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On-Call Policies and Management


Talha Khalid

by Talha Khalid

On-Call Policies and Management

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Understanding On-Call Policies and Management

Architecture Diagram Today, most businesses face cutthroat competition, especially in the IT sector. In this competitive environment, user experience has become more important than ever, and even minor downtimes or incidents can be disastrous if they are not quickly noticed and addressed. Organizations often commit to on-call policies to provide reliable services for their customers. However, if not managed appropriately, on-call availability can negatively impact user experience and overburden your employees, which, in turn, may affect their performance during business hours.

This article explores what on-call is, why you need on-call policies, and how to effectively manage such policies.

Why Do You Need to Manage On-Call Policies?

An on-call schedule is a method of staff rotation that designates certain employees as always available to handle and manage incidents—twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. This practice is common in hospitals where staff must always be available to handle emergency situations. Similarly, on-call schedules are used in IT to mitigate any incidents as they arise, regardless of the day or time.

Today, even a small problem or outage can have terrible consequences for businesses as every single review defines your future. This makes it even more important to have proper on-call policies.

Why On-Call Management Is Important

On-call management is essential, as it makes the constant and swift availability of your services possible. The following are some examples of why effective on-call management is important:

  • Site reliability: Effective on-call management increases the reliability of your site, as incidents can be quickly managed when they arise. This constant availability of services greatly improves the user experience.

  • Employee wellbeing: On-call management can directly impact employee stability, as they can be called to mitigate an incident at any hour. Such a schedule not only affects their work–life balance but also what they expect from work.

  • Employee productivity: If the on-call policies are rigid and lack flexibility, they can be counterproductive and create a sense of urgency, which can lead to stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is one of the biggest causes of a lack of productivity and this is especially true for employees who are constantly available.

Benefits and Challenges of On-Call Policies and Management

Before considering implementing on-call policies, it is important to understand your requirements and the effect such policies can have on your incident management and employees. The following are some of the most prominent benefits and challenges of an on-call schedule:

Benefits:

  • Rapid response: One of the most significant advantages of on-call management is the capability to respond to and resolve any incident rapidly. Rapid response and resolution can contribute significantly to customer satisfaction and emphasize that customers’ needs are your priority.

  • Problems solved outside of business hours: With a typical schedule, if a customer experiences a problem, they will have to wait until the next business day for it to be solved. This wait time is significantly worse if a problem occurs during the weekend. On-call management solves this problem through immediate incident response outside of business hours, which shows that you value your customers and also helps build customer trust in your services.

Challenges:

  • Alert fatigue: Alert fatigue is a well-documented problem. It refers to employees who are inundated with alerts becoming indifferent to them. On-call employees often receive hundreds of alerts each day, making them uniquely vulnerable to alert fatigue. This can lead to them ignoring or falling to respond appropriately to important alerts, which completely negates the purpose of an on-call schedule.

  • Lack of alert context: A lack of information or context for an alert can make it difficult for your employees to respond to the incident based on its severity. Thus, without context, alerts may be non-actionable, which complicates the process of incident assessment and mitigation and leads to ineffective on-call management. In an on-call schedule, alerts frequently arrive outside of regular office hours and lack the necessary context for employees to respond appropriately.

  • Scheduling difficulties: Incident management requires a certain level of expertise to mitigate incidents based on their severity. However, the employees with the prerequisite skills are often already scheduled to work during business hours. This makes 24x7x365 scheduling difficult because you have to make sure that people with the relevant skills are distributed appropriately and available during and outside business hours.

Best Practices for On-Call Policies and Management

As discussed above, on-call policies help provide a better customer experience. However, without effective management, these benefits can be overshadowed by negative consequences, such as alert fatigue, lack of productivity, and poor incident response. The following are some best practices that can help you to avoid or mitigate such problems:

  • Schedule: Effective scheduling is essential to the success of any on-call policy. The on-call policies should be developed in consultation with the employees, and, if possible, their schedules should also be taken into account.

  • Incident review and assessment: It is important to properly review incidents before responding. Incidents can stem from various sources, such as hardware, software, and external factors; there are different elements in almost every incident. Therefore, your responses must be adapted to the specific circumstances. Your first priority should be to review and assess the severity of the incident. Then, considering the circumstance and severity, the responsibility for responding should be delegated to the most suitable professional or even the best team. This helps avoid inefficient and time-consuming services that may not solve the problem. The incident review and assessment process can also be used to build a knowledge base accompanied by recommended measures and solutions.

  • Escalation procedures and “call tree”: A call tree is a process used to escalate the notifications based on a set of predefined rules.These rules can be based on time or severity or combination of both; for example, an escalated notification could be sent if there is no response to previous notification within a defined period. A call tree is only effective if you have properly defined roles. If you have defined the rules properly, a call tree makes the whole process of delegation based on severity and expertise more efficient and less time-consuming.

  • Incident response: Effective incident response is one of the most vital processes in incident management. In this process, all the information collected in the incident review process is used to find the most appropriate solution to the problem. If the attempts are unsuccessful, a specialist takes over the task until the solution is found. This helps keep the team’s technical leads focused on their key activities.

  • On-call schedule frameworks: There are many on-call schedule frameworks. Some of these frameworks are time based (for example, by week, weekend, fortnight, or month) and others are based on availability and priority, such as primary and secondary on-call schedules. The success of your on-call policies depends on choosing the best schedule or a hybrid schedule based on your requirements and work culture.

  • Expectations: Successful on-call policies require clear communication of what is expected from your team in terms of availability. This allows your team to adapt to these expectations and ensures that there is no confusion. Some areas where clear communication of expectations are particularly important include work intensity and incentives.

  • Managing time off: On-call schedules can lead to employee burnout and other mental health issues, which can make the whole process counterproductive; therefore, it is important that your employees know they are appreciated for their constant availability and receive proportionate time off. Managers should provide time off on the following working day for employees who have worked late or responded to on-call notifications. This time off period can be managed by rotating on-call employees, which will also help avoid employee burnout.

  • Automation: A number of steps involved in on-call management, such as incident review and assessment, can be automated using special tools. Similarly, many incidents that were previously manually handled can be easily automated using bots and algorithms, which can lessen the extra burden on your employees. However, one should be careful while automating incident response because an improper response to a less severe problem can escalate to a more severe problem.

  • Incident monitoring: Even when the incident has been resolved, it is recommended to monitor the delivery of services after the case is closed. The incident should remain under monitoring for prevention purposes in case the problem resurfaces. Then the service team will already be aware of the situation if it reoccurs and, as a result, can respond quickly.

Though the choice of an on-call schedule and policies should depend on your requirements and teams, these best practices can be helpful in creating efficient on-call management policies in almost all work scenarios.

Conclusion

Effective on-call policies and management can significantly improve the reliability of your product or service, which not only makes the customer experience better but also sets you apart from your competition.

Besides ensuring coverage and that the right people are available when incidents arise, the most important and often most time-consuming task in on-call management is the process of incident review and assessment, which is critical to mitigating any incident. To a great extent, the success of your on-call policies depends on this step.

Lightstep is a tool that helps automate this process. It helps automatically detect changes happening in your application, infrastructure, and user experience and also points out the problems. Sign up for a free trial!

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