Shift Work Schedule Types: Different Ways To Structure Work


Did you know that shift work is one of the most productive and efficient ways of structuring a workday, anywhere? There’s a reason the most demanding professions in the modern world use the structure of shifts: it yields excellent results when done well.

In some industries, it’s the only real solution. For instance, healthcare, telecoms, and security businesses often rely on shift work to function properly. Otherwise, if you run a 24/7 service (like some restaurants, tech support teams, or warehouses), you’ll need your team to cover work in a way that doesn’t always fit into a basic 9-5 schedule.

Shift work is typically structured so that an employee focuses completely on an organization's priorities for a limited time, then heads home for a break while someone else takes over. Scheduled rest periods for your employees allow them to deliver their best work for your organization when it’s their turn at bat. When a shift schedule is done right, you can even realize higher engagement and productivity figures — in addition to better efficiency and compliance with labor laws.

There’s just one downside to shift work: it can be difficult to schedule and manage. However, there are tools that can simplify the process for you. Let’s look at what shift work involves, potential types of shift work schedules, and how to implement the best schedule for your organization smoothly and efficiently.

What Is Shift Work?

Shift work typically involves organizing employees into distinct groups or "shifts" that work different hours of the day or night. However, “shift work” can also refer to any work schedule that deviates from the traditional 9-5 workday (think evening shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts). Either way, the primary goal is to maintain productivity over extended hours or around the clock.

The duration of shifts can vary widely, from standard eight hours to longer 10-12 hour shifts (with corresponding rest periods). Particularly demanding work is best suited to shorter shifts, perhaps even as short as four or five hours, depending on the industry.

The pattern of employees moving through different shifts is called shift rotation. For instance, hospital employees may cycle through day, evening, and night shifts in predetermined sequences. A rotating schedule where shifts are changed can help fairly distribute both desirable and undesirable work shifts among employees.

But in some industries (like fast food) employees may prefer to stick with one shift consistently. Suppose you have one employee who is happy to take a morning shift each and every day, others who split the afternoons, and another who can work evenings. These are called fixed schedules, in which workers constantly work the same shift each week.

Benefits of Shift Work

While shift work may be a necessary system for your business model, it can also be one of the best things to happen to your organization. Some businesses report benefits with shift work such as:

Shift Work Schedules

Shift work schedules can vary widely in design, but they usually take one of these forms:


One of the most traditional and straightforward types of work arrangements is the fixed work schedule. Many employees love the stability and predictability it provides — no one is left wondering when they’re expected to show up at work. Fixed schedules can be designed to fit around an employee’s other school or home commitments and can help create a great work/life balance.

As previously mentioned, with fixed schedules, employees work a consistent set of hours and days each week. Your standard 9-5 workday is actually a fixed week schedule, but so is a daily morning shift, a MWF evening shift, or a weekend 9-5.

Employers often favor fixed-schedule shift work because it allows for better planning of staffing needs and facilitates easier communication and coordination among team members. It’s simpler to organize, and if shifts remain consistent, there’s less need for managerial oversight or administrative work in scheduling.

But fixed schedules may not be suitable for industries or roles that require round-the-clock coverage or flexibility in working hours. If your industry requires special hours or round-the-clock staffing, you may prefer to use a rotating schedule.


In a rotating schedule, employees alternate between different shifts over a set period. These shifts could include day, evening, and night shifts. This type of schedule distributes the workload evenly among employees. It also ensures continuous coverage throughout the day and night.

One common rotating shift schedule is the “4-on-4-off” rotation, where employees work four consecutive 10 or 12-hour shifts followed by four days off. Since this pattern allows for extended periods of rest, it may particularly appeal to workers who prefer longer stretches of time away from work.

Another popular rotation is the “2-2-3” schedule. Here, an employee works two days, then two nights, and finally takes three days off. This rotation provides a balance between day and night shifts and allows employees to adjust to different sleep patterns.


Fixed and rotating aren’t the only common shift scheduling options. In a split schedule, the workday is divided into two distinct shifts, typically morning and evening, with a significant break in between. This break allows employees to rest and recharge before returning to work for the second part of their shift.

One frequent variant of a split schedule is the ‘clopen’ shift. Here, a worker will work a closing shift and then an opening shift the next morning. These shifts are common in retail and hospitality industries, but the minimal time provided for rest and recuperation makes them highly problematic. Some states have gone so far as legislating against clopen shifts. Otherwise, local law may require rest periods between open and closing shifts and/or extra compensation for clopen shifts.

Split schedules can offer flexibility and accommodate varying workloads, but they need to be designed carefully. Done wrong, they can pose challenges for employees in managing their personal and professional lives and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.


What if you need your employees to be available, but you aren’t sure yet whether they will be needed? For this, you might schedule an on-call shift. Healthcare and emergency services rely on on-call shifts to meet unpredictable, urgent needs or emerging situations around the clock.

On-call shifts are sometimes required in retail and hospitality industries, but they tend to be very unpopular among employees because the work is unpredictable and impossible to plan around.

Do you need to pay for on-call time? That depends on your particular situation and state. In California, for instance, if you require an employee to call in two hours ahead to find out if they’re needed, you must pay them for at least two hours of work.

But even if FLSA regulations don’t apply and you don’t live in a state that requires pay for your on-call employees, you may still want to compensate your employees for prioritizing your work during their on-call shift. Retention is directly related to employee-friendly work policies, including on-call compensation.

How To Organize Shift Work

Organizing shift work can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you use the right tools. Here are some common challenges to be aware of, along with solutions you can implement even before you have problems.

Common Challenges

It’s a lot to keep track of. This is why it’s important to not only use scheduling software but also a human capital management solution that keeps track of important employee data. With employee profiles integrated with your scheduling software, you can make more intelligent staffing decisions that utilize the power of your workforce.

Improve Communication

While scheduling is important, communication is absolutely essential for shift work. That includes both top-down communication and communication between employees who might need to trade shifts on occasion or ask others to step in.

A number of communication options are available for teams, each with upsides and downsides. Slack is one popular option, which can be used to send shift reminders to employees or communicate shift schedules and changes.

Ideally, communication should happen in the same interface used to handle scheduling. With Criterion HCM, you gain a human capital management platform, complete scheduling functionality, and an organized talent management system where all communication and data related to each employee is centralized on one database.

No need to switch between applications or look up your employee’s schedule or credentials in other apps — everything is right there in your own customizable communication center.

Time Tracking and Scheduling

Time tracking is an integral part of shift work. An effective time-tracking method can decrease stress and ensure everyone gets paid for every shift covered. Manual time cards are a thing of the past, but new digital systems come in so many shapes and sizes they can be difficult to sort through.

Criterion’s HCM platform offers robust time-tracking features to help you stay on top of shift work, generate reports to better understand productivity across shifts and much more. The platform also supports remote work and unique schedules — with Single Sign On (SSO) permissions for managers to keep track of multiple locations in one interface.

What’s more, Criterion is designed to integrate with any third-party tool, including TrackTik, a popular scheduling software among security organizations. The integration works by synchronizing employee data to ensure only qualified and available employees are scheduled for certain shifts and projects. You can enhance operational efficiency with automated scheduling rules, geofencing, and mobile self-service options, empowering employees to do their best work with less manual oversight.

Final Thoughts

If your business needs employee coverage for long hours, you almost certainly need a shift work schedule to reach your goals. When shifts are done right, they can be one of the most efficient and productive ways to do business.

But that’s only true if it’s well-organized. Legal issues, burnout, and loss of productivity can result when shift work is scheduled haphazardly, so don’t transition to shift work without first thinking through the implications. To make it all work, you’ll need a flexible solution that provides efficient time-tracking, easily configurable scheduling, and powerful custom reporting.

Criterion HCM is designed to help real HR professionals do their jobs more effectively. Manage employee data, track time, automate complex payroll, design unique talent engagement workflows, and much more — all in a unified, intuitive interface. Plus, you can integrate Criterion with any other third-party software, including unique or custom scheduling solutions. This allows you to build your own tech stack from the tools that work best for you while powering your organization with what matters most: people.

Ready to start working smarter? Book a demo to see how Criterion HCM can improve operations at virtually every level.

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