An on-call schedule makes sure your business always has employees available to work on short notice. It’s helpful when the demand surges or when an employee doesn’t show up.
But it’s not simple to balance both customer demand and employee needs while scheduling on-call hours. Ineffective on-call scheduling practices may cause excessive labor costs and reduced employee satisfaction.
To ensure coverage and customer experience while maintaining effective on-call schedules, here’s everything you need to know.
What is an on-call schedule?
An on-call schedule is a type of work schedule in which some employees are available at all hours to respond to urgent issues within a business.
Examples of on-call schedules in businesses
- In a hospital, besides ER doctors and nurses working night shifts, a surgeon is on call to perform surgeries if difficult cases come in.
- In a software company, engineers or IT professionals are on call during the night to respond to major bugs, downtime, or capacity issues.
- In a plumbing company, plumbers are on call to handle plumbing emergencies outside of business hours.
- In a tech company, when an issue that’s no longer in the ability scope of a customer support agent arises at midnight, on-call engineers will be available to provide technical support.
- In a restaurant, on-call servers are available to go to work on short notice when the restaurant gets crowded.
Businesses that use on-call schedules
On-call schedules are common in businesses that serve customers, clients, patients, or users 24/7.
You often see them in emergency services, healthcare, security, IT, building maintenance, customer service, restaurants, retail, and so on.
5 types of on-call schedule
1. Follow the sun
A follow-the-sun schedule makes sure employees are on call during daylight hours.
Research shows that working night shifts has negative effects on employees, so a daytime schedule like this helps employers prevent those consequences.
The follow-the-sun rota best suits international organizations where employees live in different time zones. For example, if you have on-call employees living in New York and Singapore, you can schedule both groups to be on call during daytime, but your business is still covered day and night.
2. Bi-weekly (every other week)
A bi-weekly on-call schedule lets employees rotate on-call duties every other week.
For example, a group of employees is on call for 1 week, off the next week, then goes back to be on call the following week.
This type of on-call schedule is fair and predictable for employees. They always know when they’ll be on call. But for businesses with high demand, it can be exhausting to always be alert for the whole week.
A bi-weekly schedule best suits retail, restaurant, and building maintenance.
A weekday – weekend on-call schedule means 1 team is on call on weekdays and the other team is on call on weekends.
Employees rotate their on-call shifts on an hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
This schedule is best for companies with emergency services and businesses with high support needs.
5. Primary & secondary contacts
An on-call schedule with primary and secondary contacts is great when you want another layer of backup for your on-call needs.
The primary contact is the main employee to call when an emergency arises. In case you can’t contact this employee or there’s an increase in demand that the primary contact can’t handle, the secondary contact will come in to help.
Pros and cons of on-call schedule
Pros of on-call schedule
An on-call schedule helps you meet customer demand and earn extra revenue. There’s always someone available to respond to customer questions or make sure your product/service is up and running. Employees can also earn extra money from overtime pay or on-call pay.
Cons of on-call schedule
If you don’t have the right strategies to manage on-call workers, you may face increased labor costs and higher employee turnover.
Poor shift planning may cause unwanted overtime hours. Dealing with emergencies and unpredictable schedules may make employees anxious and disrupt their personal lives. People are more likely to leave if employers fail to support employee well-being.
The cons of implementing an on-call schedule may appear overwhelming. But as long as you take the time to maintain an effective schedule, you can meet customer needs while keeping employees happy.
Common mistakes of on-call scheduling
On-call scheduling only causes loss if you don’t get it right. Here are some mistakes you can avoid when implementing an on-call schedule:
Use a one-size-fits-all approach
There’s no type of schedule that works well for all organizations. Each company is different in terms of size, location, business needs, and employee needs.
Businesses can be large or small, and have one or multiple locations. Employees can work at a fixed location or travel to different places to work.
Business owners and managers need to tailor the work schedule so it suits their business instead of following a one-size-fits-all approach.
Rely solely on certain people
If you rely solely on certain employees to handle on-call work, you might face these challenges:
- Workers responsible for being on-call are more likely to suffer from burnout.
- You don’t know who to call when all on-call employees are unavailable. (That may happen!).
- In some industries, those who don’t have to be on call are less responsible for their products/services.
By spreading on-call duties evenly, you can respond to emergencies more flexibly. People are also more responsible for their products/services. For example, if both operations engineers and developers are responsible for on-call duties (not just operations engineers only), developers are more likely to produce stable code.
Ignore flexibility in scheduling
When you don’t leave room for schedule changes, it can be difficult if emergencies arise. You need the flexibility to handle situations such as no call no show or when someone calls in sick.
Allow some flexibility in your scheduling system. Let employees swap shifts or submit their availability beforehand. Review and adjust schedules regularly.
When employees have some control over their own schedules, they’re happier and you don’t have to handle all the scheduling work.
Take work-life balance lightly
Many businesses still take work-life balance lightly. Employees work irregular hours, overwork, and face unhealthy workplace cultures.
In fact, employees with a healthy work-life balance are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Companies offering a good work-life balance report 25% less employee turnover. 85% of companies offering work-life balance programs for employees report increased productivity.
So, while keeping your business fully staffed is important, take work-life balance into account when scheduling your team.
Factors to consider when designing on-call schedules
Being on call can be different for teams of 1 and teams of 5.
If there’s only 1 person responsible for all urgent issues at all hours, they’re more prone to burnout. You may call them only when something super urgent comes up.
If you have 2 or more people on call, they can alternate on-call days:
- 1 is on call this week. The other is on call the next week.
- 1 is on call on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The other is on call on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. They rotate the Sunday shift every other week.
- 1 is on call on Monday and Wednesday. The other is on call on Tuesday and Thursday. They rotate Friday-Saturday-Sunday every other week.
Where your team members live can help determine whether to schedule them day shifts or night shifts.
If they work in different time zones, a follow-the-sun schedule is beneficial because everyone gets to work during daylight hours. Employees are only alerted at night if an issue is too big to wait until the next day.
Level of priority
Tiered support is common in many industries. Customers get general guidance from a customer support agent first. When the issue goes beyond the ability of the agent, it’s escalated to experts or management.
By defining what issues get prioritized, your employees can decide if an issue is major and needs to be addressed immediately, or is minor and can be put off until the next business hours or when an expert is available.
Not everyone prefers to work during the daytime. Some people prefer a bi-weekly rotation while others prefer shorter shifts.
Collect your employee preferences regarding available times and time off. Having some rules to govern the process is necessary. For example, outline when employees can submit availability and time-off requests, how far in advance, how you handle overlapping requests, etc.
Although you can’t always satisfy everyone, considering employee preferences while scheduling can help a lot with engagement and retention. Consult your team and experiment to see what works best.
Duty and expertise
For products or services that implement tiered support, knowing who has the expertise to fix the product/service can help you split on-call duties fairly.
Schedule so that you always have an on-call or backup person for each team or service. For example, you can schedule an on-call IT expert so they can step in when a customer asks for more technical support.
On-call scheduling laws
Some states have laws that require employers to pay employees for working overtime and on-call.
Employers may also have to pay employees for on-call hours if being on call restricts employees from carrying out activities in their daily lives. For example, if employees stay at the work location or sit at home waiting for customer calls, employers may need to pay for those hours.
Even when the state has no requirements for paying on-call workers, some companies still pay for on-call hours as a way to motivate their employees.
How to create an on-call schedule that’s fair & effective
Putting extra thought into creating a better on-call schedule can go a long way in maintaining employee productivity. A good schedule lets employees plan their time better, rest enough, and feel happier.
Get your team’s input
No one loves to be forced to follow a schedule they don’t want. Before implementing or adjusting the on-call work schedule, talk to your team. Find out what they prefer and listen to their opinions.
Define “on call”
Being on call may mean different things in different businesses. It may mean employees are required to show up as soon as possible to cover a shift. It may mean being the primary contact when an emergency arises.
The intensity of on-call hours also varies. Being on call can equal constant alerts or 1–2 wake-ups in the middle of the night.
Make it clear to employees what on call means so they understand their duties and the intensity of on-call work.
Pick a type of on-call schedule
Choose a type of on-call schedule that suits your business most.
Determine who will be on call
Determine the number of employees who will be available for on-call duties. It’s best to have more than 1 on-call staff member, but you can apply a more flexible approach if you only have 1.
Identify on-call hours
On-call hours are often times of day when your business is more likely to face issues or gets super crowded.
When picking on-call hours, it’s best to apply the follow-the-sun model. Getting enough sleep is good for employees’ health and productivity. Being on call during the night should only be the last resort.
However, working night shifts is unavoidable in some industries. In these cases, a solid and predictable work schedule can help employees adjust their lives and maintain their performance better.
Consider employee preferences & capabilities
Collect employee preferences regarding their available times, productive time, time off, medical status, etc.
If applicable, try scheduling our team based on their capabilities. For example, experienced and efficient people are great for peak hours or being the primary contact, and new hires can be scheduled for off-peaked hours or as secondary contact.
Backup employees are available to go to work when on-call employees can’t be contacted or can’t handle the amount of on-call work.
If applicable, have at least 1 backup person to minimize the risk of someone falling asleep or missing important work notifications.
Tips for managing an effective on-call schedule
Promote a supportive culture
Working an on-call schedule may bring stress and anxiety to employees. A team that takes care of each other can be a huge support source for your workforce to move forward in their work.
For example, if an employee has an emergency or a big event comes up, they’ll appreciate it if the workplace provides support for them and teammates willing to help cover shifts.
Divide responsibilities fairly
Although experienced and efficient employees can handle emergencies better than new hires and inexperienced ones, they might be unavailable or overwhelmed.
To avoid relying on specific employees only, spread responsibilities evenly, rotate on-call duties, and provide necessary training to everyone.
Review your on-call schedule regularly
Review your on-call schedule frequently to see if it’s working for your business and if you need more/fewer on-call workers.
On-call schedule template
An on-call schedule template will be useful if your business applies on call work regularly. You don’t have to create everything from scratch every week.
Include these details in your template:
- Names & contact information of on-call employees
- Rotation time: daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly
- Restrictions: Is the on-call schedule restricted to certain times of the week? Do employees have to stay on the premise during on-call hours or can they stay at home?
- Distribution date
- Schedule version
Here’s an on-call schedule template on Google Sheets to get you started.
Managing on-call schedules faster with Camelo
Using spreadsheets or papers can get overwhelming quickly, especially when your business has more complex scheduling needs. An automated digital system like Camelo will make scheduling much simpler for you.
Camelo keeps all tools made for managing on-call schedules in one place. Here’s what you can do on the app:
- Create & distribute both regular and on-call schedules
- Schedule employees based on availability, time-off requests, and employee duties
- Find substitutes instantly
- Communicate with employees, team-wide and 1:1
- Get analytics and insights to improve scheduling and managing workload