Why You Should End On-Call Scheduling and What to Do Instead

Every small business owner or manager understands the scheduling struggle: you schedule too many employees for a typically busy weekend shift and end up having to send half home, or you schedule too few and find yourself slammed on a usually quiet weeknight. You’re paying more in labor costs than you’re earning in revenue, or losing out on revenue because your staff can’t keep up with demand.

In recent years, employers have found a new way to address scheduling woes: on-call scheduling. Instead of having employees show up for regular shifts, on-call scheduling requires that employees call in an hour or two before their shift to see whether they’ll actually be needed for work or not. Businesses are staffed just the right amount, and are able to call in employees as-needed. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?

Wrong. While it may seem like it makes sense for businesses, on-call scheduling isn’t working out so well for the humans on the other end.

Download this employee availability form to make employee scheduling easier.

Why on-call scheduling hurts your employees

In an on-call scheduling system, employees often have little to no notice of when they’ll be required to work. They might set aside an entire day preparing to work without any guarantee they’ll actually work and get paid, or be expected to suddenly rearrange plans and come in for a shift.

Compared to workers with regular schedules, researchers have found that on-call employees have less flexibility to plan or take time off, more difficulty arranging child care, and are more likely to experience work-related stress and work-family conflict. With half of retail workers only knowing their work schedule one week or less in advance, almost 20 percent of today’s workforce are on “unstable” work schedules.

Employee stress and well-being are directly linked to work performance. Happier employees are more productive employees, period. Engaged employees are 12 percent more productive than unhappy employees, and in 2014, business listed on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For experienced a 22.2 percent increase in revenue.

Happy employees are also healthier. Employees who deal with high levels of work-related stress (as seen in on-call schedules) are increasingly at risk for heart attacks, depression, and substance abuse–all which in turn affect workplace performance and attendance. In 2016, workplace stress alone costed companies around $300 billion (yes, billion) annually due to health care costs and missed work days.

Why on-call scheduling can hurt you legally

On-call scheduling isn’t the best for your employees’ well-being, and it may also soon be against the law. Popular retailers like Gap, Forever 21, American Eagle, and Walt Disney have all received formal inquiries by attorney generals of multiple states into their on-call scheduling practices. Some have even been served with lawsuits from their employees for unpaid wages due to on-call schedules.

Faced with mounting legal pressure, many retailers have now limited on-call scheduling or phased it out completely. In August, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to legally require that businesses give out employee schedules a week in advance. By 2020, the law will require Oregon employers to provide schedules two full weeks in advance.

What to do instead of on-call scheduling

So what can small business owners do if on-call scheduling is off the table? Start scheduling smarter. It’s easier said than done, but definitely not impossible with the right strategy and tools.

Be transparent about availability

Go back to where you first began: your employees’ availability. Talk to your staff and get an updated timetable of their current commitments and capacity. Does your best server now have an evening class every Thursday? Write it down. Does your top manager need to pick their child up from school on certain afternoons? Write it down.

Better yet, let your employees be responsible for updating their availability using free scheduling tools like When I Work. Employees can update their own availability and submit it for approval. Then when you create the schedule, you have everyone’s updated availability in one place.  You can even automatically assign qualified employees based on their availability in the When I Work app.

Smarter scheduling starts with being realistic. Don’t set yourself and your employees up for failure by scheduling them during times they already told you they aren’t available. If their outside commitments are during business hours or high-traffic shifts, have a conversation. See if there are ways to fill in the gaps and make sure the lines of communication are clear.

Ground schedules in data

You’re never going to be able to schedule away the unexpected. But the more you know, the better you can prepare. You already know your employees’ availability, so now’s the time to start taking shift notes. Are there days you’re consistently understaffed compared to others? Have one employee who fails to appear or show up on time? Are construction, back to school, or other outside events impacting revenue and foot traffic?

Are you using a scheduling tool that has labor reports? Look at reports that show how many hours were scheduled, how many hours were actually worked, and compare that to your sales. You can take this one step further and layer over your industries seasonalities, and you will have a strategic place to schedule from.

Data can allow you to notice trends over time and schedule for or against them, in longer and longer cycles. And as a business owner, you have plenty of data at your fingerprints: check your employee timekeeping system to look at attendance patterns, examine your POS to find out who is performing well and when, and to see who is struggling. Then, stack your shifts accordingly. Putting the right people in the right places can go a long way during peak hours and help you avoid having to call in for backup.

Post schedules earlier in advance

If you can forecast your staffing needs for the next month, you can begin building appropriate schedules to match. The sooner employees know what their schedule is, the sooner they can let you know of any potential conflicts or swap shifts with a coworker. There will be less calling out the day of, leading to fewer over- or understaffed shifts and less time on the phone frantically searching for a replacement.

Remember the poor work/life balance of on-call scheduling? With advance notice of their work hours, your employees will be able to arrange appropriate child care, schedule days off, and generally get some predictability and stability back in their lives—things every employee deserves.

Empower your employees

As a small business owner, it’s normal to feel like you have to be able to do it all. But it’s also important to get help when you need it. Don’t let employee scheduling come at a cost to your business. After all, you likely didn’t start your business to build schedules—it’s just part of the job.

For many on-call employees, the hardest part about having an unpredictable schedule is feeling like out of control. So instead of spending the majority of your time creating schedules and going back and forth with employees, find ways to help your employees feel empowered and create shared responsibility.  

It can be as simple as posting a roster of everyone’s availability and phone numbers so that employees know who to reach out to if they can’t make a shift. It can be experimenting with a new timekeeping system or scheduling app, or cross-training your employees so that a smaller staff can handle more demand.

You can even try mutually designating employees with more flexible schedules as shift back-ups. Some employees may appreciate extra shifts and the chance to earn additional pay. Just remember: it’s important to check with employees first (or better yet, let them volunteer) to be the first or second call if extra hands are needed on deck. Otherwise, you’re trapping them again in the unpredictability on-call scheduling.

Accept that we’re all human

Life happens. Employees will get sick, you’ll have an unexpected rush of customers, or you’ll run out of inventory. But by scheduling smarter, using the data you have, finding the right tools, and keeping the lines of communication open about employee availability, you won’t need on-call scheduling to keep up. Instead, your employees will feel more in control of their own schedules and their lives, creating better relationships between your employees and you and improved work-life balance for everyone.


Why You Should End On-Call Scheduling and What to Do Instead