Every night in the restaurant business is a production, in the way that a Broadway show is a production. The only difference: Restaurants are trickier. The cast of characters you rotate through the front and in the back of house each has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own limits on their time, their own pay rate, and their own temperaments. For any manager trying to direct not just the tasks that need covering, but also the personalities and the costs involved, it’s truly a feat of math, empathy, and occasional blind luck.
How does a restaurant manager balance these myriad factors to get the best return on their human capital investment? You may already have traded the pencil and paper methods of yore for any one of several scheduling solutions on the market. This is a great step, if for no other reason than you don’t run through a pile of erasers each week. But do you have a clear endgame in mind for how you can make these whiz-bang new tools pay off, to make your restaurant as efficient as possible?
For pointers on how to use software to optimize restaurant schedules, we reached Stacey Sikorski, an account executive for the software company 7shifts. The platform connects staffers to management and crunches various data, both internal and external, to make recommendations to restaurant operators on how best to staff a particular shift. You can use her insights to get the most out of any piece of software you may use for the job — or just tuck them into your shirt pocket for filling out the weekly grid by hand. Truly, if you’re still rocking this process old-school, you deserve all the help you can get.
Keeping costs down is no longer the top priority
The greatest shift Sikorski has seen in client restaurants’ priorities: No longer are operators trying to solve for the lowest possible price per shift. “Before Covid, the industry buzz was all about reducing labor costs,” she told us. In the wake of the Great Resignation, “the mentality of the industry is changing. We want to attract people back to work in the industry.” That means respecting availability, honoring time-off requests, and scheduling enough employees that you’re not relying on an overworked skeleton crew. To put it another way, a strong shift-scheduling game is an important piece of making sure your restaurant staffing itself stays on point.
Modern scheduling software facilitates two-way communication with your team, ensuring that managers and employees stay aligned even in the chaos of usual restaurant staffer living. Platforms like 7shifts allow employees to swap shifts, providing them with a sense of autonomy and basic ease of executing changes. “Today’s restaurant workers not only work better when they have tools like these — they almost expect them,” Sikorski said. “You can’t ask someone who was raised in the tech generation to show up in-person to request changes to their schedule and mark them on a piece of paper.”
For those angling for a World’s Best Boss mug, consider using software that empowers your employees beyond basic availability-related functionalities. Top scheduling solutions, including HotSchedules and 7shifts, let employees rate their shifts after the fact, so managers see what worked and what didn’t. If you were tragically understaffed during a massive crunch, or if a particular server and hostess secretly hate each others’ guts, that’s all good information for you to have when you go to make your next schedule. For employees who might not speak up otherwise, the simplicity and impersonal nature of the app might entice them to be more forthcoming about poor experiences.
Employee-facing tools can also provide managers with a fuller picture of each worker’s strengths and weaknesses, which in turn influences scheduling decisions. You can see, for instance, who’s chronically late or otherwise not showing up, and who is keening for more hours. Ideally this helps you to assign your most engaged employees to more hectic shifts. Less-engaged employees may be a better fit during off-peak hours, or they might need a conversation about how things are going.
The software knows a ton of math, but ultimately you know your staff
Much of the appeal of scheduling software lies in its capacity to synthesize loads of information from disparate sources and present managers with data that empowers their scheduling choices. The smartest scheduling software integrates with your POS, pulling in sales data and making recommendations based in part on projections. Typically, it works like this: the system administrator — usually the owner-operator or the manager — puts in the labor markers. Be sure to put in wages for each individual first, lest you find yourself gobsmacked by labor costs after you’ve already finalized the schedule.
Say you want to hold your labor cost to 25% of revenue. The auto-scheduler takes that into account, while also looking at employee availability and engagement, previous schedules that have worked, and data about recent sales and sales from a year earlier. 7shifts’ AI projects the sales onto the schedule so that the manager can stay within optimal staffing levels. “We even take into account the weather forecast,” Sikorski said. “We have a number of clients that are juice bars with patios, and if it’s going to rain, the system knows they’re not going to have a busy day, and makes its recommendations based on that.”
AI has unquestionably transformed the scheduling process, but, as we all know, there’s no such thing as a perfect algorithm. You as a manager still have to steer, using the automatically generated scheduler as a starting point from which to tinker. 7shifts has green and red markers on the schedule to let managers know whether or not they’re within labor targets, and the system offers warnings if a scheduling decision conflicts with an employee’s known availability, or if somebody is going into overtime. You can still make that your schedule, of course, if you’re not afraid of paying some OT.
With the right tools in hand — and a working knowledge of their features — you can create schedules that put your team to the best possible use while balancing your sales and labor considerations. “Once, I met a manager who told us that her worst and most hated day was Tuesday, because that was the day she created the schedule — the old-fashioned way,” said Sikorski. “She told me she sat in a dark, windowless basement for nine hours, flipping between availability books and time-off books, looking at last year’s sales and trying to forecast on her own. After she started using our software, I reached out to her to find out how her most hated day of the week went. And she told me that the software had completely changed her life, because now scheduling only took an hour.”