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Making up a roster for projects: can you do that?

The sense and folly of planning projects in rostering software.

I have been in touch with a number of organizations lately, which had all tried to plan their projects in Workforce Management software. In other words, they tried to make up a roster of their projects in rostering software. Can this actually be done and if so, what are the limitations? In this blog we will look at this, using a practical case.

In terms of planning, there are two segments: making a roster for duties on the one hand and for planning projects on the other hand. The same goes for planning software. On the one hand we see rostering software that is often part of Workforce Management software. On the other hand we see project planning applications that are part of project management software.

In this blog we will focus on the planning of people with respect to duties and projects. We will leave logistics planning and production planning out of this discussion; that is a world of its own. Before we dive into the practical case, let’s first take a look at the definitions of a duty and a project and how they differ.


Differences between projects and duties


The purpose of a project is to achieve a one-time, unique result. The desired quality is established in advance and the project is characterized by a limited timeline and budget. An example of a project is to implement a new patient file system.

  • Typical characteristics of a project:
  • A project and the activities are done once
  • The main focus is on the result
  • Activities have dependencies
  • A project planning is regularly amended
  • There are clear deadlines


A duty is a repeating type of work that is done by employees. The goal in carrying out the duties is to use the capacity of the employees as optimally as possible. An example of a service is the daily inspection of blood samples in a hospital lab.

Typical characteristics of a duty:

  • A duty has a repetitive character
  • The execution is continually optimized
  • Minimal dependencies with other duties
  • A roster is established for a longer period of time
  • Execution is bound by standards

Project management vs. process management

The biggest difference is the fact that a project is done once and a duty is done repeatedly. This creates a very different focus in the management of a project and a duty. For a project there will be less attention to the ‘how’”, as long as the result is achieved. For a duty, on the other hand, the focus is more on efficiency. The duty is repeated and the goal is to continually increase optimization. This is typical for process management.

However, there is a common denominator in the efficiency. A project does not have unlimited resources (time and money) available, so it also requires attention to the optimum use of resources. Ultimately, we are dealing with people. The right people, with the right competences at the right time (planning). That is what they have in common: resource planning.


Practical case: making up a roster for a project

The IT department of a hospital executed projects for 80% of its staffing. They did the planning of the projects in spreadsheets, but this got to be too much. It was too labor-intensive and error-prone. They started to look for software for planning their projects. The hospital was already using Workforce Management software for making up duty rosters for the medical staff. They thought that since it worked well for that, they should use it too.

How they went about it

First of all, they entered each activity within the project as a duty. Then they started to schedule the various project members to perform the duties. Some activities ran for several weeks, so they could easy be rostered. So far so good.

There were also many minor activities that only took a day or a week. These were also entered into the rostering software. This immediately diminished the overview to some degree, because it resulted in many items, which did not repeat. They were one-time activities. Not all the activities needed to be done on a particular day either, as long as they were done before the deadline. The rostering software was not so good at dealing with these.

What didn’t work

The project manager did not get a good overview of all the activities from the rostering software. He needed this overview in order to be able to communicate with the customer, the project members and the suppliers. He was looking for a bar chart, i.e. a Gantt Chart.

Figure 1: Example of a bar chart plan / Gantt Chart

Another problem was the reports. Because it was about a big project with a lot of input from internal and external employees, the hours had to be strictly controlled. The time sheets were done using the Workforce Management software, but the project manager did not have a standard report that he could use to compare the budget, planned and actual work hours to each other with just a click. He had to do this manually.

In addition to the reports problem, it was also not possible for the project members to report on the status and progress (done in %). This also had to be assessed and registered manually by the project manager.

The other problem the project manager experienced was that the placement of employees was not easy to change. Certain activities were delayed and because of this he had to manually replace all kinds of duties and schedule in more people. In addition, he did not have all the rights in the system because otherwise he would also be able to change duty rosters of the medical staff. He became dependent on the roster planner to help him.

Integral resource planning

The manager of the department realized that he could manage the resource planning of the entire IT department with the system. Both the projects and 20% of the staff that was not working on projects. These hours could then very well be planned as duties. For example, for the helpdesk, standby services and fixed management duties. That would give the department a better grip on the availability of the employees as well as on the demand from projects and the regular duties.



Planning a project really consists of two components:

  • Project planning
  • Resource planning

1. Project planning

The project manager wants to structure the project with the project planning. It is the framework along which he wants to manage the project and communicate about it. Experience in the practical case has shown that rostering software is not suitable for this. It gave the project manager access to the structure with activities, but he did not get a good overview of the planning that he could use for communication and reports. He started to create his own bar chart in a spreadsheet.

In this case at the hospital, it didn’t come up, but project managers also often want to include activities in the planning, where they don’t schedule in staff. For example, review activities by customers. Another example is milestones. These are fixed points in time to show visually when a deadline or a decision-making moment is coming up. You don’t schedule in any staff for these activities. Including these types of activities in rostering software will have a counter-intuitive effect, because all kind of alerts will be created because no people have been scheduled to carry out these duties.

2. Resource planning

The resource planning must guarantee that people are assigned to the activities of the project. Management of capacity is exactly what rostering software is good at. In addition, resource planning exceeds all projects and duties in order to manage the total demand and offer of capacity.

At the hospital they decided that managing the capacity in the rostering software of a project was not such a good idea. For example, they were able to see whether or not they had scheduled an employee for more than 40 hours a week on an activity, but that didn’t tell them anything about the actual availability of the employee in light of other projects and department activities that they were involved in.

Making up rosters for projects: useful or not?

As a tool for the project manager to managing his planning: that is a big fat no. It feels like washing your clothes in a dishwasher. You know that the dishwasher also cleans things, but your clothes don’t come out the way you want them.

For resource planning for projects, however, it is very interesting. The prerequisite, though, is that you plan all projects and duties (department activities). It’s all or nothing. Otherwise it is of no use. The primary people concerned are the department managers and team leaders. They will gain a good grip on the available capacity of personnel with this as well as on the demand from projects.

Ultimately, the project managers will also see the usefulness of this, because they will be better able to make agreements with the department managers and team leaders about scheduling in employees. In terms of the detail level, it is not necessary to make up a roster for employees per project activity. You can just keep it simple by entering a project as a duty and scheduling employees for it. The project manager and the planner have to constantly make sure that the placement of employees is still appropriate, so that they can anticipate changes.


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