Entrepreneurial Advice: How Do I Create a Flexible Staff Schedule?


Photo: Fort Defiance

Photo: Fort Defiance

Holly Howard is our go-to business consultant. She’s helped countless small businesses in Brooklyn and beyond (including us here at Brooklyn Based) with her expertise and know-how. This summer, in an unprecedented program, 10 small businesses in Red Hook, Brooklyn have come together to work as a community to grow their businesses through Holly’s From Artisan to Entrepreneur® Business Growth Program.  This program was made possible through the generous support from ReStore Red HookNew York Business Development Corporation, and Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation. Over the next 10 weeks, Holly will dedicate her weekly advice column to a specific business in Red Hook that is participating in her in hopes that their journeys will bring enlightenment and inspiration to your business as well. This week, she fields a question from the owner of Fort Defiance, St. John Frizell.

Dear Holly,

If servers at my restaurant want to get one or more of their shifts covered, there’s a very simple procedure—they simply have to find someone to cover their shift, and email the general manager.  This has worked great until this summer, when several of my servers went away at the same time.  Even though they had found other servers to cover their shifts, unforeseen but inevitable events left me shorthanded.  I can’t let the same thing happen over the holidays.  Is there a better way to handle this—one that still allows my servers to be flexible while protecting the best interests of the business?


St. John, owner, Fort Defiance

Dear St. John,

Great question!  You’re using a very common method that I see owners put in place to manage the Front of House schedule at their restaurants.  You’ve got the right idea, but you’ve left it too loose. What I mean by this is that even though we want to provide flexibility—because let’s all be honest that a lot of value that comes from working in a restaurant is the flexibility it provides—we can’t just open the flood gates.  You need a little more structure in order to ensure that you can continue to provide flexibility and not have the business suffer because of it.

First, let’s start by establishing a new policy for your restaurant. A beneficial addition to this process is to include in your employee handbook that no two servers may take off at the same time. Or, if your staff is a little larger, you may say up to two servers may take off at the same time. That’s really for you to decide, but essentially, you need to limit the amount of requests that will be granted at once. That’s a fair policy that doesn’t take away the flexibility, but also keeps it in check. When you’re deciding on what number is right for you, keep emergencies in the back of your mind.  Don’t allow enough servers to take off at the same time so that if you do encounter an emergency—which you will—you’ve short staffed yourself.

You also want to include that time off is granted on a first-come, first-served basis and give servers a time frame for their requests.  So, you could say they have to request time off no less than 2 weeks before their vacation. Be very specific about the deadline and procedure.

Finally, I do agree that it is good practice to have servers cover their shift, but where I see you give too much autonomy is that you say they email the switch to the GM.  What I would say is that they need to submit a request for a change to the GM, and then the GM will sign off on the final approval. That way, if you have multiple servers submitting at once, someone is in charge of making final decisions and can control the situation.

You’d be surprised how effective these policies can be when they’re established at the beginning of the working relationship. And, it’s the perfect time to institute these new policies moving forward, especially for the upcoming holidays. Flexibility is valuable, but too much of it can create chaos. You’re on the right path, but you need to reign in the autonomy and create more structure in order to ensure that both your business and your employees get their needs met.

Good luck!

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