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Rostering and workforce management

Feb 22, 2022 12:00:00 AM Joonas Ollila

In many companies, workforce planning is a normal business routine and everyone seems to have their own terminology for it – some talk about rostering or shift planning while others talk about duty planning or workforce management.

The workforce planning process exists to match the workforce with the tasks that need to be completed in a business. It is also very central to the employee experience. Solving this coordination problem in a fair way, which takes into account both financial objectives and employees' preferences, is a difficult puzzle and requires a comprehensive workforce management solution.

In addition to the basic weekly or monthly planning, a longer term perspective is needed too. What type of competences does the workforce need a year from now? What is the marginal cost for taking on additional work tasks with the current workforce? What should we look for in recruits? The answers to all these questions circle back to the shift and roster planning process.

The design of the roster itself is a complex optimization problem, at least if it involves dozens of employees with their wishes and skills. Put simply, it is the process in the picture below that starts with defining the need for labor and ends with the finished roster. 


Determining labor demand

The definition of labour demand depends entirely on the industry and the company. It can be deduced, predicted or calculated from, for example, orders, seat reservations, pre-sales, customer flows like cash transactions or visitor numbers/counters at the door, etc.

For public services such as nursing homes and daycare facilities, the customer numbers can be predicted from the age distribution within the municipality itself – so a large number of elderly people would mean the need for a large number of nursing home personnel.

For example, the need for labor may be specified by law (various sizing regulations), in customer contracts, or it may be tacit information dictated by experience. In predicting the need, it is worth considering different options and taking full advantage of both historical and future data.

Shift planning

Once the demand is specified, it is time to plan rosters to meet the demand. The traditional way, used by many off-the-shelf software solutions, is to get the user to plan the shifts first and then allocate these shifts to the personnel.

In some industries, the planning of shifts alone is complex. Working days may consist of several different tasks with varying competence requirements, which need to be optimally reconciled into shifts.

For businesses with a demand peak in the morning and evening, but less demand in the middle of the day, scheduling efficient shifts within the rules is one of the absolute success factors for a company. In such areas, optimization can help with shift planning alone, especially if it includes planning tasks within the shifts.

Once the shifts have been planned, they need to be allocated to employees. This is a very traditional optimization problem, where the shifts’ skill requirements are reconciled with the skills of individuals as well as their preferences.

The use of optimization or automation facilitates the planning itself, improves job satisfaction and saves costs by minimizing total wage costs or maximizing customer work planned per employee.

Simultaneous planning of shifts and rosters

Very few software solutions combine shift and roster planning. Without optimization this wouldn’t make sense, because considering both problems simultaneously makes manual planning too complicated.

However, in labor-intensive sectors with significant labor costs, optimizing the entire process should be seriously considered. In this case, the optimization takes care of optimizing the start times and durations of the shifts while taking into account the work demand and different expertise requirements.

If you are interested in how simultaneous shift and roster planning can be done, you should watch VuoroÄly’s short introductory video below (Sorry, only in Finnish).



Competence development

At the beginning of the blog, I mentioned competence development as an important part of workforce planning. Optimization and automation frees up shift planners’ time, which can be used, for example, to predict competence needs and plan personnel development.

This is aided by data from the optimization system: demand forecasts for longer periods, differences between units in the competence structure and in optimal results, and the need for temporary labor (so-called gigs) and its competence. In this way, it is possible to draw conclusions about what kind of expertise a company should acquire, either through training or recruitment.

When should you switch from excel to automation?

Excel is still a valid tool for shift planning in many companies, and versatile aids and revisions have been developed for these spreadsheets over the years. In addition to Excel, there are off-the-shelf software solutions that allow the user to plan shifts manually or semi-manually. More advanced softwares include optimization, which is usually utilized in allocating shifts to individuals, i.e. roster planning.

Roster planning software has the same drawbacks as other ‘off-the-shelf’ software: if your own business has specific features in the areas of demand and competence forecasting or shift planning, it may be difficult to adapt the ‘off-the-shelf’ software to your business. Often, these adaptations also fail, and you can’t get the most out of the tool itself. A customized, full-blooded optimization software can be a solution that pays for itself quickly.

As a rule of thumb, if your planning problem ticks at least two of these boxes, you’re probably leaving money on the table without optimization:

  • More than 20 employees in the same unit
  • Irregular work demand and work hours
  • Many part-time employees or employees with limited availability

The basic idea of ​​optimization applies very well here: when several decisions are made at the same time, they all affect the same metric or metrics, they are somehow related to each other and have a large or repeated effect – then you should seriously consider mathematical optimization to solve the puzzle.

Could we help your company with shift planning?

Contact our optimization guru Joonas Ollila ( / 044 230 3847).

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