Essential Float Nurse Skills and Tips For Success

by | Nov 17, 2020 | Med-Surg | 1 comment

Ask any nurse how they feel about floating and you will find most either love it or they hate it. In an email about floating to an Ortho Unit, I revealed that I hated floating to another unit. Floating was scary to me, especially those first few years. I had very little float nurse skills 😔

I felt like I was barely confident in my unit, and suddenly, I’d have to go to a different unit with entirely different processes and patients. Not cool! But some people enjoy floating so much that they work in the float pool and do so every single shift. Let’s go through some skills and tips for floating to another unit.

Float Nurse Skills and Tips

I recorded a podcast episode on this same topic with two highly experienced neurocritical care nurses; to listen to it, simply click play below.

This podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, PlayerFM, iHeartRadio, Libsyn, Spotify, and Amazon Music.

What’s the difference between a float nurse and a nurse who floats?

I got the most amazing response to that email from a nurse who is not only comfortable floating between units but also increased her comfort zone to float between campuses. She shared some of her secrets to success when floating so you can go into it without hating it as much as I did.

Please note an important distinction:

  • A float nurse: Floats every single shift to another unit or for a certain amount of shifts. They do not have a “home unit” and work in various areas of the facility as needed.
  • A nurse who floats: When nursing units are overstaffed, and another unit needs staff, a nurse will be “floated” to the other unit to make up the difference. Units often take turns floating, as many prefer to be on their home unit.

Float Nurse Skills and Tips

What is a Float Nurse?

Before we jump into the skills and tips of an awesome float nurse, let’s look at what a float nurse actually is. A float nurse is a nurse who moves from one unit to another. This can be done to cover vacations, maternity leave, time off, or illnesses. Other facilities establish a float pool, in which nurses are hired specifically to float from unit to unit as needs require.

Float Nurse Job Description

While the job description will vary from facility to facility, the basic job description is providing patient care and monitoring patient health conditions. Your duties will include charting, communicating with doctors and other staff, and more.

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Float Nurse Skills

The four walls of your unit are a flexible concept / it’s all in how you choose to look at it.

Now, let’s look at some of the skills you will need to be a comfortable and competent float nurse.

You must establish what YOU need to feel comfortable

Some questions to ask to ensure that you are comfortable are:

  • Where can I safely store MY stuff (purse/backpack, etc. so it won’t get stolen)
  • Where’s the bathroom? (Personal needs take priority)
  • Where’s the breakroom/lunchroom, and when and how are breaks done here (on the unit you’ve been floated to)?
  • Who are my resources for questions, or who can help me problem-solve if I have issues or run into things I’m not familiar with? Identify them upfront.
  • Where’s the code blue button, and where’s the crash cart? What is my role or expectations of me on this unit during a code?
  • How long is this shift? (4,8,10 or 12)
    • Who will relieve me at the end of my shift?  
    • How is the report done on this floor (recorded or in-person)?
    • Do they do bedside report?  
    • Will I be floated a second time during the shift?
  • How’s this unit laid out? (Most are similar; use this to help ground yourself with your surroundings.)
  • Where do I get the supplies I need?
    • Where’s the dirty utility room?
  • Is there a shuttle I need to catch to go to my car if it is parked on the other campus/home and if so what’s its schedule?

Pay Questions

Some helpful questions to ask when you are acting as a floating nurse regarding pay are:

  • What unit gets charged for my time here?  
  • What’s the unit code number?  
  • Is it by Kronos clock or a different written sheet?
  • Who approves overtime if it’s needed?

No Matter What…

RELAX, take a deep breath, and remember this too shall pass! Resilience develops over time and our expertise didn’t just happen suddenly. (We have to be willing and open to learning and gaining new experiences – this is how we grow as nurses. Everybody was a novice at first). Don’t be overly critical of yourself. You have more in your nursing bag of tricks than you give yourself credit for and bring keen and different insights and perspectives with you. 

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Qualities of a Float Nurse

YOU are a nurse so fall back on the nursing basics!

You already know how to assess a patient, do vital signs, etc. Do those tasks you already know how to do. Ask questions about the tasks you are not sure about.

Does the CNA do a blood sugar check or you? If it’s not something you know – ask the charge nurse.  Who are the old dogs on the unit? Find them and ask questions.  

Floating and Patient Safety

If you aren’t comfortable with the assignment or floating to that unit – SPEAK UP!  Go as far as you need to get the support you need to feel comfortable. It is ok to say, “this is outside MY scope of practice – I haven’t taken care of xxxxx kind of patients -“.  

You can refuse an assignment if you don’t feel you can practice safely.

Let me repeat that. You can refuse an assignment if you don’t feel you can practice safely.

MOST importantly: YOU have a right to practice safe patient care and not be just a body thrown at a staffing shortage. So speak up! Don’t let them bully you and put you nor your patients at risk.(That’s when accidents happen). And, remember it’s your license, unless you speak up and become both an advocate for yourself and your patients.

I’ve been a nurse for over 35 years. I’ve floated to other units within my main campus. I’ve had to float to other campuses within our system. I’ve worked in the home health arena where the walls of the hospital don’t exist. And, 911 becomes your code team. Practice safely with your scope and don’t let any force you to do otherwise!

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Float Nurse FAQ’s

What is a float nurse? What does float mean in a job description?

A float nurse is a nurse who moves from one unit to another. Sometimes nurses who are permanently assigned to a specific unit may be asked to float to another unit. Other facilities establish a float pool, in which nurses are hired specifically to float from unit to unit as needs require.

How much does a float nurse make?

Every facility has different pay structures for nurses. However, float nurses often make a higher hourly wage due to all the unknown variables.

Do float nurses make more money?

Yes, often float nurses make a higher hourly wage due to all the unknown variables such as lack of guaranteed hours and the uncertainty of the nursing assignment day to day.

Do float nurses get benefits?

This, like compensation, will vary from facility to facility. Some float pool positions are not eligible for benefits like paid vacation and health insurance. Regular nurses who are asked to float for a shift will typically receive the same benefits as if they worked in their normal unit.

How do I become a good float nurse?

Being a good float nurse requires a nurse who is willing to go with the flow and not thrive on structure and routine. You also should dedicate yourself to learning the top disease processes and treatment pathways that you encounter most often so that when you do float to those units, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident.

Can nurses refuse to float?

Most facilities will mention that a nurse is needed to float to another unit and ask for volunteers. It is often unlikely that no one is willing to volunteer. Most employers retain the right to transfer staff to other units, so a nurse may not be able to refuse. However, you can refuse an assignment if you don’t feel you can practice safely.

About the Author

Guleann Gisselberg, BSN RN, is a nurse with 35+ years of experience who holds a Bachelor’s in Biological Science in addition to her BSN. Her career thus far has spanned Labor and Delivery, Emergency/Trauma Nursing, Critical Care neonatal to adult, Surgical Services, Special Procedures, IV Therapy, and Home Care, with diverse roles including staff and charge nurse, preceptor, mentor, house supervisor, and nurse manager. Her greatest joy in life has been providing bedside care and helping young nurses find their true voice and a firm foundation, surviving and thriving in nursing.

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    1 Comment

    1. Deb E

      It sure helps to get advice from an experienced float nurse. You can be as prepared as possible and then thrown a little off by team members’ personalities I’ve found. Going with the flow is good advice as mentioned.


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