On-call Scheduling: A Small Business Guide (+ Free Template)
An on-call schedule is a type of employee schedule that ensures your business has enough of the right staff to respond to increased customer demand, day or night. Companies in certain industries use on-call scheduling for a variety of reasons, like keeping medical or technology services running and addressing customer concerns.
The best on-call schedules don’t underwork or overwork your employees—they maximize profits and provide advanced notice of an employee’s schedule. For the easiest time creating and implementing an on-call schedule, follow the six steps below and download our free weekly schedule template to use as your guide.
Step 1: Pick the On-call Schedule That Works for Your Business
You don’t have to build your on-call schedule from scratch. You can take proven ideas from other organizations and modify them to fit your business needs. If you’re looking for a free scheduling option, visit our article on Free Employee Schedule Templates.
Here are some common types of on-call schedules used today.
Primary and secondary on-call schedules involve having a point of contact and backups. If the primary employee is unavailable or dealing with another customer issue, the secondary employees are then notified to take over the unattended client, open ticket, or pending task. This ensures that customer issues do not go unresolved.
- Commercial building maintenance (high volume)
- IT support
A follow-the-sun on-call schedule is generally used in companies that staff employees around the world. Just like the name implies, only employees who reside where it’s currently daylight hours will get customer calls and requests for help. This allows for 24/7 business operations without impeding any employee’s ability to have a regular sleep schedule.
- International organizations
- Call centers
- High-volume customer support
This type of on-call rotation schedule can provide more visibility for employees, knowing exactly when they will be on call. Scheduling an employee to be on call this week, off the next, back on the following, and so on, gives transparency and ensures that employees have a fair rotation. This is generally not a good option for companies that have a high volume of off-hours support issues, as it can lead to burnout.
- Restaurant and retail
- Building maintenance (low volume)
Similar to every other week, a rotating schedule can include more frequent changes—something that companies with more support needs may find appealing. A daily rotation can provide employees with the transparency they seek while also ensuring that they get rest periods between on-call shifts.
- Emergency room staff
- High-volume customer service
Step 2: Determine Employees in Rotation
Next, determine how many employees will be part of the on-call rotation. In some cases, you may be able to get away with having just one on-call staff member in a shift—but certain industries will usually require more employees to keep your business running. As such, you need to make sure your on-call team is big enough to support your needs.
On-call Plumber Rotation
Acme Plumbing, staff includes:
- Twenty-two plumbers (includes six that can handle emergencies and be on call)
- Thirteen management and support staff (includes eight dispatchers)
- Average emergencies per week = three (requires one on-call plumber)
- On-call rotation consists of six emergency plumbers on call for one week each
Result: Five-week break between on-call shifts allowing for employees to recover.
You can’t trust your customers to accurately determine what qualifies as a true emergency, so you need a dispatcher on call too.
On-call Dispatcher Rotation
- Acme Plumbing has eight dispatchers that work on-call hours
- Average after-hours requests per week that are emergency or first-morning priority = 20
- After hours are 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
- Two dispatchers need to be on call
- One from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., the second from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.
Result: Dispatchers never work back-to-back shifts and have a three day break between on-call shifts.
We suggest you vary this rotation, as in the example above. Having one employee work consecutive on-call shifts can quickly lead to burnout.
Step 3: Identify Shift Hours
Determine what hours the employees are on call. This should center on your customers’ needs and when they’re most likely to have issues or increased demand. You don’t want a customer to call for help and get a voicemail or enter your store and have no employees free to help them.
Example: The shift hours for Acme Plumbing dispatchers to take customer calls would be 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. and a second shift from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. These dispatchers would be on call during their shift times to answer calls from customers with plumbing emergencies. Any customers who call during those times would reach the on-call dispatcher, who will either alert an on-call plumber or discuss options with the customer about how to resolve the issue and wait until morning for a priority appointment when more plumbers are available to help.
To further assist you, consider using employee scheduling software that automates some parts of the process and reduces the time you need to spend manually building on-call schedules.
Step 4: Examine Employee Skills
On-call shifts can involve skeleton crews or just a single employee. Depending on the needs of your customers, you may want to schedule only certain employees—those with the skills to help your customers quickly.
Unfortunately, that could mean some employees have to spend more time on call than others. By providing better training to employees, you can help them fill the gaps and give your more skilled workers a break.
Step 5: Consider Employee Preference
Building a schedule should include employees’ preferences. Some employees may have medical reasons that they cannot work certain hours. Others may be more productive at different hours of the day. There will also be vacations and sick days to factor in. Taking these items into consideration when building a schedule can greatly increase employee productivity by working with the employee’s schedule.
Step 6: Prepare Backups
Whether you regularly have one employee on call or 10, you should prepare for a scenario that requires backups. These backup employees can be available if the on-call employee scheduled to be the point of contact gets overwhelmed. If your business is in IT, for example, this might occur if your network experiences an outage. You’ll want to have backups available to come and help fix the problems and manage customer expectations.
If you’re tired of using pen and paper, consider using employee scheduling software like When I Work to automate your scheduling and provide you with detailed analytics to improve your on-call workload and prevent employee burnout.
Having backups is crucial to keeping your business running. We recommend the three-to-one rule—for every three employees working, you have one on-call backup scheduled. Your business needs may vary, so adjust up or down as necessary.
Factors to Consider When Building Your On-call Schedule
Your on-call schedule may need to account for unique customer requests, preferred working hours, company culture, and the number of employees you have available to staff your on-call shifts. However, there are some things you’ll need to consider regardless of your industry.
Today, many states and cities are providing for enhanced employee rights, some of which include overtime and on-call requirements for businesses. Some states even require a company to provide advanced notice of the employee’s schedule or face fines. We recommend checking employment laws in your state for good measure.
On-call scheduling can wreak havoc on your company’s budget because it can lead to lots of overtime pay. For hourly employees, overtime can be great for them because they’re doing the same work and getting paid more. Unfortunately for your business, that means increased overhead.
This is a detail you cannot overlook because some states require overtime in situations beyond the federal requirement for overtime pay for over 40 hours worked in one week. Alaska, California, Colorado, and Nevada, for example, require employers to pay overtime for working more than a certain number of hours in a given day. If your company has employees working in these states, you need to factor that in to your on-call practices.
Here’s our guide on how to calculate overtime where you can find more detailed information.
Whether an employee is “at work” is key to determining whether you need to pay them for the time they are on call. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), an employee working on call at your company’s office location is at work and must be paid. If an employee is at home but on call, the employee is not working and does not have to be paid for the time they’re waiting for a call.
Unsure of when you need to pay an employee who’s on call? Think of it this way—if you’re restricting their activity in a substantial way, you need to pay them. Even if an employee is at home while on call, but you require that they sit at their computer waiting for customer calls to come in, that might mean you need to pay them the entire time they’re on call.
Some states have additional on-call payment requirements, so be sure to check your state’s regulations at your state’s department of labor or employment website.
Is your employee “at work” and required to receive pay while on call?
Pay required while on call
Firefighter playing games with colleagues at the firehouse waiting for an emergency
An employee at a private BBQ who is carrying a work cellphone
Truck driver who delivered a load at noon and is having lunch with friends awaiting a return trip at 6 p.m.
Restaurant employee talking to colleagues while power is being restored to the building
Your company may also choose to pay workers who are on call, even if you aren’t restricting their time. While potentially costly, it may help to create a more engaged workforce that is more likely to volunteer for on-call work and take last-minute shifts to help a teammate.
A stable work-life balance is extremely important to most of today’s workforce. Ignoring the desire to be able to disconnect from work and enjoy their personal lives could have negative consequences, ranging from reduced employee engagement to increased turnover.
A recent survey shows that only 50% of the youngest employees in the workforce (those under 25 years of age) are satisfied with their work-life balance. That number increases to 77% for the older workers (those aged 56 and older).
Sticking to a schedule that provides transparency and the ability for employees to plan their personal activities around their work will give you a more engaged workforce. This makes for lower turnover and higher productivity, even if employees encounter frustrating situations during an on-call shift.
Tips to Maintain an Effective On-call Schedule
The steps above outline how to create your on-call schedule, something that software, like Homebase or When I Work, may be able to provide for you. But it doesn’t end there. Maximizing productivity will require consideration of several key factors as you build and maintain your on-call schedule.
Get Your Team’s Insights Regularly
After building your team’s on-call schedule, regular check-ins on how it’s working are extremely important. Your team can deliver key data so that you know when you need to have more people on call, or if you have too many people on call.
Communicating effectively with your team makes them feel valued and gives you the chance to make real-time adjustments to the schedule to meet your customers’ and employees’ needs. Getting too much insight, however, can prevent any action—analysis paralysis. So make sure that you consider the insight and then take action on any necessary changes.
Recognize the Importance of Sleep
One reason on-call teams don’t like on-call schedule uncertainty is that it can disrupt their sleep patterns. Sleep is very important to everyone, especially for doctors who might need to make life and death decisions or factory workers using heavy machinery. You may still need to staff employees overnight, but building a solid rotation of on-call employees can increase their performance.
Practice Supportive Culture
Your company culture may already be a good one that supports team members and provides them with a positive work environment. Even for those companies with a good work culture, on-call schedules can be a source of stress and anxiety, leading to decreased employee engagement.
According to the Gallup State of the Global Workforce report, stress among workers is at an all-time high—44% at the end of 2021.
If an employee needs to deal with a personal emergency, a supportive culture enables other employees to step in and take a shift. Teamwork like this makes every employee feel appreciated and goes a long way to keeping important on-call shifts fully staffed.
Avoid Minor Issues
Customer service and IT support often have a tiered approach. The first level of support provides general guidance to customers, and more serious or complex issues go up the chain. Other businesses can use this same approach.
Not every issue requires immediate action. Determine what your company’s minor issues are so that you can hold those issues until normal business hours or after demand has dropped. This can provide employees more freedom to disconnect, which has added benefits of keeping employees less stressed and more engaged.
Pros & Cons of On-Call Schedules
For your business
For your employees
An ineffective on-call schedule costs your business money and makes for unhappy employees. Combined, these two negatives can reduce your revenue and increase your employee turnover, all while making clients and customers frustrated.
You can avoid this perfect storm by taking control of your on-call scheduling with effective on-call management. A good on-call rotation schedule makes sure that you have coverage for issues and increased customer demand as you need them while maintaining fair rotation between employees and protecting their time and health.
Types of Businesses That Need On-call Scheduling
Not every business will need on-call scheduling, but those that do must be prepared to create a schedule that is fair to employees, compliant with employment laws, and provides customers with the support they require. Some common industries that may benefit from on-call schedules include:
- Roadside assistance
- Building and apartment maintenance
- Customer service
Understanding what your customers and employees need gives you better insight into how to create your on-call schedule. Building and maintaining an on-call schedule will require adherence to some strict employment laws and consideration of your team’s individual needs. However, implementing it properly can provide higher levels of employee engagement and maximize your company’s revenue through decreased turnover, higher customer satisfaction, and greater worker productivity.