What does on-call mean

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Let’s begin with a definition.

What is on-call?

(of a person) able to be contacted in order to provide a professional service if necessary, but not formally on duty.

You’re kind of working, but you’re also kind of off of work when you’re on-call. You may not be at your workplace now, but you could be headed there at the drop of a hat. You’ll be able to attend social obligations. Which is great, but you’re not able to do anything that would hinder you from leaving immediately. (Like drinking a beer or two)

“Sorry guys, I’m on-call tonight.”

When you invite someone to a party and they tell you they’re on-call, you know it means that they can’t dedicate themselves fully to having a great time. It’s pretty disappointing to hear.

If you hear that phrase, you know that that the person will not be fully present. Though they may physically be with you, they have one foot out the door.

On Call Social Bummer

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There are a lot of negative aspects of a party attendee being on-call. But let’s think about it from a different perspective.

Why do companies need employees on-call? What does it mean to be on-call, anyhow?

Why Do Companies Need Employees to be On-Call?

on call pager

Why should someone be on-call if they’re not going to come into work?

In the Small Business Chronicle’s definition of on-call employment, they state, “Rather than paying the expenses of employing staff when they are not needed, many employers have workers remain on-call for a period beyond regular work hours in case business needs warrant additional help.”

That’s it. There doesn’t have to be any fancy procedure in place. All that’s required is that both the employer and the employee agree to the terms of the arrangement.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if these on-call requirements meet employment laws and regulations, too.

Essentially, being on-call means that someone is available for work at a moment’s notice.

This might seem like an easy oversimplification of the phrase on-call. But the truth is, the phrase extends to more than simply being in medicine and healthcare.

Download – On-Call Schedule Swipe File

Industries that utilize on-call shifts

On-call often refers to doctors, nurses, and surgical technicians who have to be ready to help people at a moment’s notice. However, you’d be surprised how many different industries need personnel to have staff take on on-call shifts. Being on-call can happen for someone in just about any occupation. Even retail workers have on-call shifts.

  • IT: Information technology support means that you have to keep your services up and running at any time of day. If you’re a tech guru who can fix problems that potentially arise at all hours of the night, then chances are you know what it’s like to be on-call.
  • Customer Support: Many entrepreneurs who don’t yet have a phone answering infrastructure in place that outsources their customer or technical support know what it’s like to take calls from frustrated clients, even off-hours.
  • Freelancing: Although freelancers can set their own boundaries if they choose, many have to respond to queries within a certain amount of time before they potentially lose out on a project—or if they lose the patience of their paying client.
  • Retainers: Although not technically on-call, hiring a lawyer on a retainer basis means that you’re reserving some of their time. That lawyer might not owe you overtime minutes as part of this agreement, but it is an on-demand arrangement nonetheless—and it’s worth exploring.
  • Any 24-hour business: No matter what field you’re in, if you run a 24-hour business, chances are that you sometimes have to embrace the doldrums of odd hours. That’s simply serving the customer as part of a 24-hour business, no matter what field you might be in.
  • Emergency Response: Emergency response teams expect on-call to be a way of life. When a crisis occurs, you can count on them to show up.
  • Trade Services: Including property maintenance, HVAC Technicians, plumbers and electricians.

In short, being on-call means that you have an enterprise that requires more than the traditional nine-to-five. It’s not quite over time, but it leaves open a certain “potential”.  You might have to drag yourself out of the house and get to work.

How to Make “On-Call” Work—From the Employer’s Perspective

On Call employees often work towards the employers benefit

From the employer’s perspective, “on-call” work simply means that you have arrangements with your employees.

For example:

  • On-call shifts should be fairly distributed among staff and clearly scheduled.
  • Expectations should be clear from the outset of the employment contract. Employees need to know if they are expected to work on-call shifts. Plus they need to also express a willingness to work them.
  • It’s just as important for employers to pay attention to human resources or people operations. Ensuring that they’re living up to all proper employment standards and practices as it relates to on-call work. Having employees on-call can feel easy from the outside. But sometimes it takes a toll on the personal lives of those who have to perform the on-call work.

Truth be told, when it comes to having on-call shifts around, it’s better to be an employer than an employee. But there are also certain arrangements when on-call shifts can create extra work both for the supervisor and the person on-call.


A manager will be responsible for proper scheduling and making sure that everyone is equally informed about who is on-call and when.

There’s one other thing that employers need to handle: the extra work itself.

After all, being on-call means that an employee has to report to work if called in by, quote-unquote, “work.” Guess who “work” is in that situation? It’s you: the employer. You need to have the infrastructure in place to not only handle incoming demands from customers or patients, but to make the call and bring in extra work as soon as needed.

That’s where a telephone answering service comes in.

Having a human voice respond to customers at all hours of the night is a fantastic way to ensure that their voice is heard. Even if you won’t be disturbed by the call right away. It’s possible to even run your own one-employee operation with “on-call,” or “on-demand” services…so long as you have an answering service standing by.

From there, the answering service can forward these calls to you when they’re truly important and pressing.

How to Make “On-Call” Work—From an Employee’s Perspective

waiting for work

A query over at Quora in 2015 yielded a simple definition of what it means to be on-call from the employee’s perspective:

“It means that you are an expert or professional and have to be available to work on a moment’s notice even if you are not physically at work.”

What’s most important is what an employee is doing while on-call.

Think about it. If you’re on-call, you must be able to respond to a potential crisis or quick flux in need. Your employer would expect you to be available by phone. You have to spend your on-call time doing things that you can’t leave immediately. You can’t be someone’s only ride home, you can’t be the only one in charge of a child or elderly person, and you can’t take a day trip an hour out of town.

If no one can reach you, then you’re not doing what’s required when being on-call

Making this work from an employee’s perspective can be tricky. You essentially have to live your life as if you were about to head to work. Except you have to live like this at all times. That means no extensive travel that takes you too far away to respond, for example.

On-Call Schedule Length

Download – On-Call Schedule Swipe File

Image Credit: Emma Mathews on Unsplash

Here are some options to contemplate to make your on-call schedule work best for your business and employees.

Week long schedules

A week long on-call assignment is easy to manage, but it may be hard on employees.

From a management standpoint, simply let your answering service know who is on-call for the week. But being on-call for an entire week, especially if the number of urgent and emergency calls is high, can take its toll on the employee.

This decreases their work/life balance, thereby diminishing their attitude about their job and their dedication to your company. High demands placed on on-call personnel over a prolonged time can also have negative consequences on their job performance during working hours.

Daily schedules

As an alternative, businesses may opt to shorten the length of their on-call schedule by changing on-call employees each day.

This diminishes the negative impact on anyone person for being on-call for an extended time and shares it among multiple employees. The result is shorter on-call shifts and reduced impact on employees’ personal time.

To manage a daily on-call schedule, simply provide your answering service with assignments for the week or the month. The alternative is to let them know who is on-call each evening when you forward your phone to them.

Weekday / Weekend schedules

Since the imposition of being on-call is more significant on the weekends than on weekdays, businesses often give special consideration to weekend on-call staff.

Management of this type of schedule is easy. You can update your answering service every Monday with the weekday on-call and weekend on-call, or you can just update them on Friday & Mondays.

Other shift options

Some businesses with shift work also utilize on-call schedules, a common example of this is happening in retail, and call centers.

An employee may be on-call for 8 hours, or 12 hours. During this on-call shift, there is usually a certain point at which the employee check’s in and is cleared from the burden of being on-call, or is called into work.

Generally these types on-call shifts are difficult to manage for both the business and employee as the need for checking in creates more work for everyone.

More than one person on-call at a time

Download – On-Call Schedule Swipe File

employees and their phones

When one person is on-call, there’s always a chance that more than one call needing their attention will come in at the same time or will overlap. Expecting them to juggle simultaneous emergency situations isn’t fair to your employees or your customers.

Primary schedule with a backup

Assign a primary on-call and a backup on-call for each day or week. With this method, the primary on-call receives all the urgent situations. But if they’re busy with one call when a second emergency arrives, that call goes to the backup on-call person.

With this process, businesses often move on-call staff through a cycle. They start as primary on-call and then they move to back up for the next on-call window. Then they have a time when they’re not on-call in either capacity.

Based on specialty

Another optional way to divide on-call responsibilities is by specialty or department. For example, a mechanical contractor may have one on-call for electrical issues, another for plumbing, and a third for heating and air-conditioning problems. Even though one skilled person could reasonably handle the full span of concerns, this allows for specialization and minimizes the impact on any one individual.

Rotating schedule

To more evenly distribute responsibilities businesses can work through the list of on-call personnel. The first person on the list receives the first call. The second person gets the second and so on. After the last person on the list handles a call, return to the top of the list.

This rotation is ongoing from one day to the next. This may be the easiest for your company to manage because you simply submit a list once and forget about it. It’s also fair to employees because the on-call responsibilities are equally divided among them.

Why Do Companies Use On-Call Teams?

On Call Team Scheduling

In some cases, like medical emergencies, the need for on-call services is obvious. People have emergencies, and those emergencies need to be dealt with, no matter what time of day (or night) it might be.

The same is true for IT services. There’s nothing preventing an IT meltdown at the wee hours of the night. And when a company needs its IT systems running day and night, that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Some Companies need to be Available Outside of Regular Hours

It all comes down to this: some companies can’t afford to be limited by the nine-to-five paradigm.

It might work for banks and restaurants. All you have to do is lock up at the end of the night and publish your working hours somewhere prominent. People know when to visit you and when not to—and the ATM can do the rest.

This works because a bank’s customers are sleeping at the same time they are.

But what if your customers aren’t sleeping when you are?

Suddenly your hours will need to be flexible—hence, on-call shifts.

Luckily, there’s a company that doesn’t quite have to provide emergency services—but does have to be responsive to their customers 24 hours a day. This can include a range of industries, from IT to…well, any business that takes international orders.

A business that utilizes an answering service to handle these off-hours has an advantage. Essentially, that answering service works as the on-call manager for anyone who might need to get away from the business while keeping in basic touch with the goings-on at their enterprise.

An On-Call System Without Hiring More Staff

Download – On-Call Schedule Swipe File

virtual receptionist

The natural strategy is to use an answering service for companies that have to remain flexible with phone calls from customers but don’t necessarily need to hire entire shifts of employees to work all hours of the night.

The answering service already employs readily available virtual receptionists. Your company stands to save a tremendous amount of money. Why? Because you don’t need to hire these experts yourself and pay them full-time wages.

This arrangement is ideal for anyone with only minor on-call needs. Situations where it’s important to remain available in certain cases, but also possible to rest easy in the absence of a customer problem.

Even better: a call answering service is ideal for companies that want their customers to be able to get in touch with a human, too. Too often, companies rely on complicated voicemail systems that only serve to make customers more frustrated.

By the time you talk to them, the customer is ready to blow their top.

That’s not what you want. That’s not what the customer wants. To be honest, it’s not what anybody wants. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about lonely people at night who like to talk to customer service representatives. No judgments here.)

That’s where an answering service comes in.

An answering service works in three steps:

  • A customer calls you up. Your business number rings, and the customer on the other end is hoping that they’ll be able to talk to a real, live human being. Presumably, they’re not reaching out to you simply to leave a voicemail.
  • If you have an answering service, the next step is that a receptionist takes up the call as if they were your own receptionist. This “receptionist” will then be able to bring up your unique protocol for dealing with these calls. The will direct them exactly how they should be directed according to your workflow. That means calls can be forwarded to the appropriate party, even if you have a bevy of remote workers.
  • The third step is the easiest. Sit back and enjoy the call system you’ve created. With a hands-off approach, you can go and relax on a beach somewhere.

Ideally, you should be able to achieve the third step without too much trouble. That’s where the answering service comes in. It’s possible to have your company be on-call. without you facing a similar fate.

Apply this to your small business

Decide if you are going to use an on-call team, and/or an answering service

  • Create an on-call policy for your team
  • Define a protocol and instructions for your on-call team to follow
  • Hire an answering service
  • Make an on-call schedule

Download – On-Call Schedule Swipe File