Top Five Pitfalls of On-Call Scheduling

April 11, 2022
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Top Five Pitfalls of On-Call Scheduling
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    On-call schedules ensure that there’s someone available day and night to fix or escalate any issues that arise. Using an on-call schedule helps keep things running smoothly. These on-call workers can be anyone from nurses and doctors required to respond to emergencies to IT and software engineering staff who need to fix service outages or significant bugs.

    Being on-call can be challenging and stressful. But with the proper practices in place, on-call schedules can fit well into an employee’s work-life balance while still meeting the organization’s needs.

    In this blog post, we’ll explore five common challenges organizations face when handling on-call schedules. We’ll also discuss how to alleviate these challenges.

    Five pitfalls of on-call scheduling

    We should keep five significant concerns in mind when structuring our employee work schedules.

    1. Unclear responsibilities

    Being on-call differs across organizations. It can even differ across teams in the same organization.

    The on-call structure differs depending on the type of system or service the organization is monitoring and the respective service-level agreements (SLAs) that are in place. For example, some companies work across multiple countries and time zones, while others have a small team in a single location.

    Because of this, we shouldn’t think of on-call as a universal solution that applies to all employees. Instead, we should consider it case by case.

    So, we should define a clear set of responsibilities for each case. For example, one team’s on-call work might entail responding to notifications and queries. Their responsibilities differ from someone who must take over shifts.

    Clear responsibilities help on-call workers by providing a clear boundary of what the organization does and does not expect, which incidents lie in their domain and which issues they should immediately resolve or escalate instead of placing them lower in the priority queue.

    We can clarify responsibilities by writing them out and ensuring they’re readily available. This approach helps remove any ambiguity and provides accountability for all parties involved. The method also helps communicate responsibility changes in the future, as it clarifies what has changed and provides a constant reference point for on-call employees.

    2. Lack of flexibility

    Every organization can reasonably expect that their employees’ lives may be unpredictable at times and will require some level of shift swapping and schedule changes. For example, a personal emergency may prevent someone from being available. These instances can arise at any time without warning.

    So, we need to have a process to deal with these eventualities. The flexibility to move and swap schedules improves employees’ work-life balance and goes a long way to keep on-call staff happy.

    One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is by providing the ability to swap schedules with other employees. Teams can then self-manage roster changes when unplanned events arise.

    However, we can assume there will always be some emergencies that are too immediate for schedule changes to address. So, it’s best practice to have a backup on-call team member. We’ll talk more about this later.

    3. Infrequent or absent rotation

    Unless we generously compensate them, having the same people on-call all the time is unfair and doesn’t allow for a flexible work-life balance. We can put a program in place to rotate on-call responsibility across multiple employees to even out this work. That way, everyone gets adequate time off work and has time free from on-call responsibilities.

    The more notice and consistency, the better! Also, when possible, we should align these rotations to each employee's ideal work-life balance.

    This rotation enables workers to prepare to be on-call by planning their schedule outside of work accordingly. It also allows employees to swap shifts if they can’t avoid conflicting dates. The on-call roster should be flexible and allow employees to swap in and out freely with minimal administrative overhead.

    4. Inadequate backup

    Sometimes, things don't go to plan. In an ideal world, when an on-call alert is triggered, the on-call member responds to the trigger, fixes the issue and everything continues as usual. However, there will be cases where the situation isn’t this simple.

    The initial responder may not be able to respond due to an emergency, or they may respond and find that they can’t resolve the issue themselves, requiring further assistance from one or more team members.

    Our on-call rotation should have a backup plan. It’s essential to have a roster of secondary and even tertiary backup employees to help deal with these scenarios.

    Ideally, the on-call alerting system should automatically contact the next tier of backup employees if the primary on-call team member doesn’t respond to the alert.

    5. Failing to account for location

    Teams are now more distributed than ever, and remote working has opened the market to employing people internationally. Whether a business has multiple physical locations or relies on remote workers, managing on-call rosters can be challenging. This is especially true when we’re working across different time zones.

    A popular solution is the “follow the sun” method, which assigns staff to be on-call during daylight hours in their location. This approach naturally helps maintain a healthy work-life balance, as people don’t need to be on-call outside their typical working hours. This method also encourages rotation.

    However, this practice isn’t always possible or might not be ideal for employees. So, the best approach is to talk with the people on the on-call rotation. Determine what works best for them and try to accommodate their preferences as much as possible.

    Conclusion

    As we’ve discussed, on-call scheduling is a delicate balancing act between business needs and employee satisfaction. Because of the potentially invasive nature of on-call work and the criticality of the work on-call staff often deal with, maintaining good morale and team cohesion should be our top priority.

    In this blog post, we’ve examined the five common challenges of effective on-call scheduling and provided some tips to help alleviate them:

    • Provide clear responsibilities, so on-call employees know what the organization expects of them.
    • Create flexible on-call schedules that maintain a work-life balance while adequately covering our service hours.
    • Encourage rotation to give team members a break from being on-call.
    • Always have an adequate backup system in place to accommodate emergencies or escalations.
    • Account for location and time zone differences and, when possible, schedule on-call staff during their regular working hours.

    You can overcome many of these challenges with more ease by using a dedicated incident management and site reliability engineering (SRE) solution like Squadcast. Learn more about how Squadcast helps improve your on-call management and SRE.

    Squadcast is an incident management tool that’s purpose-built for SRE. Get rid of unwanted alerts, receive relevant notifications and integrate with popular ChatOps tools. Work in collaboration using virtual incident war rooms and use automation to eliminate toil.

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    April 11, 2022
    April 11, 2022
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