HR Administration

Shift bids vs shift swaps – which is right for your business?

By Dan Whitehead

Jul. 27, 2021

Being flexible with shift work is good for business. Even before the pandemic created a nationwide staffing shortage, employees were making it clear that a better work/life balance was becoming a top priority.

A 2019 survey ( by IWG found that 80% of workers would choose a job with a flexible schedule over one that did not, and more than 30% considered flexibility more important than extra vacation days or a prestigious job title. In addition, a different survey ( in the same year found 80% of workers would be more loyal to their employer if they had more flexibility over when they worked, with over half trying to negotiate adding this perk with their current manager.

There are two popular ways to inject flexibility into your shift scheduling: shift bids and shift swaps. While they appear similar, they differ in subtle but important ways, and the right one for you will depend on the specifics of your business.

Shift bids and shift swaps – what’s the difference?

Put simply, shift bids are when the manager invites workers to put themselves forward for open shifts. Shift swaps allow workers to arrange to take each other’s shifts directly.

Shift bid example: A retail worker informs the manager that they can’t come in as scheduled on Friday because of a medical appointment. The manager chooses which staff members are best suited to fill that shift and lets them know an extra shift is up for grabs. The manager then chooses who will take the shift from those that express an interest.

Shift swap example: A restaurant worker has a childcare emergency and can’t come in for their scheduled afternoon shift, so they ask their colleague to swap shifts. The colleague agrees, and they present the solution to their manager, who approves it.

Each approach has the desired result: the empty shift is filled. Both are also easily implemented with the right scheduling software, but which method works best for your business depends on several factors.


Shift bids keep the manager in control

There are benefits and limitations to shift bids that you should be aware of before considering using them.

Benefits of shift bids

  • The manager gets a choice of different staff members to fill a shift and can pick the best suited. This helps maintain a well-rounded shift with employees who possess all the required skills and experience and work well together.
  • Managers using shift bids may also keep an eye on who is close to working overtime and favor those with fewer hours on the clock, thus controlling costs and spreading available work more evenly.
  • A shift bids system can expand to fill all shifts, not just absences. Workers can rank all available shifts according to their preference, and the manager can use that data to put together a schedule that accommodates as many people as possible.
  • Staff using shift bids have more control over when they work by only putting themselves forward for shifts that fit around their life.

Limitations of shift bids

  • The shift bids approach won’t suit every worker, and some can find the need to bid for their shifts to be stressful.
  • Shift bids can be prone to favoritism and need to be carefully monitored to ensure bids are being handled fairly. This is an area where scheduling software can help, as you can easily check your shift data over time and identify patterns where certain staff members are scheduled – or not – more than others.

Shift swaps can be quick and painless

Shift swaps are simpler to manage than shift bids, but have other pros and cons worth considering.

Benefits of shift swaps

  • By having staff arrange coverage between themselves, shift swaps save the manager’s time.
  • With reliable staff, shift swaps can solve many scheduling issues before they even become a problem.
  • Shift swaps are better suited to solving urgent staffing needs, such as last-minute absences, as they don’t require employees to go through the bidding process.

Limitations of shift swaps

  • The manager has less control over who takes a shift, so unbalanced staff rosters are a risk.
  • Unregulated shift swaps can be prone to over-use by employees and require a robust company policy to clarify the conditions under which shift swaps will be approved.

Choosing the right approach for your company

The scheduling method best suited to your company will depends on several factors.

Company culture

In environments where top-down management is the norm, shift bids are likely to be a better fit. But in businesses where employees are used to having greater autonomy, they’ll likely prefer to arrange shift swaps themselves.

Company size

The larger the company, the more effective shift bidding becomes, as having more staff available to bid on shifts means more choice for managers. And vice versa; the fewer staff members there are, the fewer variables the manager has to keep track of when shifts are swapped.

Worker and managerial experience

A shift swap system works well for companies or locations with reliable long-term staff. For that reason, shift swaps can also benefit new managers or managers who are unfamiliar with all the employees, as it means there is less need to match workers to shifts personally.

All these factors are prone to change over time, but resist the temptation to mix and match shift bids and shift swaps at the same time. Instead, it is better to pick one flexible scheduling system and stick with it for clarity for staff and simplicity for managers.

Flexible shifts help attract and retain staff, and whichever way you approach them will require well-thought-out processes. However, if the practical complexities still seem intimidating, remember that scheduling solutions such as can help automate and track shift bids and shift swaps, freeing up valuable time and headspace for managers.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with