3 key ways to manage your team through fluctuating demand

Customer demand never stays the same.

Just when you think you know the pattern, it completely shifts. Trends change. Products and services fade from favor. Seasonal impacts roll through. And completely unpredictable events—like a pandemic—upend everything. This is the essence of fluctuating demand.

Matching employee coverage to changing demand in the hospitality industry must happen, but it’s also really tough to get right.

How do you schedule employees when you aren’t sure what demand will be? How can you set up shifts and be fair to employees while hitting that perfect place of not-too many and not-too few? How do you keep your employees engaged and on staff? How do you manage all of it fairly and still get to your other work?

Get any of that wrong, and everyone’s unhappy.

Fluctuating demand requires flexibility and a concerted effort to care about your employees. Some of what you’ve been doing has been less about adapting to fluctuations as it has been trying to fight them.

Yet you can thrive despite fluctuating demand if you pay attention to three areas. Each of these has a role to play to help you ride the waves instead of being capsized.

1. Make the most of your busy season

Your busy season is a kind of predictable fluctuation. You know it’s coming, and so you start preparing a few months early.

Mainly, you will be hiring new employees. You’ll need to ramp up hiring for the season, and that means a fast seasonal employee hiring process.

  • Start recruiting early. Hiring takes a long time to finalize, so you can’t wait until the season is about to start. Plus, other seasonal businesses are going after the same workers. Get going early and get the best.
  • View seasonal hires as “real” employees. Obviously they are real employees, but there can be a tendency to see them as temporary. They are just as valuable as year-round employees, so treat them the same and take the same policy approaches towards them.
  • Train them well. Busy season is high-stress season. Lots of customer demand requires more training, not less. Don’t let the idea of a shorter work span make you think you can train seasonal employees less. The employee onboarding process doesn’t have to be excessive, just thorough.

A great (and easy) way to attract the best seasonal employees is to have the technology for flexible scheduling. That gives them some work freedom and sets you apart from competitors. It’s also a budget-friendly benefit that helps everyone in your organization (as we’ll show you in a bit).

Get your busy season right and you earn customer loyalty, build cash reserves, and find potential employees that you’ll keep on after the season is over.

2. Improve employee engagement and communication

Engaged employees are people who like their work, care about what they are doing, and are actively involved with their team and their customers. 

That engagement is fragile, though. Stress can destroy it. It’s not only you who gets anxious with fluctuating customer demand. 

Your employees are feeling it as much as you, and maybe even more. They’re the ones on the floor working with customers, and when demand is greater than staff, stress is high. Too much of that stress leads to employee burnout. In fact, 70% of your employees are, or have, struggled with burnout!

  • Keep communication open and not punitive. Be serious about mental health. Understand what burnout is and how important it is to give employees a break. Care about the person more than the task of the moment; the payout on that is permanent.
  • Offer rewards, perks, and goals. You can only cajole, push, and press a person to work harder for so long. It quickly loses effectiveness and actually builds resentment. Give real rewards for hard work so employees see the value you place in them. Set goals that can be achieved, and reward workers for reaching them.
  • The bottom line is never more important than people. People come first. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your bottom line, especially when scheduling. Care more about the people and the bottom line will take care of itself.
  • Don’t let the workplace get stagnant. Healthy workplace culture happens on purpose. Rotten workplace culture happens by neglect. Keep tabs on the attitudes and watch for burnout, micromanagement issues, or even customer abuse.

Overtime is one way to spot some of these problems. It’s not just expensive, but it indicates your scheduling is off and employees are on the road to overwork and burnout. You can reduce overtime in several ways.

  • Make sure it’s the exception, not the rule. If you don’t want overtime to be the norm, neither you nor others should be building it into the schedule, either overtly or by default.
  • Pay attention to the data. Overtime is an important piece of data that should affect how you schedule. Pay attention to it. Be sure you’re gathering that data. If you have a lot of overtime, your scheduling is off.
  • Cross-train your employees. Train your employees to do multiple jobs and tasks. Not only does it give them more confidence and helps your team work better by being able to pitch in when things get busy, but it is easier to avoid overtime when scheduling. If only one person can do a particular thing, they’ll end up doing it on overtime.
  • Have a policy and cap it. There are cases where employees like to work overtime as much as possible. A solid policy and cap of overtime are a way to stop this.

Ultimately, the workplace culture you have will impact employee engagement the most. But that’s not all. Building a true employee-first culture will also lead to a great customer experience. 

3. Reduce operational headache with flexible scheduling

Flexible scheduling has the amazing ability to improve employee engagement and make fluctuating seasons much less stressful—the two things that are key in handling fluctuating demand.

When the demand spikes, you can cover it without wearing out your employees. 

When demand spikes, you don’t have to overburden anyone, not even yourself. 

Instead of spending hours hammering out a schedule down to every detail, you build a framework. Flexible scheduling is simply an approach that allows employees to have a say in the shifts they want on that framework. You can also think of flexible scheduling as self-scheduling.

You decide how the shifts will be set, and block them out in the schedule. Based on data and observing demand, you might want to establish minimum or essential shift coverage, particularly if you’re unsure.

Employees can request shifts, and they can swap shifts with each other. This means they have control over their work-life balance, you have fewer no-shows, and employees are more engaged because they know they can work when they want and have some ownership in their work schedule.

As demand ebbs and flows, you can add more shifts and communicate with employees that you need them, and may enact policies you’ve already communicated where they know they take turns filling in these shifts. 

But here’s the thing; for flexible scheduling to work and to give you these great employee and customer results, you need the right tools. 

There has to be a seamless ability to create the schedule and for employees to communicate with each other about that schedule. When I Work’s scheduling software offers self-scheduling, making the app the go-to place for everything at work.


The hospitality industry has faced some real struggles in the recent year, but instead of viewing that uncertainty and fluctuating demand as a negative, it’s possible to see how it has spurred the industry towards a more flexible approach.

And best of all, it’s an approach that benefits everyone, including your bottom line.