Automating Staff Scheduling

November 2016 - Vol.13 No. 11 - Page #108
Category: Staff Scheduling Software

Staff scheduling can be a time-consuming, burdensome task. It is not uncommon for manual scheduling to take up a significant portion of pharmacy leadership’s time—time that could undoubtedly be better spent elsewhere. Not only is a manual approach to scheduling inefficient, but it can also lead to insufficient coverage should staff be unaware of last-minute changes.

Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Ministry Our Lady of Victory Hospital in Marshfield, Wisconsin, part of the Ascension Health Network, are tertiary care medical centers utilizing 24/7 pharmacies. With 50 technicians, 40 pharmacists, and 10 pharmacy leaders, staff scheduling can be a complicated process. There are three main work groups: the outpatient ambulatory care team, the inpatient pharmacists, and inpatient technicians. The hospitals utilize a mix of centralized and decentralized pharmacy services. In an effort to increased the efficiency of the staff scheduling process in this complex, 24/7 environment, as well as reduce costs by eliminating the 0.6 FTE that had been exclusively responsible for staff scheduling, the pharmacy introduced automated staff scheduling software in November 2015.

Choosing an Automated Staffing Solution

A variety of automated staff software solutions are available in the US (see WHERE TO FIND IT: STAFF SCHEDULING SOFTWARE). The software selection process at our hospital was straightforward. The hospital’s ambulance and fire rescue team had been using an automated staffing solution for some time, and found the software to be user-friendly, cost-effective, and suitably customizable to meet their unique needs, which included scheduling staff 24/7 across multiple hospitals. Pharmacy met with the manager of ambulance services, who presented a brief tutorial of the software. After viewing the software’s features and capabilities, it became clear that the solution would meet the needs of the pharmacy department.

The Implementation Process

Develop Templates

Developing scheduling templates that are sufficiently detailed to suit the requirements of the department is the first step to ensuring success when automating the staff scheduling process. Spending sufficient time up front is critical to maximize use of the software; otherwise, the automated process will not be sufficiently improved over the manual process. It is important to remember that software solutions are only as smart as the staff using them. While the software can save significant time if the templates are built properly, templates that are insufficient or incorrect may actually increase the required scheduling time.

To determine which templates are required, ascertain how many pharmacists/technicians are required for AM and PM shifts and define shift start and end times. After establishing this basic structure, incorporate any requirements unique to your organization and add in shift preferences, including times when employees are unavailable. Once the preferences are entered for each pharmacist and technician, the software’s Fill In Shifts feature will complete most of the scheduling automatically.

Start Out Using Redundant Methods

When rolling out the software, the pharmacy department focused on simply incorporating its existing processes into the digital solution, while preserving the availability of the spreadsheet used previously so staff could use both methods simultaneously. This allowed staff to gain familiarity with the software over a period of a few months prior to switching over exclusively to the automated system. Staff members were able to see their schedules, make updates, and switch shifts with other employees. Downloading the software onto their smartphones allowed them to view their schedules and make changes at any time. This period of redundancy with both scheduling methods active simultaneously allowed staff to become comfortable with the automation over a period of time, and ultimately increased buy-in for the software.

Begin with a Limited Group

The software was initially deployed among a small group of about a dozen employees in the outpatient pharmacy. This allowed us to work out any challenges on a small scale prior to rolling out the software for the entire department. The pharmacy director, the managers, and some frontline staff were engaged as project champions. Concerns and questions about the software were discussed at every staff meeting during this time.

After a few months of using both the manual and automated processes simultaneously, the outpatient pharmacy converted to using automated scheduling exclusively. Once the outpatient pharmacy had been using only automated scheduling for about a month, we rolled out the software, while simultaneously keeping the manual process, to the technician work group. One month later, the technician work group was ready to commit to exclusive use of the automation as well.

Lessons Learned

Our switch to an automated scheduling process illustrated the importance of one individual taking ownership of managing staff scheduling. Typically, this person will be a pharmacist or a technician. As pharmacy director, I have taken overall ownership of the scheduling process, with the assistance of our technician and pharmacist team leaders, a solution that works well for our organization. The technician lead manages any schedule adjustments that occur before the schedules are posted—for example, shift trades. The schedule is developed and posted two months in advance.

After the team leads have gained more experience, our eventual goal is for the technician and pharmacist leads to take over ownership of this process for their respective groups.

Benefits Realized

Although the process was challenging at first, after we had built the necessary templates and developed a comfort level with the software, all parties agreed that switching to an automated solution was superior to our previous method. Staff is extremely satisfied with the decision to automate the scheduling process. Among the most significant benefits realized are the following:

  • Reduced Staff. Financial challenges in our organization required a staff reduction, and pharmacy was not immune. By implementing automated staff scheduling, we were able to eliminate our 0.6 FTE responsible for pharmacy staffing.
  • Increased Staff Satisfaction. An employee’s schedule can play an important role in job satisfaction; staff members who feel that their scheduling requests are honored are more likely to report positive relationships with their supervisor and coworkers. Thus, accurate, transparent scheduling may increase staff retention.
  • Improved Efficiency. When using a manual scheduling process, receiving a sick call from staff—particularly for a night shift, when we have limited core staffing—was an serious situation that required multiple phone calls, often after hours. Waking up a sleeping employee or their family members was a continual concern, as some staff still utilize landline phones. This issue is eliminated with automated staffing software, as a text message alert can be sent with one click to all available staff and the absence can be quickly filled.

Moreover, staff who wish to trade a shift can do so easily by posting a request on the system’s trade board, which saves time. Previously, staff had to connect one-on-one to discuss a trade.

  • Enhanced Communication. Staffing updates appear immediately with the automated software, whereas the manual process required updated versions of the schedule be resent to the staff each time a change occurred. Under the manual system, there were occasions when miscommunications caused employees to arrive at the wrong time for a shift. Since implementing automated staff scheduling, this issue has been eliminated.
  • User-Friendly Operation. The software provides multiple views that allow for easy drill down, and the mobile app with text messaging and shift trading capacity allows for easy management of time-off requests. Multiple reports are available, including open rates that detail who has viewed, been emailed, or confirmed receipt of a status update; staffing statistics, such as employees scheduled for more than their maximum number of hours; the ability to analyze shifts to identify conflicts; a list of unassigned shifts; and more (see FIGURE 1). Moreover, no additional hardware is required to use the software, just a computer with Internet access.
  • Cost-Effective. Staff scheduling software is cost-effective. Note that a discounted rate may apply for committing to an annual, rather than a monthly, subscription.


In the complex pharmacy environment, reducing time-consuming administrative tasks, such as staff scheduling, allows pharmacy leaders to focus on clinical and managerial pursuits while reducing the costs associated with inefficient manual scheduling. An automated approach allows staff access to their schedules at all times, and time-off requests are captured electronically, eliminating lost or misplaced requests. Implementing electronic scheduling is a simple way to circumvent the myriad challenges and frustrations associated with a manual process.

Justin Guthman, PharmD, is the pharmacy director for inpatient and outpatient pharmacy services at Ministry Saint Joseph’s Hospital and Ministry Our Lady of Victory Hospital in Marshfield, Wisconsin. He also is the chair of the Ministry Health Care Pharmacy Leadership Council and a Preceptor for University of Wisconsin and Concordia University of Wisconsin. Justin received his pharmacy degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2009, and completed a PGY1 community residency and a PGY2 health system pharmacy administration residency at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. His professional interests include medication safety, management, transitions in care, ambulatory care, pharmacy practice model initiative, and medication therapy management.

Staff Scheduling Software
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