Organizing Off-Hours Coverage

clockWhile the Follow-The-Sun model has saved many support organizations the headache of organizing off-hour coverage, there are still many occasions when you cannot simply use a three-region setup, for instance:

  •  you have a partial Follow-The-Sun setup, with only two regions out of three, so you need to cover that third shift.
  • Follow-The-Sun gives you weekday coverage around the clock but you still need a way to cover weekends.
  • you have a full Follow-The-Sun setup but some customers require in-country coverage because of language or security requirements and therefore cannot use the Follow-The-Sun setup.

Off-hours coverage can be achieved by setting up off-hours shifts, or by using on-call coverage. Here are 7 suggestions for organizing off-hours shifts. The first 4 apply to on-call coverage, too–and I will discuss on-call approaches in more detail in an upcoming post.

1. Use a visual aid

Especially if you are working with worldwide teams, create a time zone spreadsheet that translates coverage hours in the countries you support among themselves. It can get very confusing when Tuesday afternoon in the US is Wednesday morning for the Australian team! A visual structure will help you navigate your decisions. I also strongly suggest doing all your work in a single timezone and translate it later as needed to further reduce the possibility of a mental meltdown.

2. Confirm specific time requirements

In general, you need to cover your customers’ business hours, whatever they are, and you may need to cover additional hours depending on your support plans–but you may have some leeway. For instance, you could support European customers with a US-based team if you have forgiving response time targets. It will be unpleasant for customers to have to wait until the end of their day for an answer, and it will be challenging to schedule troubleshooting sessions, but it is possible.

On the other hand, if your plan promises one-hour response targets, you will need to have people available pretty much in sync with your coverage hours .

3. Estimate volumes

Volumes will dictate whether you need a scheduled shift or can get away with an on-call setup. Typically, volumes are dramatically lower at night and on weekends for B2B vendors, but don’t assume: consider when customers log cases and take into account your response targets. It does not matter that lots of P3 cases are logged on Saturdays if they don’t need a response until the following Monday–but P1 cases will need near-immediate response.

4. Decide when shifts are needed

Schedule a formal shift if you have significant volume and downgrade to on-call coverage if volume is low. “Significant” volume means that you regularly have enough work or almost enough work to keep one or two support engineers busy. You don’t want to pay people to sit around, but, more importantly, you don’t want support engineers to be bored waiting for a case to work on.

Don’t hesitate to mix and match shifts and on-call coverage, depending on volume. For instance, many vendors schedule shifts on weekday evenings, but use on-call coverage on the weekend when volume is low.

5. Assign permanent shifts or allow bidding for shifts

If you need support engineers to work outside regular hours, it’s usually best to hire and assign them permanently to off-hours shifts. For instance, if you have staff in the US and Europe, you can schedule some US engineers for the swing shift, 3-11 PST, and offer around-the-clock coverage. Another example would be to schedule some support engineers to work Tuesday through Saturday and others Sunday through Friday to cover daytime hours throughout the week. Most people prefer a regular schedule and you will get better attendance and retention that way.

If you need only a handful of off-hours shifts and you have a large team, you can consider shift bidding instead: have your support engineers work regular hours and allow them to bid for for additional shifts (for extra pay or extra time off). This is useful for weekend shifts that only need a skeleton crew, as well as backfilling for someone who normally works off-hours but has a day off.

6. Define the compensation rules

Check with your local HR team because some countries have tight rules about whether you can assign shift work at all, and how you need to compensate people who work such shifts. Be warned that the US has pretty loose rules compared to the rest of the world. I will discuss US practices here.

  • Shifts that are close to a “regular” day shift typically get no differential. That would include any shift that starts between 7 and 10am local time on weekdays.
  • Expect to pay a differential of 10% for the swing shift (typically 3pm-11pm). Expect to pay 20-25% for the night shift (typically 11-7).
  • Differentials for weekend shifts range from 10-20%.
  • Local circumstances vary, a lot. For instance, if you operate in a college town and you are looking for swing shift support engineers, you may find students who are happy to work later in the day for no additional compensation. (But you will also lose them periodically once they graduate!)
  • If you are paying shift differentials, they are considered to be separate from the base salary. So if you offer a differential for a weekend shift, it would disappear if the support engineer moved to a business day shift.
  • Bidded (additional) shifts can be compensated with days off (sometimes day for day, but usually with 1.5 days off per shift), or they can be paid separately, typically at a fixed rate that roughly corresponds to 1.5 times the daily salary.
  • Even in the US, some HR teams believe that paying differentials or bonuses for shift work is incompatible with an exempt employment status. That is not the case but you may need to do a little convincing.
  • Some vendors are experimenting with wildly different approaches such as paying full salaries to individuals who work 12-hour days on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s a pretty good deal, financially speaking, to work just 24 hours a week, but it requires a concerted effort to include the weekend workers into the larger team, provide training to them, etc.

7. Plan for management and engineering coverage

It’s great to have support engineers on shift, but they will also need management backup (for customer escalations) and engineering assistance (for technical troubleshooting). Unless your team is large you will likely operate with an on-call setup for both, and usually without additional compensation.

If you do schedule managers to work non-traditional shifts, they typically get differential pay just like the support engineers do.


How are you handling off-hours support? Please share in the comments.

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