The 5 best alternatives to on-call scheduling

On-call scheduling has long caused headaches for employees in the retail industry, but recent developments mean employers should keep their eyes open for possible restrictions placed on these kinds of shifts.

This practice is most common with big box retailers across the country, but some local businesses also use it to cut their labor costs. And while no states have laws against on-call scheduling, high-profile court cases are causing retailers to take a closer look at their employee schedules.

So, it makes sense that you might be considering possible alternatives to on-call scheduling. And we know it can be challenging to know which options are best, why it’s so important to make changes, and how to actually make the transition without causing more staff problems in the short term.

To help, in this post we’ve explained: 

  • What on-call scheduling is and why it presents fundamental business challenges
  • What the law says about on-call management and scheduling 
  • How on-call laws affect local businesses
  • Five alternatives to on-call scheduling that may work better for your business
  • How dedicated small business staff management software can help you coordinate a move away from on-call scheduling

Let’s take a look.

What is on-call scheduling?


On-call scheduling is a type of employee scheduling system that requires employees to be “on standby” and ready to work at any time during their “on-call” shift. 

Retail businesses use this system to ensure they’ll always have enough employees on the floor, especially when there are hard-to-predict busy periods. On-call scheduling also means staff members don’t need to be present on the business premises all the time but are available to come in on short notice if necessary.

There are some downsides to on-call scheduling, however. It may present some challenges like employee uncertainty regarding hours and pay, reduced productivity, and legal issues.

The challenges with on-call scheduling

On-call scheduling may be convenient for managers, but it can present a raft of challenges for employees, which could eventually have negative knock-on effects on your business. Here are some examples:

Pay insecurity and uncertainty 

By definition, the on-call scheduling system means that staff don’t have any guarantee they’ll be required to work and therefore have no guarantee they’ll get paid. 

Unless team members are only “on call” in addition to regular hours and wages (guaranteeing a certain income) or are able to combine their on-call hours with another source of income, this lack of pay certainty may cause staff to become dissatisfied and likely need to look elsewhere for a regular-paying job eventually. 

Some on-call positions prevent employees from accessing government housing or food assistance, even if their income technically falls beneath the eligibility threshold. This can cause significant employee dissatisfaction and churn.

Little-to-no notice before shifts

On-call scheduling is reassuring for managers who often need staff at short notice, but it’s not so popular for staff who have to be available at the drop of a hat. 

On-call systems don’t offer flexibility for employees’ personal lives — meaning they may need to reschedule school or family commitments, including arranging childcare with limited notice. 

This can cause low employee satisfaction, high stress, guilt over canceled plans or reliance on others for help, and feelings of uncertainty.

Lack of flexibility and work-life balance

On-call systems can limit staff flexibility and hamper work-life balance simply because they can’t plan events or downtime away from work, even if they don’t have to be anywhere physically. This limits how far away they can travel and hinders their ability to sign up for non-work-related commitments or leisure activities. 

A need to always be available can also cause staff to feel as though they’re constantly committed to work, even when they’re not actually working, which means they can never “switch off” to rest and recharge.

The American Psychological Association estimates that around 550 million working days are lost every year due to employee burnout, and a report by statistics expert Statista found that 72% of Americans looking for a job would consider work-life balance to be an important factor in choosing the role.

There’s a reason the World Health Organization (WHO) classified “burnout” as an official workplace phenomenon in 2019, which in itself “reduced professional efficacy,” “increased mental distance from one’s job,” and “feelings of negativism or cynicism.”

Higher stress levels and lower productivity

The lack of notice, limited flexibility, poor work-life balance, and pay uncertainty associated with on-call scheduling can easily culminate in much higher stress levels for staff. They may find these issues have a negative effect on their home lives, job satisfaction, and income levels. 

Constantly having to ask others for help or cancel plans on short notice without prior planning can strain even the best of relationships. This stress can significantly affect productivity — as the more stressed staff are, the less happy they’ll feel and the less focused they’re likely to be while actually at work.

A recent survey published by the American Institute of Stress, by workplace insurance firm Colonial Life, found that 41% of stressed workers in the US experienced a loss of productivity. 31% also said that unclear expectations from employers were “the most stressful element” of their work.

Legally gray

In the US, the legality of on-call scheduling isn’t clear, with some states requiring companies to pay staff for a minimum of hours if they’re technically “on shift,” even if they don’t end up working that day. This can be problematic for employers who may find themselves needing to pay staff even if they’re not actually working.

What does the law say about on-call scheduling?

Laws on on-call scheduling vary from state to state. 

In eight states (California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon (minors only), and Rhode Island), businesses are required to pay staff a minimum amount if they’re available (or “report”) for a shift.

In the US in general, if the employee isn’t allowed to use their “on-call” time for personal reasons, then most states would consider this as “hours worked” and require staff to be paid.

The law also varies depending on whether staff members have to be on-site during their on-call hours, how many restrictions there are on employee movements or activities, and how and when they’re contacted when on call.

In 2015, the lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret ended its on-call scheduling in stores after it was sued in California the year before over whether staff should still be paid when their shifts are canceled at short notice. While the judge dismissed the 2014 case, the company was still forced to fight ongoing litigation over the definition of “reporting for work.”

Brands including J. Crew, Sears, Urban Outfitters, and Bath & Body Works were also in the firing line for similar practices affecting hundreds of thousands of employees all over the country.

One of the few cities to address the issue clearly so far has been San Francisco. When the San Francisco Retail Workers Bill of Rights went into effect on July 3rd, 2015, it effectively outlawed on-call scheduling in the city. Under this law, all employers must assign employees about their scheduled shifts two weeks in advance.

Please note that this article doesn’t constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal professional in your business’s state before making any decisions that may have legal ramifications.

How do on-call laws affect local businesses?

As mentioned above, on-call laws can have a significant impact on local businesses’ reputations and bottom lines. And that’s before you even take into account the other challenges we’ve covered that come with on-call scheduling, which can hugely affect staff happiness, engagement, productivity, profitability, and loyalty.

Even if you can legally operate a business with on-call scheduling under your state’s current laws, it doesn’t mean you should or want to, especially if you’re looking to attract quality workers and build a committed, loyal, and experienced team. 

And with growing negative public perception about on-call scheduling — plus its visibility on social media — you may want to consider alternatives simply from a reputational standpoint.

5 alternatives to on-call schedules

Rather than relying on on-call scheduling, we recommend the following tips. They’re likely to lead to happier, more productive employees that will help your business grow.

Work with your team

Rather than making staff members the last to know when it comes to their shifts, work with your team to decide who works when. Of course, it may not be possible to accommodate all employee preferences or requests, but asking staff members what works best for them and creating your schedule collaboratively will increase engagement and job satisfaction. 

Workers will likely appreciate being asked, and you may find that some staff members have availability when others don’t or that some actually prefer working specific or unpopular hours. This keeps everyone involved and avoids last-minute shocks or resentment.

Trust your employees

Building a culture of trust among employees — including by implementing these suggestions — is likely to improve loyalty and, by extension, productivity. Employee scheduling tools like Homebase lets you maintain transparency when it comes to your scheduling timetable and empower staff to take charge of their own calendars too. 

This includes allowing team members to swap shifts with minimal managerial involvement and letting them request time off conveniently and in advance. Building employee trust increases the feeling that their time is being respected, building further loyalty and engagement. Homebase’s messaging tool and vacation request capabilities can make this much easier.

Schedule in advance

Firming up employee calendars as far in advance as possible is a great way to improve commitment, ensure staff show up when required, and enable people to plan activities outside of work — whether that’s other jobs, childcare, vacation, or leisure activities.

A tool like Homebase can save you time with handy schedule templates and make sure you give staff up to a month’s notice (as opposed to the two or three hours typical of on-call scheduling) about their calendars for optimum planning.

Allowing staff to plan their lives and work days in advance goes even further towards showing your people you trust and respect them, which is likely to reduce absenteeism and resentment. It can even make your business operate more reliably as you can plan expenses in advance and reduce last-minute staffing gaps more effectively.

Communicate regularly

Treating your employees with respect also means giving them as much notice as possible when it comes to shifts or schedule changes. 

Platforms like Homebase make it easier to share changes in scheduling instantly as managers can publish schedules online and push change notifications in real-time to team members via text, email, or app (and also lets managers confirm that staff have seen the update). Leadership can also send out friendly shift reminders in the app for extra transparency and communication.

Staff can communicate easily and informally with each other, meaning that they can switch shifts if needed with little to no manager involvement. This helps them feel in control of their time and creates a sense of community. 

Offer incentives when you can’t avoid on-call shifts

Depending on the size and scope of your business, you may be able to offer incentives to staff in the event they need to be available for on-call responsibilities. 

This may make scheduling more complicated in the short term and could cost more upfront, but in the long term, it can dramatically increase staff satisfaction and loyalty and reduce hiring costs.

For example, you could: 

  • Pay on-call staff more than the standard hourly rate if they’re required to work and a nominal rate even if they aren’t required to work.
  • Offer staff extra vacation time “in lieu” if they’re required to work.
  • Pay a higher wage per hour and guarantee minimum pay per shift or per month.
  • Let staff choose their on-call shifts and rotate them among team members to minimize on-call time.
  • Offer relevant perks (such as free food, healthcare, transportation, or on-site childcare) to your on-call team.

Build a strong and happy workplace culture

Overall, on-call scheduling practices can show a lack of respect for employees, impact work-life balance, and come with a high risk of burnout and poor engagement. In contrast, advanced scheduling builds a strong and happy work culture. 

This might include: 

  • Improving transparency and manager-to-employee communication.
  • Building trust among the team by working together respectfully.
  • Paying wages on time (and even allowing staff to access them in advance)
  • Offering praise and acknowledging good work.
  • Encouraging open staff communication via an app or text message.
  • Providing extra perks such as free food or healthcare access.
  • Remembering birthdays and anniversaries.

Using tools like Homebase makes such processes a lot easier to manage and implement. 

Happy and loyal staff are more likely to respect your scheduling, which will reduce no-shows and increase work quality during shifts. This will boost productivity and the customer experience — all improving your retail business’s bottom line.

How Homebase helps with flexible work schedules

Despite the perceived advantages for managers, on-call scheduling presents businesses with significant challenges when it comes to staff happiness, satisfaction, productivity, and engagement (and ultimately, business success!).

This can lead to even more issues long-term, such as burned-out and resentful staff, low loyalty and poor work ethic, a high level of churn, increased hiring costs, and legal risks.

As a result, conscientious and successful business owners and managers are now increasingly turning towards alternative means of scheduling like Homebase to manage their hourly staff and scheduling workflows more effectively.

Homebase’s tools make it easier to adapt your schedule, manage staff shifts in advance, communicate changes efficiently and easily, streamline communication, boost transparency, promote flexibility, build trust, share perks, and improve staff happiness and culture.

Make on-call scheduling a thing of the past, and treat staff with respect instead. Use Homebase to boost your people’s work-life balance, flexibility, and happiness and ensure success for your business.

On-call scheduling FAQs

What are on-call shifts?

On-call shifts are allocated times when employees may be required to work, but there’s no guarantee of work and no guarantee of pay. On-call shifts require staff members to be available to come into work at short notice when demand for some extra hands may increase unexpectedly. 

While on-call shifts can be useful for managers who need to increase staff numbers fast, they often cause issues due to uncertainty over pay and working hours. We recommend alternatives to on-call scheduling like:

  • Planning shifts in advance
  • Consulting with staff members ahead of time to coordinate shifts
  • Improving communication between staff members
  • Building a happier and more productive culture overall
  • Providing incentives in the event that on-call shifts can’t be avoided

Do you get paid to be on call?

On-call shifts may or may not be paid, depending on the location or arrangement. Some states require employers to pay employees a minimum amount or schedule them for a minimum amount of shifts in advance, while others may not require any kind of pay or advance notice. 

If the employee ends up working during the on-call shift, then they’ll get paid. However, if the staff member isn’t required to work (or barely) despite being ready to work at short notice throughout the shift, they usually won’t be paid. This is one reason why on-call scheduling is controversial.

What is the difference between on-call and standby?

Being “on call” is typically seen as a time outside of usual working hours (although it requires staff members to be available to work at short notice). In contrast, being on standby usually means employees are ready to respond quickly during normal working hours. 

On-call time may not be paid unless employees end up working, whereas standby time is typically paid as part of the job. 

Remember: This is not legal advice. If you have questions about your particular situation, please consult a lawyer, CPA, or other appropriate professional advisor or agency.

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