How To Create An On-Call Schedule Everyone Can Agree On 

On-call schedules

In some industries, maintaining an on-call schedule is an unavoidable part of doing business. Whether your business needs to handle emergencies or serves clients across many different time zones, some staff must be ready to respond around the clock.

Because of this, many businesses that require on-call staff find that creating a workable schedule is a major source of discontent for both managers and employees. And being on-call can be a greater source of fatigue and stress than working regular shifts.

In this article, we’ll try to take some of the angst out of the on-call scheduling process by working through key considerations, common scheduling systems, pitfalls to avoid, and tips for maintaining employee morale.

Table Of Contents

What Is An On-Call Schedule?

An on-call schedule is just what it sounds like. It’s a work schedule that details when employees are required to be available in case there is a staffing emergency or immediate need.

Being on-call doesn’t always require an employee to actually come to work but, rather, be ready if needed.

With staff on-call, the business is covered for unexpected demands, whether it’s for answering customers’ questions, fixing tech problems, addressing emergencies, or back-filling gaps in staffing. It’s a way companies can “expect the unexpected,” and be prepared for it.

This type of scheduling is quite common in certain industries that require round-the-clock attention. The medical profession, for instance, uses an on-call system so patients can be sure there is always someone who will attend to illnesses and emergencies day or night.

The tech industry also uses this system to guarantee that an IT professional will be available to tend to system crashes, bugs, or other things that may hinder a company’s ability to do business.

The retail and hospitality industries have also historically used on-call scheduling to ensure that their establishments are always operational.

Although this type of scheduling allows a lot of flexibility for the employer and many benefits for customers, as we said, for employees it can cause additional stress and discontent if not handled properly.

Why Is An On-Call Schedule Important?

Having an emergency contingency plan is crucial because falling down on customer service can mean lost business, and downtime and shutdowns are expensive. It’s estimated that unplanned downtime has cost industrial manufacturers up to $50 billion a year.

With e-commerce companies expected to be up and running 24/7, the damage of downtime could be even greater. Imagine how much it would cost in lost business if Amazon went dark for a few hours because they didn’t have the staff available to address a tech issue.

An inoperational website, an ER without a surgeon, a hotel without a desk clerk — any of these things are sure to have a large negative impact on an enterprise, from direct dollars lost to a loss of trust in the market.

Although it can be difficult to make an on-call schedule that balances workers’ needs with the requirements of the business, considering the steep cost of outages, downtime, and shut-downs, for many companies, having this sort of employee backup plan is essential.

On-Call Schedule Considerations

Dad working an on-call schedule

Effective on-call scheduling requires you to pay attention to many different factors, some of which you have limited or no control over.

Failure to place due weight on any single consideration can have costly consequences, in terms of money and employee satisfaction.

Let’s look at these factors below.

Relevant Employment Laws

Whenever you’re scheduling employees, you should always be aware of the relevant employment laws. In this case, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the key piece of federal legislation to review.

In addition to federal regulations, many states have their own laws that include provisions regarding on-call hours. These provisions often require businesses to provide things like advance notice to employees and may be even stricter than federal guidelines.

For example, the Department of Labor only requires that employees be paid for time spent on-call at your business’s location, not time on-call at home. However, some localities have additional requirements that may require you to pay for on-call time at home.

State and local requirements may also vary by industry.

For instance, according to New York City’s Fair Workweek Law retail employers must give workers their work schedules 72 hours before their first shift, cannot cancel or require a shift without 72 hours notice, and cannot schedule on-call shifts at all.

Failing to abide by all labor laws can lead to fines, so brush up on any that apply to your business.

Payroll Budget

Desk calculator and ballpoint pen over a white payroll sheet

Like everything else in business, your on-call scheduling is constrained by your budget.

This can be an especially tricky issue to manage for businesses that are adding an on-call schedule after only working regular hours before. Even if it’s a “good problem” you encounter because your business is expanding, it still requires careful handling.

If you don’t expand your workforce, you may find that requiring some to be on-call will mean paying overtime. The FLSA requires that non-exempt employees must be paid overtime for hours beyond 40 hours, at a minimum, 1.5 times their regular rate.

State law may have additional overtime requirements. But, of course, hiring additional staff comes with its own cost — from recruiting the right people for your organization to comprehensive training so they can be effective team members.

Be extra conscientious about payroll budgets if you’re adding an on-call schedule.

Volume Of Calls

Detail of using a telephone keypad. Shallow dof.

Your company’s need for on-call staff depends on how much work actually needs to be done outside regular business hours. You want to be able to comfortably handle the burden without requiring any more staff to be on-call than necessary.

Keep in mind this isn’t a one-and-done calculation. You should track and analyze the number of calls that come in during on-call hours and adjust accordingly on a regular basis.

If you find that you can reduce the number of staff you’re keeping on-call without compromising customer service, don’t hesitate to do it. On the other hand, if the volume of calls is increasing, you may need to expand your on-call roster to prevent your staff from getting spread too thin.

Employee Availability And Preferences

Letting your employees have a say in when they’re scheduled to be on-call may prevent you from having to look for new employees.

Thoroughly gather input from all team members for when they would prefer or not prefer to be on-call, including any unalterable commitments that would prevent them from being on-call at certain times.

It may not be possible to accommodate everyone’s preferences, but making an effort will go a long way toward maintaining high employee morale.

Employee Capabilities

On-call schedules meetings

A good manager makes it a priority to learn the abilities of their team members and their individual strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, you’ll want to keep this information in mind when you’re making an on-call schedule.

Even when employees have the skills necessary to be on-call on paper, you also have to consider experience. If your staff must deal with emergencies, it might not be a good idea to schedule less seasoned employees to be on-call without any backup.

Types Of On-Call Schedules

Now that we’ve discussed the critical factors you need to weigh in developing an on-call schedule, we’ll briefly look at some popular on-call scheduling systems.

Follow The Sun

Person working on call at a coffee shop

The “follow the sun” method determines which employees are on-call based on where they work.

The goal is to minimize employees having to respond to calls outside regular work hours. Obviously, this approach only works if you have a team distributed over a large geographic area.

Every Other Week

Also called a semi-monthly schedule, this approach schedules employees to be on-call during alternating weeks: one week on, one week off.


This approach puts one set of employees on-call during the regular Monday-Friday work week and assigns a different group on weekends. This method is useful if there is a need for employees to be on-call after hours.

Primary/Secondary Contacts

When scheduling this way, you establish the primary person responsible for any emergency calls. If the primary is not available or is unable to address the issue, the responsibility falls to a secondary contact.

One option is to pair up team members to work on-call together, with one acting as the primary contact one week and the other taking the lead role the next.


A rotating schedule varies the hours that employees are on-call more frequently than other methods. For example, an individual employee might be on-call every Monday, but for a different period of time each week.

Expert Support

On-call schedules for expert support

This approach considers the specific expertise an employee has, providing another layer of assurance that situations can be handled at any time of day by someone who has the knowledge required.

This happens quite a bit in IT. If the first responders are not able to solve an issue, they may have to contact a more senior system administrator to find a resolution.

Pitfalls To Avoid When Making On-Call Schedules

Now that you have a handle on on-call scheduling, it’s important to take a quick look at what not to do when setting your plan.

One And Done

Avoid the temptation to establish one process that applies across the board. One-size-fits-all sounds like a nice, easy approach, but it’s a surefire way to cause problems. For instance, think about how that would work for teams of varying sizes.

The smaller the team the more concentrated the work will be on fewer employees, risking a faster rate of burnout. Larger teams will allow the on-call work to be distributed amongst more team members, making the system less of a burden.

Setting separate plans at the team level will alleviate a lot of stress.

Relying On Too Few

woman on an On-call schedules

No matter the size of your team, if your on-call demands are filtered to too few employees, it’s a good bet that they’re going to burn out. Make sure you have enough people to handle the expected workload so that no one bears too much of the brunt.

Not Being Flexible

A rigid system is going to ruffle feathers and is likely to cause job dissatisfaction quickly.

Being Insensitive To Work/Life Balance

If you want long-term employees, you need to employ long-term thinking. A happy employee is one who feels balanced and not taken advantage of. Commitment is a two-way street.

If your on-call schedule falls into any of these pitfalls, you are making what could be an expensive mistake.

How To Maintain On-Call Employee Morale

By this time, you’ve analyzed all of the key considerations of on-call scheduling. You’ve looked at popular methodologies and settled on one that seems right for your business. And you’ve reviewed the pitfalls.

But there are still some essential principles necessary to create a system that works for you and your employees.

Focus On Clarity

As we said, a big part of stress-free on-call scheduling for your employees is setting clear expectations.

Start by letting them know when and how the on-call schedule can be published, making sure it’s easily accessible, and sticking to what you promised. Avoid sudden, last-minute changes to the schedule if at all possible.

In addition, make sure the responsibilities of staff members while they’re on-call are well defined. Here are some important questions to clarify:

  • How often are employees expected to work on-call?
  • What sorts of emergencies is your team expected to handle while on call?
  • What tools will they have to answer a question or address an emergency?
  • What do they do if they can’t handle a situation?
  • What are the preferred communication methods while on call?
  • How fast should issues be handled?
  • What is the remuneration for on-call shifts?

You’ll also want to ensure they understand the difference between real emergencies and tasks that can wait until regular business hours.

Be Transparent

For years, corporations have kept much of the decision-making process under wraps, but today it’s all about transparency. When your employees understand the process, the business needs, and the factors at play, they are more likely to be agreeable with your scheduling.

Incorporate Conflict Planning

Inevitably, there will be times when several of your employees request the same time off, leaving you without coverage of an on-call shift.

Being upfront (before conflict arises) about how you will handle the dualling requests will help employees better understand and accept your decision-making. It will also be easier for you.

Ensure Good Communication

Stressed woman talking on phone at home office, business problems concept

When on-call, your employees will often be trying to handle unusual tasks with reduced resources. This makes good communication more critical than ever.

Ensure on-call staff can easily get up to speed on things that happened during regular hours so they aren’t forced to play catch-up.

Apps like Inch make it easy to keep everyone on the team in the loop with task-specific threads and user-defined groups so information gets to the people who need it without interruptions or clutter.

Provide Support

Don’t leave your on-call staff feeling isolated and abandoned. This is especially important with less experienced employees and if your on-call staff must field emergency calls.

Be mindful of the stress your employees are feeling, and make adjustments to accommodate when you can.

And, if at all possible, ensure that there’s always a seasoned employee on-call staff can turn to for expert advice if they are stumped by particularly difficult situations.

Foster A Culture Of Community

The more your team works together in having each other’s backs, the better. Encourage cross-team communication and cooperation so you limit burnout or dissatisfaction.

Consider Work/Life Balance

Consider Work/Life Balance with an on call schedule

To keep morale up, you not only want to “talk the talk” of work/life balance but also “walk the walk.” If you see members of your team dragging because of the demands of their work schedule, pull them aside and show that you care.

Making a few adjustments in scheduling when you can to address your employee’s fatigue will go a long way. If you can’t, explain why, and find another way to alleviate some of the stress.

Always Be Fair

Let’s face it, nobody really wants to be on-call. You’re probably not going to have employees eagerly volunteering for it, and even if you did, it’s not workable to rely solely on them. That’s why it’s important that you make an on-call schedule that’s fair and equitable.

Accounting for differing employee skill sets and experience levels may mean it’s inevitable that some employees are on-call more than others, but it’s essential that employees don’t feel the schedule is influenced by favoritism or bias.

Think about the capabilities that on-call employees must have and then fairly build the schedule with these traits considered.

Efficiency, a pleasant demeanor, technical expertise, cooperation, and other customer service skills are important traits to look out for in making your on-call schedule.

Make Adjustments As Needed

Even the best on-call plan may need adjustments from time to time. It’s a good idea to check in with your employees periodically to understand their experience. If you are iterating as you go and listening to employee feedback, you’ll improve employee satisfaction and retention.

Although one-on-one meetings are always the best method to improve morale and truly understand an employee’s perspective, there are other ways you can keep apprised of how your on-call scheduling process is working, including:

  • Surveys
  • Polls
  • Emails
  • Phone calls
  • Group meetings

Once you collect the feedback, be sure to share it with your team, along with any adjustments you plan to make (or if you can’t, why it’s impossible). This will ensure that they feel heard and considered as you revise your process.

At the end of the day, you’re looking to create an on-call schedule that’s sustainable. The benefits of a sustainable system are many:

  • A happy team that feels like they matter to the company
  • Better employee retention and less burnout
  • Higher employee satisfaction
  • A cooperative and team-oriented culture
  • Better work-life balance
  • Satisfied customers
  • Better bottom line thanks to higher customer satisfaction and less lost business due to outages or shutdowns

On-call scheduling can be a win-win-win when done right: with happy employees, satisfied customers, and better business outcomes.

On-Point On-Call Scheduling With Inch

On-Point On-Call Scheduling With Inch

If your company needs to maintain an on-call schedule, it’s important to do it right. Haphazard or unfair practices can create a toxic culture in your company. But the on-call schedule doesn’t have to be a source of conflict.

Doing on-call scheduling right means carefully balancing your on-call workload needs with the resources at your disposal.

And once the schedule is set, it requires making sure that on-call staff can communicate about tasks, have clarity on their duties, and know there’s backup they can turn to for tough calls.

Inch makes it easy to create, publish, and access your on-call schedule. But Inch is much more than just a scheduling tool. Inch has advanced task management, notification, and communication features to keep on-call staff connected and make sure balls don’t get dropped.

To learn more about how Inch can make your business run better whatever hours you work, visit today.

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