You let out a sigh of relief and relax. It is a quiet weeknight as usual with a few employees scheduled to hold things over – until you randomly get slammed out of nowhere. As the manager or small business owner, you have to frantically start calling employees in an attempt to get the night under control. Of course, no one wants to lose business because they are understaffed. Or at other times, the opposite happens – you have a full staff scheduled but end up having to send half of them home because not a single customer has entered the store in the hours. These types of instances are bound to happen; there is no good way to perfectly forecast what your customer load will be like from day to day, no matter how well you research and plan.

In response to this inevitable dilemma, many employers have chosen to adopt “on-call scheduling” as a solution. In place of a regular schedule, employees are required to call into their workplace a few hours before their shift starts to find out whether or not they are needed. This way, most problems can be avoided with under or overstaffing. This is more common in retail, healthcare, and hospitality services.

Even though in theory “on call” scheduling sounds like a good idea, is it the best way to address this problem? From the employers’ aspect, yes, this seems the best way to solve the dilemma, but from the employees’ side, it can be quite challenging and frustrating. They have to plan their lives around the slightest chance that they might have to work that day. It profoundly affects their lives and ability to care for themselves and their families. In turn, this dramatically affects employee morale and turnover.

Adverse Effects of On-Call Scheduling on Your Employees

  • Stress from an Unpredictable Schedule

An unpredictable work schedule is very typical for part-time hourly employees. A recent survey stated that a surprising 70% of part-time workers reported that they received their work schedule only a week in advance at the most (some only hours ahead of time), and only 10% had a set schedule at all. In this same group, 25% of the workers stated that they were required to be available for last-minute shifts occasionally, if not all the time.

Part-time retail employees also reported that they wanted more hours at work but were unable to get them. In 2006, this group (known as “involuntary” part-timers) was recorded at 644,000. Shockingly, the number grew to 1.5 million by 2010. This seems to be common and expected. However, this greatly affects your workforce.

On-call employees are basically required to keep their entire day free in the event they might be needed at work. Even after doing this, there is still no guarantee that they will even get paid for this effort, and a majority of them must make plans for child care or transportation ahead of time.

A multitude of these part-time workers must rely on some sort of predictable income to make ends meet. Not only do they not know when they will work, but they also do not know if they will even be working at all. On-call scheduling is anything but predictable. It is nearly impossible to budget funds when they do not know if they will end up working ten hours or a full forty.

This type of unpredictable schedule not only affects transportation and childcare, but it can also directly impact a worker’s ability to pursue additional education or training. This keeps them trapped in this cycle, even though they may wish to better themselves and move on to better things. This is extremely difficult on the individual as well as their family, and research shows that this type of unpredictable schedule tends to cause more work-related stress and family problems.

  • Job Performance and Morale Issues

A worker’s stress level and well-being directly affect their work performance. Happy employees tend to be productive employees. It is reported that happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy ones.

  • Health-Related Problems

Happy workers also tend to be healthier ones. Work-related stress surrounding on-call schedules can significantly increase the risk of heart attacks, weight issues, depression, and sometimes substance abuse. All of these health issues directly affect a business’s workplace productivity and attendance. It was reported in 2016 that workplace stress directly affected health care costs and the number of missed workdays, costing companies close to $300 billion that year.

Legal Issues Surrounding On-Call Scheduling

Managers and business owners are always under pressure to manage labor costs to keep profits at a maximum. Although the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not federally regulate the use of on-call scheduling, several states and cities are starting to address this growing workforce concern. For example, Oregon became the first state to require that employees received their schedules at least one week in advance. By 2020, they will be required to provide it two weeks in advance. In San Francisco, an employer is required to give an on-call employee at least 24 hours’ notice that his shift will be canceled. If the employer fails to do so, he is required to compensate the employee anywhere from two to four hours.

Some well-known retailers like American Eagle, Forever 21, Gap, and even Walt Disney have been served formal inquiries from state attorney generals regarding their on-call scheduling practices. Some employees have even submitted lawsuits for unpaid on-call wages.

Due to the increasing legal attention surrounding on-call scheduling, many large retailers have limited or stopped using on-call scheduling for their employees: Urban Outfitters, The Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, J. Crew, Aeropostale, Carter’s, and PacSun – just to name a few. This shows that many employers are starting to listen more to what their employees are saying regarding on-call scheduling. However, far too many other large, profitable retail chains and restaurants are still using this form of scheduling.

Alternatives to On-Call Scheduling

As attention surrounding on-call scheduling increases, a business would be wise to consider alternative options to provide their employees with more consistent, advanced-notice scheduling. This is much easier said than done obviously, but it is possible with the right approach. What are the options?

  • Higher Benefits for On-Call Staff

In some situations, the easiest way to deal with on-call scheduling is to pay a higher wage or benefit to those employees who are willing to work with last-minute scheduling changes. Some industries cannot altogether avoid the need for on-call employees, but one transport company builds an on-call scheduling bonus into their employees’ contracts to compensate for this occasional need.

  • Guarantee a Minimum Number of Hours

Another way to compensate employees for being available for on-call shift changes is to offer them a guaranteed number of minimum hours per pay period. One company pays their employees a certain number of minimum hours if they are called in during an unscheduled time period – even if they work less than that. Policies like this have significantly reduced employee turnover rates.

  • Use Shift Extensions

One business uses “on-call shift extensions” as a response to on-call scheduling issues. Employees are scheduled for a specific-length shift and are then notified while at work if they are needed for additional hours. It does not eliminate the unpredictability of the schedule, but it does greatly limit the “surprise factor” for the employee.

  • Offer to Those Who Want the Extra Hours

As seen with the numbers stated previously, there are plenty of part-time employees who want more hours at work. At times, the benefit of being able to take these extra shifts is rewarding enough. Be sure to offer additional shifts or hours to current part-time employees before hiring new ones.

Many businesses in the restaurant industry offer extra hours to qualified staff on a first-come, first served basis. Servers know that coming in during extra-busy periods will produce extra tip income.

  • Better Manage Employee Availability

Better managing employee availability starts with being prepared. Employers and managers must be sure to have an updated availability calendar for each employee. Write everything down. The more you know, the more you can prepare. Do not schedule an employee for a shift that you already know that they are not available to cover. This will only result in a headache and stress for the employee and you as a manager as you will have to try to cover the missed shift. As much as you want, not every scheduling conflict can be avoided. If an employee is unavailable during high-volume shifts or periods that they are needed, have a conversation with them to see if there a way to make it work for both of you.

You can also put some of the scheduling control back into your workers’ hands. Give them some kind of autonomy and flexibility to trade shifts among themselves or to pick up or drop hours with fellow employees.

  • Use a Scheduling System

Even though unexpected scheduling changes can never be eliminated, by far, the most effective way to reduce the majority of on-call scheduling conflicts is to use some sort of scheduling system. Most scheduling software/programs keep track of large amounts of data for your use.

Pay attention to data regarding shift variables. This will help you have the proper amount of staff on hand to cover business. For example, is construction or a recurring event producing extra business? Do you notice more customers after school hours? Do your best as scheduling manager to prepare ahead of time for these shift variances as much as possible.

Scheduling systems also provide valuable insight and reports that show how effective your scheduling is in comparison to workflow or revenue. Take note of any seasonal fluctuations and plan accordingly.

Use a scheduling system to keep track of employee time records to see who takes on-call shifts more commonly than others, who is regularly tardy, etc. This enables you to schedule the right employees at the right time, and with the proper fellow employees. You do not want to schedule an entire shift of workers who are regularly ten minutes late to their shift.

  • Give More Advanced Notice

If you are able, try to plan your schedule as far in advance as possible. This gives you a maximum amount of time to address any scheduling conflicts and avoid last-minute panic and stress. Providing a schedule to your employees a month in advance is ideal, but if that is not possible, try to at least give two-weeks’ notice of shift assignments.

More advanced shift notice will not only reduce on-the-job stress, but it can also help eliminate of a lot of additional pressure on your employee’s home life. Greater advanced scheduling notice gives them ample time to arrange child care or transportation, swap shifts, schedule their days off, and overall have a more predictable lifestyle.

  • Give More Scheduling Power Back to Your Employees

Employee scheduling can be one of the most significant stressors for management or business owners and can require a tremendous amount of time. In conjunction with a good scheduling system and a bit of supervision, relinquish some of the scheduling duties and give more autonomy and responsibilities to your employees in managing their schedule. One of the hardest parts of being an on-call employee is the unpredictability and feeling of being unable to control their own life. Employees greatly appreciate feeling as if they have a more significant role and choice in their schedules.

An online scheduling system allows employees to keep their availability up-to-date. It is also good to allow employees some sort of flexibility in trading shifts with fellow employees, taking extra shifts, etc. Allow them to make arrangements with fellow employees and submit their proposed changes for approval. This reduces a lot of headache and time spent by management going back and forth between employees trying to get shifts covered appropriately.

Another simple way to help on-call shift changes is to post a list of everyone’s general availability and contact numbers. If an employee knows he will be late or cannot make a shift, he can reach out himself to make sure the time is covered.

  • Accept that Life is Unexpected

No matter how well you plan or how efficient your scheduling system is, employees will always get sick, emergencies will arise, and there will always be unexpected business fluctuations. However, by implementing some of the ideas discussed, the need for on-call scheduling can be nearly eliminated. When employees feel more in control of their schedule and lives, it will only create a better working relationship and higher productivity in the workplace.