Here’s how to make sure your team doesn’t hate being on-call.
No matter the size of your organization, having an on-call function is a necessary and vital part of day-to-day operations.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many software engineers are sold on the value and impact of being on-call, only to be swept into an experience that is poorly thought out. Between underwhelming compensation, reward-free work, and cumbersome processes, it’s no surprise that many team members don’t stick around very long in the on-call rotation.
That said, there are a handful of tactics you can implement that can set your on-call team up for success in both the short and long term. By following these tactics, you can turn on-call from the scary process that it might be today, into a role that folks actually look forward to taking on.
Why is setting up on-call for success so challenging?
Being on-call can resemble a black box across many well-meaning organizations, limiting your team’s appetite to join the rotation. But why is that? It ultimately comes down to three recurring pain points that we call the ‘Three P’s’:
One of the biggest pain points for being on-call is that, typically, agreed-upon compensation can leave folks feeling short changed.
The end result can be one of two things: people end up feeling unmotivated by the fact that they’re working hard for very little monetary reward, or start searching for an organization with better on-call compensation. Whichever of the two play out, one fact remains the same: this is bad for business and employee morale.
Nothing is worse than being pulled into a new process, asking how to do it and receiving an uncertain shrug in response. It can’t be overstated how important on-call is, but you wouldn’t guess it based on how frantic the processes around it typically are – if there are any processes in the first place.
As a general note, whether it’s on-call or any other function at your organization, having a defined process in place is critical for keeping teams happy and things moving along seamlessly.
Progression (or the lack thereof)
No one wants to feel like they’re getting pulled off of projects that can be hugely impactful for their career to work on ‘petty’ tasks.
While nothing about being on-call is petty, it can often be seen this way due to the very things we’re outlining here: bad compensation and a lack of process. To get folks to buy into on-call, the value of doing so really needs to be yelled from the rooftops.
How you turn on-call into a rewarding experience
Put bluntly, on-call is a necessary function for all organizations, regardless of size. Because of the often haphazard approach to this critical function, most folks are dissuaded, or unenthusiastic, about taking on the added workload. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many ways, on-call work can truly make or break a company.
Having people around to respond to incidents during off-hours in an appropriate time frame can gain companies a lot of trust from customers and prospects. This is exactly why it’s critical to treat on-call like the lifeline it is by flipping the Three P’s on their head:
Adjusting the pay
This is probably the most immediate tactic you can implement to improve your on-call process: pay people appropriately for their time in a way that’s commensurate with the sacrifices they’re making. What does this mean? In short: paying people fairly and proportionately.
People need to feel like they are compensated fairly for their time on-call. There’s many different ways people are compensated for on-call, and while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, it’s important that folks don’t feel they’re being short-changed for their valuable personal time.
Another factor to consider is that the amount of operational work folks have to pick up while on-call can vary wildly. If you’re working large chunks of your time while on-call, it’s likely you want to compensate differently from a rotation that’s almost never called upon.
But remember, compensation can take on many forms: raw dollars, time off in-lieu, and even recognition. What form of compensation you land on ultimately depends on the makeup of your organization and your priorities.
Define your process
Nothing is worse than the absence of a defined process. While it’s easy to blame absent processes on the lack of maturity in an organization, the fact is that on-call needs guardrails in place.
Many organizations, both early stage and incumbents, have bad or no processes, so when engineers are paged while on-call they have double the stress: a lack of knowledge about how to run the process and actually addressing the underlying incident. In the end, if every incident is chaotic and stressful, you’re going to struggle to keep folks around.
Be sure to allocate time to creating a process that’s effortless to follow and that people actually enjoy. This can look like:
- Ensuring folks know the steps to take when something goes wrong. That might be written checklists for every step of the incident lifecycle, runbooks, tools or other people engineers can defer to to run the process while they’re fixing
- Make sure you have good processes for what happens around the incidents, like setting a culture of proactive on-call cover.
By putting a process in place, you’ll ensure that engineers can seamlessly pop in and out of their assigned shifts and take the headache out of incident response in general.
Recognize on-call as part of progression talks
Let’s face it: people want to work on projects and tasks that they feel will be most impactful for their long-term prospects. In order to get buy-in for on-call, it’s the responsibility of managers to lay out a roadmap for how it will contribute to career growth. And in many ways, on-call is the perfect career growth lever.
Being responsible for a service through on-call is a sign of maturity, and a good way to develop as a senior engineer. And dealing with incidents in an on-call capacity is one the fastest ways to learn about a domain. You don’t truly understand something until you’ve seen it fail.
These realities really need to be honed in on. If not, on-call engineers will be left wondering exactly what they’re getting out of it other than more work.
On-call is your lifeline: treat it that way
Without on-call engineers, the possibility of company-altering incidents is endless. While that may feel like hyperbole, the fact is that this function is absolutely critical for ensuring that your company runs without a hitch at all times. That’s why it is important to take the time to reimagine your current on-call setup.
Do you have a defined process in place? Are employees being compensated appropriately for their time? Are you setting them up for future career success? The answers to each of these questions should be a resounding yes. If not, let’s get to work!