4 Reasons to End On-Call Scheduling & What to Do Instead


February 22, 2022

Everybody likes certainty, and this is particularly true when it comes to business. Unfortunately, when it comes to scheduling, some businesses simply don’t have any certainty about the level of demand they might experience from day to day.

A common response to this uncertainty is the use of on-call scheduling, but as we will see, this often isn’t the best answer.

What Is On-Call Scheduling?

On-call scheduling is a type of scheduling where employees have to be able to come into work at short notice if they’re called upon. When an employee is on-call, they don’t have to come to work, but they have to be able to come in within an agreed-upon amount of time if the situation calls for it.

We most commonly associate on-call scheduling with emergency services, particularly in hospitals. If you’ve ever watched a drama series set in a hospital, then you’ll often see doctors and nurses get called in at short notice to cover some type of emergency.

On-call shifts aren’t limited to emergency services though, and they’re not unusual in other industries like retail and hospitality.

The main reason for on-call scheduling is unpredictability. It’s hard to predict demand, and it’s hard to know which skilled people you will need available at any given time. In the case of a hospital, you don’t know when someone is going to need emergency brain surgery, so you need a neurosurgeon on-call in the event that someone does.

The same idea applies when a bar has a crazy busy night on a sleepy January Tuesday. It might not have the life or death implications of brain surgery, but the bar can easily become overrun, losing out on money, and potentially tarnishing its reputation.

On the other hand, that same bar could be fully staffed, waiting for an incredibly busy midsummer’s Friday night, and find the demand just doesn’t materialize. Instead of being overrun, they’re paying staff to stand around.

Demand, and consequently, your staffing needs aren’t easy to predict. One answer to the problem is on-call scheduling, but as we will see, it’s often not the right one.

Why End On-Call Scheduling?

The benefits of on-call scheduling are clear for businesses. They can adjust schedules to meet demand, calling staff in at very short notice, and cutting them when they’re not needed.

In a world where demand is difficult to predict, flexibility is one of the most important assets a business can have.

The problem is, for all the benefits of on-call scheduling, there are also some very prominent drawbacks. Constantly being on-call is difficult for employees, and the added stress can impact every part of their lives. When this stress reaches the point of employee burnout, this starts to damage the business as well as the employee.

  1. Increased employee stress

  2. Lower employee morale

  3. Less efficient performance

  4. More errors and accidents

Think about your Sunday evenings (if you work a traditional Monday to Friday job). You reach late afternoon, and it starts to dawn on you that you’ve got work tomorrow. You tend not to have extravagant plans, and you start preparing yourself for the week ahead.

If employees are always on-call, then every night, and day is like a Sunday evening for them. They can’t make concrete plans because they’ve got to be ready to go to work at any moment. They might not physically be at work, but it still severely impacts the work/life balance.

This causes increased stress, lowers employee morale, and sometimes leads to health problems. Of course, this is bad for the employees, themselves, but it’s also bad for business.

Legislators are starting to take notice and many cities are looking at implementing new regulations around scheduling practices. While legislation is limited to a few areas at the moment, it still brings scheduling into the spotlight, and big businesses that aren’t seen to be taking care of their employees can pick up unwanted negative attention.

Ultimately, the reasons to end on-call scheduling are about your employees, but at the same time, it’s also about improving your business.

What Should You Do Instead of On-Call Scheduling?

Scheduling isn’t always straightforward — if it was, we wouldn’t have to worry about on-call scheduling. Still, most often, the negatives of on-call scheduling outweigh the positives, and alternative solutions are needed.

With modern technology, it’s becoming much easier to predict demand and plan your schedules in advance, and these tips can help.

Effective Scheduling

The key to moving away from on-call scheduling is planning. Too many businesses leave scheduling to the last minute, and in many cases, there’s no need for this.

When you have access to the right information, it’s much easier to look ahead and plan your schedules ahead of time. For example, with time tracking software like PayClock, you have a clear picture of how your employees use their time.

Managers can quickly access historical employee timesheets and essential reports to see which employees worked what hours on any given day. This might give a retail store a quick insight into how to schedule for Black Friday, or allow a restaurant to compare staff needs on Mondays versus Fridays.

With access to data and employee time reports, you can predict your needs with more confidence, which means there’s less need for last-minute scheduling and covering yourself by having people on-call.

Minimum Number of Hours

Commit to offering employees a minimum number of hours.

One of the most difficult parts of on-call scheduling is that employees have no idea how many hours they will work in a month. This makes it extremely difficult to plan their finances. It’s also far from ideal when you constantly turn up to work expecting an 8-hour shift, only to be cut after three.

The uncertainty breeds stress, and this leads to lower job satisfaction and performance.

Find Out Who Wants Extra Hours

Sometimes the problem with on-call scheduling isn’t that employees aren’t getting enough hours, but that they’re getting too many. It’s tempting to schedule the most hours for your most reliable, talented employees, but do they want the extra hours?

If you do have a lot of extra hours to give out, then find out which employees really want them. To some, the extra work might be a burden, but to others, it might be a welcome benefit.

Manage Employee Availability

Managing employee availability and Paid Time Off (PTO) is an important part of scheduling. You can’t afford to start making your schedule only to find out half your staff has booked time off.

You need clear PTO policies, and you need to be able to manage employee availability on a central platform. When you know who’s available and who isn’t well ahead of time, and have instant access to this information while you’re making your schedules, it’s much easier to plan in advance.

Give Advanced Notice

Nobody lives solely to work — everyone has personal lives that need to be maintained alongside work. If you’re releasing schedules a few days before they become active, then it doesn’t leave people with any time to make plans.

Predicting demand might not be easy, but generally, there’s not much difference between trying to do it 10 days ahead of time and trying to do it 2 days ahead of time. Schedules might change from time to time, but you can offer more certainty by releasing them with plenty of notice.

Give Power Back to Employees

One of the best things you can do is give some power and responsibility back to your employees. On-call shifts can make people feel powerless — they can be called in at any given moment without warning.

If you bring your employees into the process and involve them in decision-making, you may find other ways to achieve the level of flexibility you need.

Pay for On-Call

In some industries, it’s still not feasible to get rid of on-call schedules altogether. That doesn’t mean you can’t work to make sure on-call scheduling works better for your employees.

One way you can do this is by offering extra compensation to employees who are willing to be on-call and work last-minute shifts.

Accept Life is Complicated

Scheduling can never be perfect because life is complicated. You have to accept that sometimes a staff member will get sick at the last minute, or you’ll have a sudden rush of customers coming out of nowhere.

The answer to unexpected events generally isn’t on-call scheduling. Accept that life is complicated, and give your staff the certainty they need by planning ahead, rather than reacting in the moment.

Conclusion: On-Call Scheduling

In some industries, on-call scheduling is something of a necessity. However, there are many industries that have come to rely on on-call scheduling when it’s not always needed.

The added flexibility of on-call schedules rarely outweighs the damage they can do to your employees’ morale, health, and performance. For this reason, it’s time to end on-call scheduling and look to move towards predictive scheduling instead.

Find out how PayClock can help you do this.

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