact on your labor costs, so it’s important to make sure shift swaps are an even trade. Create a clear shift swap policy to include in your employee manual to avoid this happening.

He said, she said challenges

Even with a manager’s approval, shift swapping can still go wrong. Say two employees agree to swap shifts and the employee that requested the swap lets you know. You approve the shift and make the necessary changes to your schedule. 

But when the shift finally rolls around, you find yourself short one employee. What happened? Maybe one employee pressured the other into trading, perhaps an employee agreed to the swap but had their own personal issue come up. Maybe someone just forgot about the shift change. Without a proper shift scheduling app that holds employees accountable, shift swapping could spell disaster.

A gap in skills or experience/inconsistent service

Sometimes, you schedule employees at a certain time for a reason. For example, you may need someone with lots of experience to handle your busiest hours, or maybe you have a new staff member and want someone more senior to show them the ropes. 

When employees trade shifts, it could lead to a gap in skills, seniority, or experience. It’s important to make sure shift swaps are an even trade and that employees have the skills they need to navigate their shift. 

How are shifts swapped in a retail setting?

While each business has its own way of handling scheduling, shift swaps are generally straightforward. Here’s how shifts are swapped (typically) in a retail setting, where managers should step in, and where there may be some friction. 

Let’s pretend you’re the manager at a retail shoe store and one of your floor staff (employee A) suddenly has to fly out of town to visit a sick relative. They have a shift in three days but need to head to the airport right away. Instead of leaving you to find a replacement, your staff member can request a shift swap with one of their coworkers. 

Shift swap example

  • Step 1: Employee A asks another employee B to trade for a shift later in the week.
  • Step 2: Employee B either agrees or doesn’t agree to take the shift. In this example, Employee B agrees to the trade. 
  • Step 3: Employee A notifies you of the shift trade to get approval. 
  • Step 4: Since the two staff members do the same job and make the same hourly rate, you approve the trade and notify both employees of the change.
  • Step 5: You update your schedule for the week and know that both shifts are covered. When it comes to payroll time, there’s no trying to remember who worked when. 

Manager approval is one of the most important steps in the shift swap process. After an employee agrees to cover a shift, a manager should always review to ensure the right expertise and the right mix of staff. It’s also your job to double-check an employee won’t be getting unnecessary overtime. 

Approval also allows you to intervene before trades become complicated for your team. There may be instances where employees feel pressured to say yes to a swap, where requests are always last minute, or where an employee is trying to trade too frequently. All of these things can contribute to a toxic workplace environment for your team.

Managing shift swap requests 

While shift swapping has a lot of benefits for your business, it can become a headache without proper planning or management. Here are a few things you can do to handle shift swap requests with less stress.

Talk with your employees about their needs

Before you set your schedule for the month, it’s smart to chat with your employees about their needs and what’s going on in their lives. By having open, honest conversations with your team, you’re more likely to create a schedule that matches everyone’s availability and preferences, and have fewer swap requests to deal with. While you won’t always be able to accommodate shift changes, it’s critical that your team feels comfortable asking.

Build a culture of collaboration

Encouraging collaboration is good for all aspects of your business, but it has some particularly great benefits for scheduling. When every employee feels like they’re working toward a common goal, they don’t want to let them team down. Employees are more likely to stick with their original shifts and more likely to offer help when something comes up. In fact, the very practice of shift swapping is good for team building. Instead of handling every aspect of scheduling yourself, you’re creating a self-sufficient team that looks out for each other and helps run things smoothly.

Leverage technology

Shift planning software is a smart  way to keep shift swapping from getting messy. Homebase makes shift trading simple and quick with real-time notifications and easy manager approval. Employees can even communicate with the rest of the team in the Homebase app to better plan a shift trade and make the process as smooth as possible. 

If your shift swapping process requires major, continuous effort and takes time away from more pressing tasks, you’re doing it wrong. Shift swapping can be more trouble than it’s worth when you don’t have clearly defined rules or you’re not providing any oversight. As a manager, you need to make sure shift trades won’t hurt your business or be a constant struggle. How do you do it? By building a strong shift swapping policy that’s easy for everyone to understand and follow. 

Why you need a shift swap policy 

A shift swapping policy outlines the rules and regulations around shift swapping and gives employees a fixed structure for how swaps can take place. It’s important so your team knows the rules before they ask for approval, saving everyone time, energy, and disappointment.

A shift swapping policy should include:

  • The acceptable timeframe in which employees can make shift swap requests
  • The procedure for requesting a swap
  • The procedure for accepting or rejecting a swap request
  • The manager’s role in the entire process—do you need to intervene at any point? Do swaps retire a manager’s approval?
  • What happens if employees don’t follow the rules

On top of the basics, there are a few things you can do to ensure your policy is effective.

Clearly communicate the process

When all of your employees are crystal clear about the proper process for switching shifts, it can make scheduling easier for everyone. Once you’ve determined the rules and outlined your policy, it’s important to get everyone on board. Make sure every employee has a copy of your shift swapping policy and that you have an opportunity to go through it with them in person. It’s also good practice to post the policy somewhere visible, so your employees can refer to it as needed.

Shift swapping tip: Put your shift swapping process into your onboarding materials so your employees know the rules from day one. You should also consider posting the process in your break room or in another visible place.

Have strict rules for approval

Without clear rules for approval, you may end up fielding unqualified requests and saying no a lot. To avoid everyone’s frustration, employees need to know exactly what’s required for approval. Best practices include the following:

  • Shift swaps always require manager approval
  • Shift swaps must be submitted for approval at least X days in advance
  • Employees must have the same job position
  • Employees must have the same skill levels or seniority
  • Shift swaps won’t be approved if they’ll result in overtime

Share schedules as early as possible

Last-minute scheduling makes it difficult for employees to properly arrange work transportation, set up childcare or social arrangements, and pursue other opportunities. It also hurts their ability to properly budget or save money since they’re not guaranteed a set income. When you give your employees enough time to plan their lives outside of work, they’re less stressed and they’re also more likely to stick to their work schedule. 

There are perks for you too. Advance notice means you’ll typically see fewer swaps—especially last-minute requests—and if someone needs to make a change, there’s enough time to adjust. 

Streamlining the process with shift trading software

Shift swapping may sound simple, but it’s a lot to track on a daily basis—especially when you have a team to manage. Modern shift swapping software and apps, like Homebase, can help streamline the process, making it smarter and more efficient for everyone involved.

Homebase offers loads of features that empower your employees to manage their own schedules. Our team communication tool allows team members to send a message to one of their colleagues, a group, or the entire team to see who’s available to swap shifts. Your team doesn’t need to exchange personal contact information, or worry about emails going unseen.  

Because it’s all online, the shift swapping process happens in real time. When an employee sends a swap request, everyone involved—from other employees to the manager approving the swap—can see what’s happening on the app. It’s easy for employees to change their schedules when conflicts, emergencies, or last-minute events come up. 

It’s simple for managers to handle schedule changes, too. Staff scheduling apps like Homebase, allow you to make changes to the weekly calendar remotely so it’s not a major undertaking whenever a team member needs to take time off work. You can then send out an email of the updated weekly schedule to all your employees so they can get the latest version quickly and easily. 

Is your business struggling with shift swapping? Homebase can help. Our modern tools make it easy to manage scheduling, time clocks, payroll, team communication, hiring, onboarding, compliance, and more. Get started for free

Shift swap FAQS

What is a shift swap?

A shift swap is when one employee swaps their current shift date or time for another employee’s scheduled shift date or time. Employees request shift swaps for many reasons, including scheduling conflicts, emergencies, or because something came up in their personal life. Generally shift swaps should only occur between employees with the same level of pay and seniority, when their shifts are an equal number of hours, and when the swap won’t result in overtime pay.

What are the benefits of employees making a shift swap?

There are many benefits of shift swapping. Employees appreciate having autonomy over their schedule and the flexibility to make changes if something comes up in their personal life. Employees are also able to have that flexibility without financial hardship. Because they’re not just giving shifts away, they can take time off without losing money. Finally shift swapping can help build a stronger team. When you know you have the support of colleagues, employees feel comfortable asking for help and their teammates are more likely to give it.

What are the challenges of shift swapping

There are a few challenges with shift swapping. First, it can cost you overtime. If there’s no manager approval or oversight it’s easy for employees to pick up extra shifts and collect overtime pay that wouldn’t otherwise be approved. Shift swapping can also lead to a gap in experience or skills if employees aren’t at the same level. For example, you may need someone with lots of experience to handle your busiest hours, or maybe you have a new staff member and want someone more senior to show them the ropes. If a senior employee trades with a junior employee, they may not have the skills they need to handle the shift. 

What should be in a shift swap policy?

The following things should be in a shift swap policy:

  • The acceptable timeframe in which employees can make shift swap requests
  • The procedure for requesting a swap
  • The procedure for accepting or rejecting a swap request
  • The manager’s role in the entire process—do they need to intervene at any point? Do swaps retire a manager’s approval?
  • What happens if employees don’t follow the rules

A shift swap policy is important so that everyone knows the rules before they come to you for approval. Be sure to clearly communicate the process with your employees and have strict rules for approval. With a strong policy in place, shift swapping should save you time, energy, and unnecessary frustration. 

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