Compensating On-Call Support Engineers

A big thank you to Bruce Middendorf for inspiring this topic.

Most support organization have some kind of on-call arrangement to handle night, weekend, or holiday coverage. When it comes to compensating the support engineers who work on-call shifts, there is no universal methodology, mostly because the on-call burden can vary a lot from one organization to another. Here are five suggestions to help you decide what would work best for you.

Idea #1: Minimize on-call shifts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that on-call shifts are not beloved: make them rare and short! If you can set up a full-fledged Follow-The-Sun setup where various geographies around the world distribute the work every day, great. Otherwise, carefully monitor the off-hours volume  and schedule formal shifts whenever activity is high enough to support them. For instance, if you find that your evenings are busy until, say 10pm, but nights are pretty quiet, institute a swing shift (2-10) and start the on-call schedule at 10pm.

Idea #2: Maximize the pool of on-call resources

Building up on idea #1, recruit as many people as possible to handle on-call shifts so they do not recur too often. If each individual is on call once a month, that’s a big burden; but if it’s once a quarter, it becomes very tolerable. If the support team is small, reach out to Engineering or Consulting staff to increase the pool.

Idea #3: Keep the compensation simple

Some support organizations consider on-call work to be part of the work and expect support engineers to do it without special compensation. In my experience, a forced, uncompensated on-call system can work if on-call duty is rare and you take exquisite care to distribute it equitably.

That said, most vendors offer some kind of compensation for on-call work, either a flat rate or a flat rate plus a per case or per hour fee. I’m a great fan of the flat rate since it’s the simplest to administer, and it works well if activity patterns are consistent. If everyone gets called once per weekend, institute a flat rate that recognizes both the stand-by burden and the single call, and it should work fine. If your patterns are very irregular, I would recommend using a per-case fee instead of a per-hour fee, which requires carefully logging and can lead to disagreements on why something took so long.

In terms of dollars, on-call compensation is typically a few hundred dollars a week. You will know when your compensation system is seen as equitable, because some individuals will push to take on more shifts.

Idea #4: Be flexible

Regardless of the compensation system you choose, someone who had a busy on-call shift may not be in shape for a full scheduled shift afterwards, whether it’s a day shift after a rough night or a weekday shift after a busy on-call weekend. Encourage managers to exercise flexibility as needed. A fatigued support engineer won’t do good work, and build resentment, too.

Idea #5: Stay on the right side of the law

The US is pretty laissez-faire when it comes to on-call compensation, but other countries have specific rules, even for salaried workers. Hourly workers, if you use them, typically must follow stricter rules. So check with your HR teams before falling in love with any of the approaches described here.


How do you handle on-call compensation? Please share!