Ruling the roster

Rostering software helps keep managers and staff on the same page when working out rosters.

Rostering software helps keep managers and staff on the same page when working out rosters.

Is rostering software just a case of re-inventing the wheel, or can it provide real, measurable benefits to your restaurant? Rob Johnson investigates

Why would you need to buy software to perform a task you’ve been doing perfectly well for ages with some scraps of paper and basic spatial-temporal reasoning? It seems like a fair question for a restaurateur to ask, but one that frustrates software developers of rostering software like Aulay Macaulay.

Macaulay, founder of JustRosters, has not only answered the question many times before—he’s done the sums to back his answers up. When you account for the time it takes to build a roster in Excel, tracking staff requests for time off written on bits of paper, you could be looking at an extra four hours every week (depending on the number of staff you have). Add to that the amount of time staff spend finding out when and where they’re working, calling or writing down dates for time off, and you’ve racked up a day’s worth of wasted time for everyone.

In fact, it was hearing his girlfriend complain every week about trying to find out her shifts for the next week at the bar she worked in that inspired the Queensland-based web developer to develop JustRosters. A quick Google search revealed to him that rostering software had been around for a long time, but “most were bloated with features, had shocking interfaces, or did not notify staff about upcoming shifts,” he says.

“This itself gave me the inspiration to build something from the ground up. JustRosters has been live since about March this year, and a commercial, stable version went live mid-May after a lot of feedback. Since then, we have been making gradual improvements.”

Macaulay’s original list of ‘must-haves’ for the software were that it be accessible from work or home, simple to use and log in to (so staff could book days off in advance), able to be printed and still look nice, and able to notify staff via SMS at the start of each new roster period or shift. Of course, the final version of the software has more features than that, but the core drivers behind the idea remain.

The advantages of rostering software involve saving time, says Macaulay, but doing so in a measurable way, which can then reduce labour costs. The other significant advantage is reducing chances of miscommunication between staff and managers.

“In practice,” says Macaulay, “staff can login and make time off request for the future, from home. These will pop up as the manager writes the roster, so they cannot be lost (like little bits of paper have a habit of doing). Managers can view total hours and cost as the roster is worked on. Complex staff needs like ‘I have uni every Monday morning for the next three months’ can easily be entered and tracked. And once a roster is finalised, all staff are notified of their shifts via SMS or email, saving them having to call up or drop in.”

The database behind the software is hosted by JustRosters, so is as easy to access as the internet. However, not everyone has faith in the web, and web-based systems are not the only ones available. “I do know one of our differences is some of our competitors host the service themselves, so you log into their site and they provide the service,” says Max Telfer, managing director of BMJ Consulting Services, whose rostering software is called RosterNet. “You host our product yourself. That means you can install it on a single computer or on an office LAN (local area network) or on a website so employees can access it from outside. With ours, you’re not dependent on anyone else as a third party, and subject to their business continuity.”

Of course, each software vendor will claim the features—or lack of features—in their product is a benefit, and to a large degree they’re all telling the truth. For example, Telfer points out that RosterNet will link with other pre-existing financials software easily: “We’ve got customers who use it for budgeting. You can put costings in against their job position, like waiter or chef, and do a budget for the next seven days, or for however far in the future you want, and thus predict your cash flow. You can also put award conditions into the rate table, so if you put all that info in it will pick it up automatically.

“Behind it is a database to support data, so there’s no duplication of names and so on. We can export shift information and times to an outside package like MYOB or Quickbooks—they’re both in the package as standards, but you can build your own export files.”

Whereas Macaulay says he has not made linking JustRosters to other software a priority to maintain focus on its core use: “One of the reason I called the business JustRosters in the first place was to keep us focused on the rostering only. There are so many pieces of software which take on too much, and never perfect any one process. As soon as we start thinking ‘hey, we have the roster, lets do the clock-in / clock-out system, it can only be as hard as sourcing a hardware vendor’, or ‘hey, we know when people are working, we might as well do payroll’, focus is lost and clients suffer.”

By contrast, POS vendors like H&L Australia have Workforce Management software available, which links to all the other data in the Sysnet system (the POS operating system). This is fantastic for calculating forecasts for hourly sales, breaks, on-costs and setting budget targets. H&L’s software also gives warnings if costs are set to exceed pre-set limits, costs roster schedules as they’re created, and integrates seamlessly to MYOB. Most importantly, it can create reports from department supervisor, through to detailed board-level reporting, inclusive of historical comparisons.

The strength of the H&L system is also, ironically, its weakness—while it feeds useful data back into the office, the rosters and information isn’t as easily accessible to staff as the web-based software.

But Macaulay argues that the real hurdle all rostering software vendors have to get over is old habits and time—finding the time to realise (ironically) how much time the software can save you. “Flexibility is part of modern work life,” he says. “If you make it difficult, keep denying or forgetting requests for time-off, staff are likely to call in ‘sick’ and eventually move elsewhere.”

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