A career as a software engineer (SWE) brings a ton of perks. Think exciting projects, solid pay, and awesome coworkers. But here's the twist: what if it meant saying goodbye to post-work plans, having your laptop as a constant companion 24/7, and occasionally being jolted awake in the middle of the night (and still having to tackle work at 8 am the next day!) by a call from your employer? Sounds intense, right? Well, that's the life of the on-call engineers (some of whom are Tech Ladies too) who make sure the digital services we rely on run seamlessly day and night.
This superhero duty means, when there’s an outage or a bug that crops up in online at night or during the weekend, many times a software engineer is contacted to triage the problem. This person is said to be “on call”, or ready to respond whenever a problem happens. How being on-call work works and how (and if) engineers are paid for it has been a hot topic in the Tech Ladies Pro Slack so we wanted to shed some light on the topic here by digging more into the world of on call for SWEs.
Tech Ladies Weigh In on On-Call
Amanda Martinez, Tech Ladies technical community manager, kicked off a super engaging convo about on-call duty, inspired by The Pragmatic Engineer's article on the subject, and our Pro members jumped right in, sharing their thoughts and experiences.
In the mix, we discovered that some Tech Ladies accept 24/7 availability part of their role, even with no explicit agreement or extra compensation. Others said their company has a formal or informal system for them to get time back if they’re called in. But, in any case, most Tech Ladies say being on call affects their personal life, limiting what they can do and also conflicting with care-taking responsibilities. This of course literally hits close to home for many is something to consider when thinking about how to both shine at work and live the personal lives we each deserve.
A Framework for On-Call Programs
Given how much on-call affects employees, it's critical for companies to first seriously evaluate if on call is needed for their business and their customer. If it is, one option is to establish a dedicated team for handling tasks outside standard business hours. This ensures other engineers can maintain a consistent Monday through Friday work schedule, promoting a healthier work-life balance.
Or, if a company decides it’s still necessary for engineers working regular hours to also participate in on-call duties, implementing a well-defined policy becomes key. Crafting a robust framework for on-call programs is not just a good idea; it's a game-changer. Here's what needs to be included:
- Clear Documentation
Lay the foundation with a comprehensive, written policies. Define the scope, expectations, and compensation associated with on-call duties. This will give both transparency and understanding for the affected employees.
- Rotating Schedule
By distributing on-call responsibilities across employees and teams over time, you not only promote a sense of shared accountability but also ensure that the burden is evenly distributed, preventing burnout.
- Supportive Resources
Equip your on-call engineers with the right tools for the job. Provide resources that facilitate efficient and effective problem-solving during on-call hours. This proactive approach enhances the team's ability to navigate challenges seamlessly.
- Available Feedback
Keep the lines of communication open. Actively seek input from on-call employees on a regular basis. Establish a feedback loop to review their experiences, address concerns, and continuously refine the on-call program to meet evolving needs.
By weaving these elements into the fabric of your on-call strategy, you're not just creating a policy; you're crafting an environment that nurtures employee well-being and productivity. It's all about setting the stage for success while fostering a workplace culture that values both the professional and personal aspects of each team member.
The 3 D’s in Support of On-Call Pay (aka, Why yes?!)
Speaking of compensation, here are a few compelling reasons companies should offer it for team members expected to be available outside of regular working hours:
Demands placed on on-call engineers
The role of on-call engineers is not always a walk in the park. The constant readiness to dive into work outside regular hours can cause both mental and physical strain. The possibility of being called into action at any moment along with the reality of it actually happening deprives them of the crucial time they need to rest and recharge from their regular job responsibilities. Offering compensation is not just a gesture of thanks in this situation; it's recognition of the demanding nature of their role, reward for the time and effort they give, and appreciation for their unwavering commitment.
Disruption of on-call engineers' lives
On-call duties go beyond the working world and into into personal lives. Family time, friendships, rest, and recreation can all be disrupted. Striking a balance becomes challenging when other aspects of an engineer’s life can’t be adjusted in relation to the demands of on-call work. So compensating them here serves as more than just a financial benefit; it becomes a tangible acknowledgment of the sacrifices made both personally and professionally.
Disregard of on-call engineers' contributions
The contributions of on-call SWEs can be nothing short of crucial to a company's business and revenue. It's only fair that their dedication and work are rewarded with this in mind. Offering rewards in line with their contributions not only boosts morale but also reinforces a sense of value and appreciation within the company. By compensating for on call, companies not only address the tangible aspects of the commitment but also send a powerful message about recognizing and respecting the efforts of these team members. It's an investment can give returns not just in productivity but also in fostering a culture of mutual appreciation and support.
On-Call Compensation Models
So, if companies should compensate on-call engineers, how should they pay them? Some models to consider are:
- Per hour or shift on call
One straightforward approach is compensating engineers for the hours or shifts they are on call. This ensures that their time and readiness are answered tangibly, reflecting the value of their availability.
- Per hour or shift on call worked (in addition to on call hour or shift available)
Taking it a step further, some companies opt for compensating not just the on-call hours but also the actual work undertaken during those periods. This model adds a layer of granularity, directly tying compensation to the work performed.
- As part of monthly/annual salary
For a more integrated approach, companies may choose to incorporate on-call compensation as a part of overall monthly or annual salary. This model streamlines the pay, offering a consistent and predictable form of recognition for the on-call commitment.
- Additional time off (in addition to compensation)
Another alternative is compensating on-call engineers with additional time off. This recognizes the toll on their work-life balance and provides a tangible benefit that goes beyond financial remuneration.
Incident.io dives more into on-call compensation models here, (In this article “Every company needs on-call” they also interestingly argues that on-call motivates companies to build better systems and encourages teamwork.) And the Pragmatic Engineer lists several companies on-call pay levels plus companies that don’t pay for on-call in their article mentioned above.
Whether you’re a SWE looking at your own on-call situation or someone who can influence the model in your own company, we hope these thoughts and suggestions are valuable guideposts on the way to a more thoughtful and equitable approach towards a system that not only fairly rewards on-call engineers but also supports them personally and professionally.