Peak Performance: Tips You Can Use
Volume 7,  Issue 5
May 2015
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Lorraine's Corner





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Effective Staff Scheduling in the Midst of Vacation Season

Oh, the joy of managing your employee schedules. The very thought brings delight to one's heart. Well okay, maybe not. The truth is the person who is blessed with the task of creating employee schedules has a difficult job. Scheduling is a delicate balancing act. The schedule coordinator must ensure that the practice is neither overstaffed nor understaffed. They must be able to navigate through tough decisions about the schedule an, possibly answer to someone as to why they made the decisions they did. The best way to do this is to determine the staffing needs of your practice. Once these requirements have been established, the entire team should be aware of them.

In the art of effective scheduling, the strongest recommendation we can make is to empower your team with knowledge. First and foremost, lay out schedule and staffing expectations in advance. Often, team members do not understand that the ultimate goal of scheduling is to make sure the hospital has the appropriate number of staff to ensure proper care and maximum service to patients, clients and fellow teammates. Once you establish how many employees from each department can request time off at any given time, utilize a dry-erase vacation planner or electronic scheduling software (such as ScheduleBase®) to show what days have already been requested. The use of either of these tools will minimize the number of duplicate time off requests for the same date.

Having established guidelines in place pertaining to time off requests, including an emphasis on advanced planning, will eliminate confusion for your employees. These guidelines should be clearly outlined in the employee handbook and need to be part of the new employee orientation process. In addition, occasional reminders about the guidelines either in a team meeting or through an email update might prove to be beneficial as well.

Things to consider when updating or creating your time off request guidelines: 

  • Will requests off be approved on a first come, first served basis or will the determining factor be seniority?
  • How disputes over requested time off will be handled?
  • How far in advance will schedules be created and posted? (One month is ideal.)
  • Establish how much advance notice is needed to submit a time off request (i.e. 5-6 weeks)
  • Establish and document "peak" times of the year when team member time off requests are limited or discouraged and educate the team as to why
  • Determine how many team members can be granted time off from each department or shift while the needs of the hospital can still effectively be met (i.e. 2 veterinary technicians can be granted time off Monday-Friday and up to 3 Saturday-Sunday)
  • Decide whether the hospital will grant permission to take an unpaid vacation to team members who do not have accrued paid time off
  • Establish how the hospital will handle requests over holidays (i.e. the same employee cannot request the same holiday off two years in a row)
  • Understand that emergencies will come up and determine how they will be handle
    • Will the hospital hire relief doctors or technicians
    • Can the hospital solicit help from former employees that left the practice on good terms
    • Establish an "on call" system that outlines which team member(s) will be called in the event of an emergency

Advanced preparation is often the key factor in whether or not team members taking time off becomes a nightmare. It is imperative that the hospital fill the absent employee's spot with a person that has a similar skill set. Create and maintain a well thought-out, thorough, ongoing and effective team training program. In addition, proper cross training of employees will make a huge difference in handling time off requests with ease.

Many hospitals have key team members who take on additional responsibilities during the absences of other employees. For instance, the veterinary technician that is also the schedule coordinator has responsibilities beyond her "regular" job description. When these employees take time off, it is essential to make sure that the additional tasks are completed. Therefore, it is best to provide this person time to complete tasks ahead of schedule or teach another capable employee how to fill the role. Remember that depending on how many duties need to be handled, utilizing several team members may be necessary. The last thing you want to do is to over task your other employees while another is out on vacation.

In the world of creating employee schedules, you are often seen as either a hero or a villain. We all know that there will be times when we cannot please everyone. Taking earned time off is an employee's right. We understand that not utilizing vacation time can lead to animosity and that taking time off often equals improved employee productivity. Even though we know all of these things, the question often becomes, how do we balance the needs of the practice with the needs of the team? Take steps now to ensure handling time off requests can be a smooth process for all.

There are definitely times when allowing team members to take time off can pose challenges for the hospital. By developing clear guidelines, maintaining good communication, establishing effective training and taking a proactive approach to scheduling, the challenges will likely be kept to a minimum.