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On-Call Scheduling: Building a Winning On-Call Schedule for Your Team

on call schedulingOn-call scheduling enables 24/7/365 availability of service providers for critical issues like system downtime, technician response for critical systems, and patient care. Learn about the importance of on-call schedules for your organization and its customers, how to design an on-call schedule, and multiple ways you can build an on-call scheduling program that will improve customer response and make staff happier.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What is on-call scheduling
  • The importance of effective on-call schedules
  • Types of on-call rotation schedules
  • 5 factors to consider when designing on-call schedules
  • 4 important features when selecting on-call software
  • Avoiding 8 common mistakes of on-call scheduling

What Is On-Call Scheduling?

On-call scheduling is a practice used in several industries, but is especially helpful for teams who serve customers, internal users or patients 24/7/365. Professionals who support continuous service include healthcare providers, IT professionals responsible for maintaining business uptime, gas and utility field engineers, and more. With on-call scheduling, you can create a rotating schedule assigning staff to after-hours response, ensuring round-the-clock availability.

One of the ways you can ensure on-call scheduling works smoothly is with software that lets you define schedules, automate the delivery of incidents directly to the person/team on call or provide contact information for manual delivery, and ensure that staff are contacted through a range of preferred devices or methods.

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The Importance of Effective On-Call Schedules

In North America alone, system downtime costs businesses up to $700 billion per year. This represents high stakes for the IT industry. For other industries, such as gas supply, costs may include personal and property harm, and regulations necessitate timely response. In the healthcare industry, a slow response can mean the difference between life and death. 

Without effective on-call scheduling, your risks, and those of your customers, increase. Your workforce is also affected by ineffective scheduling. Studies have found that workers with inconsistent on-call schedules more often face work-life conflicts. In medical fields, scheduling can have negative impacts on sleep quality and work satisfaction. 

Left unaddressed, these issues can lead to reduced employee focus or engagement and can increase employee churn. These changes harm your employees and your customers. If employees are overtasked or more prone to errors, customers cannot get the consistent, quick responses they need. This insufficient response can cause customers to abandon your services or leave you liable for negligence.

Types of On-Call Rotation Schedules

When creating on-call schedules several styles are commonly used, including:

  • Primary and secondary on-call schedules—this style involves creating a backup schedule in the event your primary responder misses a notification. It enables you to define progressive tiers of response that can be used to effectively escalate unanswered notifications. Use of primary and secondary schedules can be used in combination with any of the following schedule types. 
  • Follow-the-sun schedules—useful when teams include members in different time zones. This schedule enables you to match on-call with team locations to ensure 24/7 coverage during employee’s natural work day. 
  • Inverse schedules on an escalation policy—this style alternates which team members are on a primary or secondary schedule. It enables you to swap schedules as needed with the current primary escalating to the secondary.
  • Bi-weekly schedules—these schedules put team members on call every other week. This schedule type can be designed with layers to accommodate different tasks or responsibilities. For example, scheduling one set of responders for weekdays and another set for weekends. 
  • Expert that is always on-call—this style is useful for high-level incidents that always need to be routed to specific experts. Having an on-call expert should generally be implemented in addition to scheduling with lower-level responders.

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5 Factors to Consider When Designing On-Call Schedules

When designing your on-call schedules, there are several factors to consider. These include the size and distribution of your team, employee capabilities and preferences, and what fallbacks are available to you. 

Team size

Consider how scheduling correlates with your team size. A team of two demands a very different schedule than a team of 100, even if the general pattern is the same. You should design schedules to maximize off time without sacrificing coverage.

Backups

You should always have a backup responder scheduled in case your primary responder misses a notification or is currently in the middle of a response. Scheduling backups becomes easier as your team grows, although you should still be careful not to assign staff too frequently. Working an on-call backup shift is not the same as being off work. 

Team locations

If your team is distributed across multiple locations, you may gain flexibility in scheduling. This is particularly true if team members with the same capabilities and availability are in different time zones. 

If possible, leverage this distribution to your advantage and try to schedule employees for on-call during their preferred (likely daytime) shifts. Doing so can help you reduce burnout and ensure that employees are at peak performance when responding to issues. 

Employee capabilities and service ownership

It’s critical to ensure that employees assigned to on-call work have the knowledge and skills to deal with an incident. In some situations, such as in a heterogenous IT environment, this may be difficult to achieve. One solution is to ensure your backup for an on-call shift has complementary abilities. This way, if you primary is unable to address an issue, they can escalate to the secondary and avoid calling others in. 

Employee preferences

Although you may not be able to meet all employee preferences, you should still make efforts to consult with your team. Simple adaptations like scheduling “morning people” or “night owls” to respective on-call shifts can make a big difference. Similarly, if your staff prefers to do on-call in runs rather than alternating days and there is no functional reason to work otherwise, you should. 

4 Important Features when Selecting On-Call Software

When selecting an on-call scheduler, the following features will help you improve efficiency and ROI:

  1. Online access—the software should be accessible online so everyone is looking at the same, most updated, schedule.
  2. Automation—the software should allow for automated delivery and escalation of incidents to the appropriate on-call team. 
  3. Flexibility—the scheduler should be flexible, allowing for changes in shifts and alternate coverage.
  4. Built-in safeguards—the scheduler should come with built-in safeguards to avoid human errors, such as empty time slots in the schedule.  

Avoiding 8 Common Mistakes of On-Call Scheduling

When implementing on-call scheduling, there are several common mistakes you should avoid.

1. Relying too heavily on specific staff

Burnout is a serious liability when it comes to on-call implementation. Often, staff have worked full days already and are then made responsible for after-hours issues. To prevent burdening your staff, you need to make sure to rotate responsibilities and distribute work as evenly as possible. 

2. Failing to set up teams

When determining schedules for on-call shifts, it is important to assign shifts according to teams. Defining teams helps you ensure that on-call staff are correctly notified if an incident occurs. 

For example, you can tie events from certain services or customer subsets to specific teams. Then, when an incident occurs, a notification is sent to the on-call staff for the relevant team. This reduces the chance that alerts are ignored and avoids the need to escalate notifications to the correct party.

3. Poorly defining escalation policies

Your escalation policies should clearly define who is responsible for what actions during a response. Policies should also define what steps responders should take before, during, and after escalation. Clear policies help you prevent responsibility from being avoided and ensure that incidents are not lost during handoff.

4. Not establishing time limits

Make sure that you are defining time limits on notification acknowledgement and, if possible, response actions. When you have a service level agreement (SLA) or service expectation to maintain with your users or customers this is particularly important. If notifications aren’t addressed in the given time, you need to ensure that the incident is automatically escalated.

5. Not allowing for flexibility in the schedule

It is important to be able to plan on-call scheduling, however, you also need to be flexible. Last minute emergencies and schedule changes come up and staff sometimes need to swap shifts or ask others for coverage. 

Additionally, sticking with a schedule that isn’t working only harms your staff and customers. If schedules can be changed to try and fix this, there is little reason to resist. 

6. Ignoring work-life balance

Even when work is evenly distributed in a team, work-life balance may not be met. Staff have different responsibilities throughout the day and in their personal lives. Levels of stress at work versus at home can vary widely and some staff may not be able to provide after-hours support as effectively as others.

When setting up your scheduling, make sure to talk with your staff about expectations and how to best find balance. If you ignore this need, your staff will be less happy, less productive, and more likely to leave. 

7. Lack of transparency or communication

You should ensure that all staff are aware of your on-call schedules, including any relevant changes. Likewise, it needs to be clear how staff can request changes to schedules and under what conditions changes can be accepted. 

Maintaining clear communications about scheduling helps ensure that shifts remain fairly distributed and that employees don’t feel mistreated. One method for ensuring this is with an on-call timeline that spells out shifts and responsibilities.

8. Not leveraging automation

There are on-call scheduling software solutions available that can reduce overhead and ensure your schedules are consistent. Failing to adopt these solutions often results in more manual work and is more likely to lead to scheduling mistakes. 

Additionally, software solutions can help ensure speedy and consistent responses to issues. Integration with existing communications and service platforms makes communication simpler and details easier to locate. Without this automation, response details may be lost or improperly documented, opening you to liability and future incidents.

On-Call Scheduling With OnPage

OnPage provides on-call scheduling solutions, including an award-winning incident alert management platform. OnPage’s alerting solution provides persistent, intrusive audible notifications until addressed on mobile by the assigned on-call recipient. 

OnPage eliminates alert fatigue through high-priority alerting, easily distinguishable from every other mobile notification. This way, the tasked recipient will always know the severity of an alert and the need for an incident’s immediate resolution. 

A key advantage of OnPage’s alerting system is its live event notifications feature, which provides real-time alerts for critical events. Here’s how the OnPage process works:

  • The system recognizes a predefined event.
  • The system routes the alert with an intrusive, Alert-Until-Read notification that overrides “do not disturb” mode on the mobile device of the scheduled on-call professional. There’s a low chance of missing or ignoring this type of alert. 
  • If you miss an Alert-Until-Read notification, it will automatically escalate to another team member. 
  • As a method of redundancy, alerts can also be sent as SMS, email or phone call.

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