5 Tips for Scheduling During a Crisis

By Matt Swanson, BS, MT(ASCP), CSSBB

April 30, 2020

“All hands on deck!”

A familiar shipmates’ cry, but one also being heard in healthcare managers’ offices around the country.

Whether it’s COVID-19, a hurricane, a flood, a tornado, or an accident on a freeway, the staff in nursing, laboratories, pharmacies, radiology and other departments rise to the challenge when disaster strikes. For many of us, it’s why we got into healthcare in the first place. We want to help others and contribute to the common good.

We’ve been facing an unexpected challenge with COVID-19. Although many (perhaps most) of us have feared that something like this might happen, we’ve mostly put it out of our minds; it was a problem for the future, not the present. But like so many calamities, the reality surprised us with its timing and immense and immediate impact.

With little real warning, the virus spread in the population for a period of several days before the first case was confirmed in the US. The disease was so innocuous that it spread to others unknowingly. Admissions rose rapidly, and some departments were near the breaking point.

Getting the right people to the right place at the right time is challenging in the best of circumstances. A crisis will rapidly expose weaknesses within the operational processes of an organization. Nowhere is this more apparent than how an organization schedules their staff and the tools and processes they use for that important operational system.

With that in mind, how do managers and supervisors better prepare themselves for scheduling staff during the current or future crises? Here are 5 tips that will get you moving in the right direction:

1. Know your staff

    You’re the expert. You know your staff, their capabilities, specialties and their availability. Who is on leave that might return early? Who can work overtime when needed? Who can come in early, stay late or change shifts? If you don’t know these answers, now if the time to start some conversations and take notes.

    2. Stay in charge

    You’re the boss. Maybe not the final authority, but you know your department and its needs. Some work can be set aside while other work is critical and must be completed immediately. Does your organization have an emergency staffing plan? Become familiar with it and how you will execute it in your area. If it seems unworkable or inadequate, don’t be afraid to speak up.

    3. Communicate and over-communicate (and then do it again)

    A wise colleague once told me to communicate changes to my staff seven different times, three different ways. Repetition does help, and some people will respond better to a text message than an email or a written memo. Others need a personal meeting to truly hear what you are saying. Plan to communicate beyond what you think is necessary under normal circumstances.

    4. Assemble your tools

      How do you create, distribute and update your schedule currently? Do those methods work or are people never quite sure what the new schedule is? How do you communicate updates in a rapidly changing situation? If you’re mired in paperwork or color-coded spreadsheets, turn to an automated solution.

      5. Plan to change your plans

        Be flexible. Be creative. You may have thought of yourself as flexible a few months back, but look at what you’ve overcome since then. Perhaps the worker that you thought would be a problem gladly volunteered. Maybe making the call to a recently retired staff member really paid off when she agreed to come back temporarily.

        This one last item may not help you, but it will help others: share your story. Tell your colleagues your successes and failures, both. Start a conversation on what to do next time. Reach across departments and across health systems. Use your network and continue contributing to the common good.

        Every department deserves to have tools and strategies that assist them instead of making work harder. With a few targeted changes, staff scheduling can move from being a necessary evil to one that supports your team 24/7 during daily operations as well as crisis-level activity. We will get through this pandemic, will emerge with stories to tell, and some changes we all want to make.

        What better time than now to make improvements for tomorrow and for the next crisis around the corner?

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        Matt Swanson, BS, MT(ASCP), CSSBB

        Matt Swanson is the Technical Operations Manager at StaffReady. He came to StaffReady with 29 years of experience in the clinical laboratory, with roles varying from Bench Tech to Operations Management to Consultant to Business Intelligence Analyst.  He became a Certified Six-Sigma Black Belt in 2017. Find Matt on LinkedIn.