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I work as a software developer where we have a voluntary on-call roster, where devs do on-call duties in a round-robin fashion. Recently, my manager told me that the roster is currently too small and it's putting strain on the devs who have volunteered (it pays extra btw). As a result, devs who are not on the roster are being encouraged to do so.

The way it works is that you get put on on-call duty where you have to be available pretty much 24/7 (including weekend) for a week.

Since the company has no policy that makes this mandatory (it wasn't mentioned when I joined close to a year ago), I want to decline joining the roster since I feel like it's a lot of pressure. Would it be the right thing to do or might it paint me in a bad light?

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    It might paint you in a bad light, but it’s also still the right thing to do. If enough people aren’t ‘volunteering’, then they evidently aren’t paying enough. They should fix that instead.
    – Kaz
    May 11 at 12:38
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    How bad it is? How many weeks per year and how many calls do you actually get during a week?
    – Hilmar
    May 11 at 12:40
  • 10
    @Kaz If you don't want to do it and it's a volunteer thing, don't do it. It seems you have made up your mind here...
    – E.Aigle
    May 11 at 13:23
  • 8
    is it ok to say what country it is @blankface ?
    – Fattie
    May 11 at 15:33
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    What does the actual workload look like? I assume more than zero or the current people wouldn't be complaining, but that's still a range. How much of the work is actually after hours/on weekends? Do you actually have to be alert for a whole week, or is it more along the lines of "keep your phone nearby and your ringer turned to such a volume that it will wake you up if necessary"? What is the expected response time? May 11 at 21:08

10 Answers 10

79

This is a choice you have to make for yourself. If the extra money and positive visibility doesn't make it worth it for you, and you aren't willing to sacrifice the time required, then don't volunteer. If the company can't get enough people to staff the on-call roster voluntarily, they will have to figure something else out, like contracting additional staff just to be on-call or offering more compensation for being on-call.

If there are so few people on the on-call roster that they're being unduly burdened, they can make their own decision about whether or not the money is worth it for them to continue being on-call. Their work-life balance is not your problem to solve for them. If you volunteer just to be nice so that they can be on-call less, you're not helping them, you're helping the company because now the company doesn't have to increase the amount they pay people to be on-call.

Yes, when you put your interests ahead of the company's interests, that can affect your career at that company. A good company will understand your decision even if they would rather you have made a different one. A bad company will try to bully you into doing what's good for them even if it isn't good for you. You know better than we do what sort of company you work at.

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    "they will have to figure something else out, like contracting additional staff just to be on-call or offering more compensation for being on-call." Or instructing the staff that it's no longer a volunteer-only position and putting them all on-call anyway.
    – nick012000
    May 12 at 3:31
  • 7
    ... and they're going to face some combination of labour laws (OT/whatever jurisdiction does for oncall, it's not like this is unheard of), contract terms (what consideration did they give for pure adding duties not necessarily allowable in the original), and attrition (if as OP says, they're not doing it for any amount, well they're walking).
    – obscurans
    May 12 at 7:23
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    @nick012000 That's a contract change, which has varying legal consequences depending on where you live. Practically speaking though, there are few places in the world where a software developer with experience couldn't readily find a new place to work - we're a very portable profession. :) With a company who can't plan for even normal out-of-hours working, I would seriously doubt their "bus factor" planning could allow for even one significant employee bailing, never mind the mass exodus that a dodgy contract change tends to provoke.
    – Graham
    May 12 at 15:47
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    While I fully agree that a good company will understand your decision, keep in mind that it can still have significant repercussions when considering matters such as raises, bonuses, and promotions. If you do not intend to remain at the company long and they do not offer raises or bonuses often, then these are not major concerns. If you plan to make a career there, then the visibility of volunteering may be far more valuable than the extra pay. May 14 at 19:56
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If the on-call work is voluntary and you don't want to do it, don't volunteer. Everybody, including management, seems to agree that you don't have to do it, so there's no problem. You shouldn't be penalized for not volunteering, and it sounds like you won't be. However, the people that do step up might be rewarded; right now, the reward seems to be extra pay, but don't be surprised if they also get promoted sooner, or get first shot at fun or interesting projects. In addition to being seen as willing to step up and help management out, they're also building relationships with the people who need support and demonstrating their ability to solve problems, and those are the kinds of things that get you noticed.

Look for other ways to help out. If you don't want to do the on-call work, maybe you can head up an effort that'll reduce the strain on the people who do. Hopefully, each after-hours call should result in some sort of artifact, maybe a problem ticket, an entry in a work log, whatever. If your company isn't already tracking the on-call work, then you should suggest they start doing that. See if you can go through the reports and identify the issues that come up most often. Then, figure out what you need to do to reduce the frequency of those issues and do it. If you server is going down twice a week, fix that. If customers regularly have a problem, maybe you can tweak the documentation or improve the user interface.

By taking the lead on reducing the problems, you'll be helping to make your co-worker's lives better -- they'll still get paid extra for being there when needed, but they'll be needed less. You'll get some of the same exposure to the trouble spots in your systems or products that the on-call folks do, so you won't suffer in terms of experience. And if your efforts succeed, management will notice your efforts to help the company.

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    Specifically, the best way to help out is to prioritize the issues that anyone has to deal with outside of normal working hours. Promote work practices that minimize bugs that get into production, etc. I find that I do not want to handle the 2 AM phone calls. So, I make sure that stuff doesn't go into production with any bug that could cause that. "Sally had to deal with X bug over the weekend. Here is how we can prevent any more of those." Prevention costs far less than weekend work.
    – David R
    May 11 at 23:07
  • @DavidR I thought I was pretty specific already ("If you don't want to do the on-call work...reduce the strain on the people who do", and the whole point of the second paragraph is identifying and addressing the after-hours issues), but yes, the idea is to reduce the number of after-hours problems. You might never eliminate the on-call duty, perhaps because "we have a developer ready to help with problems 24/7" is too valuable a sales tactic to give up, but preventing the calls helps everybody.
    – Caleb
    May 12 at 14:11
  • Unfortunately, a lot of managers do not prioritize those issues. Instead, they focus on adding sales features. This is especially true in sales driven companies. In those companies, the developers have to take the initiative to prioritize things that make their lives better.
    – David R
    May 12 at 16:32
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    I like how you provide an alternative that helps prevent they myopic approach of "Do what's best for me and stop there". I like that it's "Do what's best for me, and find way to Also do what's best for the company". May 13 at 16:12
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I can see three ways this will pan out:

First - enough people volunteer so that the roster is no longer strained. This won't reflect badly on you since they will have achieved what they set out to do.

Second - no-one (or not enough) volunteers, and the status quo reigns. This won't reflect badly on you directly, they might be annoyed at everyone who didn't volunteer but unless there's something that makes you stand out it's likely to be pretty diffuse.

Third - no-one (or not enough) volunteers, and they start pressuring or trying to volun-tell people on to the roster. Refusing in this scenario might reflect badly on you directly, but it's still the right thing to do. You've stated it's not about the money for you so there's no sense in negotiating more money for doing it - you'll still be miserable doing it and you'll likely resent the company to hell and back for putting you in that position in the first place. And that's a one-way express ticket to you choosing to bail from the job. Whereas even if they look badly on you for not agreeing to do it it's only going to be an issue long-term if they're the unpleasant, vindictive sort of employer,and in that case you just pull that rip-cord and get out anyway. If they aren't you get to carry on as before and haven't lost anything.

So if you stick to your guns they might be annoyed with you and that might have some lasting negative effects - but if you agree to do it you are going to be having lasting negative effects. At this point sticking to your guns seems like a no-brainer.

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  • Thanks. Do you reckon it would be a good idea to speak to my teammates to get a sense of how they feel?
    – blankface
    May 11 at 13:26
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    @blankface Ultimately I think this is a personal decision everyone has to make for themselves so personally I wouldn't start a conversation about it, but I can't see there being much harm in talking about it if someone brings it up. If I'm putting my purely ruthless hat on I'd say the last thing you'd want is for your views on not doing it to sway a fence sitter since that only makes the third scenario more likely to happen I suppose.
    – motosubatsu
    May 11 at 13:41
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    "Enough people volunteer" is not necessarily with no harm to OP. If everybody volunteers but OP, even though this is not contractually mandatory, OP will look like they're not a teamplayer...
    – Laurent S.
    May 11 at 14:14
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    @LaurentS. That's possible I suppose - but I think it's unlikely that literally everyone but the OP volunteers, and if they did I'm still inclined to think the company will just count it's lucky stars that the roster is now jam-packed and move on to the next thing.
    – motosubatsu
    May 11 at 14:17
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    @LaurentS. I think that really depends on the company culture. At the places I've worked there were some people who simply could not commit to being available 24/7 for a week because they had other responsibilities. If it's truly voluntary, and someone chooses not to volunteer, I don't think "Well the could if they wanted to, they're just lazy/disloyal/selfish." If someone accepted the job knowing they had to be on-call, and then didn't want to do it, that would be different. If not enough people are on the roster, that's the company's fault, not the employee's fault.
    – ColleenV
    May 11 at 15:28
7

I want to focus on this sentence: I want to decline joining the roster since I feel like it's a lot of pressure.

Right now, the collective you of the people who do not yet participate in oncall duty have collective bargaining power. What would need to change so the pressure gets acceptable?

One of my former jobs entailed oncall duty. It was a flat amount of money, no matter how much happened. And the amount wasn't really that big. A friend of mine currently has a job with on call duty, they get a flat amount per shift and additional money per incident. Her regularly ups his base pay by 50%!

But pay is not the only thing: You said in a comment it's a whole week. Where I did it, it was shifts of Mo-Fr and then Fr-Mo. So you either had the week, or the weekend. And because we could trade our shifts, I only ever did weekends, because I preferred it that way. Others only ever did during the week, because they preferred it that way! This helps a lot. Even better if your management software and equipment allows you to split shifts more granularly. We sadly only got one oncall Laptop with the necessary permissions, we wished for two, so we could split shifts even more granularly. E.g.: I have plans for Saturday, but could do the shift on Sunday. One laptop? This is not feasible. 2 laptops: easy going.

We had the agreement that oncall duty topics trump everything. So if something happened, we did the work to improve the situation. Documentation lacking? Write it! Monitoring configured to sensitive? Fix it! Softwarebug? Fix it! This had prio 1 and trumped all deadlines, save for those set by the CEO. This meant over time, we improved our infrastructure so that less incidents would happen and we could sleep more often. This meant whole shifts passed with nothing noteworthy happening.

How is you alerting? In the beginning, everything alerted all the time. Later on, we defined ServiceLevelAgreements. This meant certain services alerted all the time, others just during 8:00-20:00. So if this was a weekend, you could at least sleep through it. Also, what's your reaction time? If you have to react instantly, you can't do anything else. We had enough time so I could go shopping. If it happened while I was in the supermarket, I would just quite my shopping tour, pay now and rush home.

Also, pressure can come from lack of training. You can negotiate for a level of training you will get before you get onto oncall rotation.

Also, I read studies on how bad oncall is for humans. This study didn't look at IT, but at all jobs doing oncall. And they found one killer: Frequency. Some people do oncall for a whole month, but only once a year. That's fine. Doing an oncall day every other day is horrible, because the time off is to short to truly relax.

There are likely other points you can think about and negotiate about. Right now, you are in a kind of Mexican stand off. The situation is bad, and it only gets better if people volunteer. But for those who volunteer it gets worse. So everybody wants everybody else to volunteer.

If you champion for a better version of oncall duty, you can get recognition for doing so and get something out of it. Improving the situation also prevents you being voluntold into a bad version of oncall duty. As other answers mentioned, if not enough co-workers volunteer, the business will start voluntelling.

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    I would add to let the PTB understand how the current on-call procedures would affect your current role and responsibilities if you were to volunteer...
    – paulj
    May 12 at 17:11
  • But if OP doesn't want to do ANY kind of on-call duty period, championing for a better kind of on call duty isn't likely to turn out well for them, as one of two things will likely happen: A) management will capitulate and then expect OP to volunteer for the new better on call (after all they championed for it), or B) management will stick to their guns and remember that OP is a trouble-maker--not a good thing. Either way it ends badly for OP.
    – bob
    May 13 at 12:16
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    right, my answer is a frame challenge. I have experienced that people saying they don't want on-call duty just are presented with circumstances they can't handle. With the right changes, it's acceptable for both them and the company. If OP is truly one of those persons who doesn't want on-call duty at all, ever, they other answers handle that.
    – Benjamin
    May 13 at 14:41
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Work out what it would take to make working on-call acceptable to you, and tell your boss that. This is a negotiation, and the company is trying to get the best deal they can. Don't let them use guilt to take a deal that you're not happy with, because you have something to sell that the company wants.

  • Maybe you could take extra time off instead of being paid for call out.

  • Maybe you never want to be on call on Sunday morning so you can go to church, or you need to look after your kids all weekend.

  • Maybe you are willing to answer calls but can't promise to always be sober enough to drive in to the office.

  • Maybe you wouldn't mind taking a call in the evening but there's no amount they could pay you to be woken up in the night.

  • Maybe it is about the money.

There will be some people on your team for whom the extra money is very valuable and others for whom it doesn't make a lot of difference. There will be those who spend their evenings and weekends on the couch, and others who need to get home to care for an elderly parent. Everyone has a different price on their free time.

If the company isn't willing to be flexible or just isn't offering enough for what they're asking from you, just say no. It's not your responsibility to make sacrifices to make the company profitable.

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  • I’m not sure “think harder about how you could make being on-call for a week work for you” is very helpful. Nothing would make me willing to commit to regularly being on-call for a week at a time, for no other reason than I’m very sensitive to having my sleep schedule disrupted (in terms of health issues, not feelings). I think this would be a better answer if it also addressed what to do if there’s simply no way for someone to commit to being on-call.
    – ColleenV
    May 12 at 16:54
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    @ColleenV I think the important point here is that everybody has a price, and if you say that nothing would make being on call acceptable, then you're probably not using your imagination. What if the on call duty shifted to the next person after you handle, say, 3 incidents? What if you could share the duty with someone else, so that your sleep isn't interrupted? What if they gave you a boat and two weeks extra vacation? It's a negotiation, and the best outcome is one that both parties are happy with.
    – Caleb
    May 12 at 17:52
  • @Caleb I think the idea that “everyone has a price” is simply not true. If I agree to be on-call if the company pays me 200K/hour, or if I am only on-call between 7 AM and 9 AM, that’s effectively saying “you can’t compensate me enough to make it worth my while”. My imagination isn’t the limitation here. I don’t want a boat, or money, I want my time to do with as I please.
    – ColleenV
    May 12 at 17:58
  • @ColleenV, my point was that if you can't commit to a week, could you offer something else? It's a good point that there may be nothing you can do, so I've added a line to make it clear that you can just say no. May 13 at 10:02
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    @RobinBennett I understand your point that the decision may not be a binary yes or no. Your edit addresses my concern that the answer missed the main thrust of the question, and I’ve upvoted.
    – ColleenV
    May 13 at 10:52
5

There is nothing you'll ever be able to do to keep others 100% satisfied. If you volunteer for the week, they'll be asking for two!!! The obvious economics we see here is that your company doesn't want the overhead of paying two more people to deal with 24/7 support. There is a larger differential cost to hiring two more staff versus burdening existing staff with more hours.

I am a veteran developer myself. I always have marvelled at the fact that businesses pay developers to figure out the hows and whys of all things related to the operation, but expect devs to be really dumb at negotiating work-life balance situations like this one here. Unfortunately, naïvety is a well-traded currency.

It's obvious that volunteering is not sitting well with you -- GOOD, don't do it! Rather than putting an iota of worry into what happens as a result, I'd recommend you make sure you're in touch with the latest-and-greatest (do a survey on the job market) on whatever technology stack you're working with, find some ways to turn those things into measurable work experience NOW, and keep your resume updated. Your company might get wise and hire the people they need, OR things could go in another direction. In either case you'll be a high-value worker who doesn't have to WORRY.

I just say that if you're going to stress out, let that stress be about your self improvement instead of stressing over this company's shortcoming. At the end of the day, the managers trying to institute such a policy go home and sleep easy -- don't be their sleepless fool.

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    I'm guessing you were downvoted for writing with a personality. But the answer is good (Although simiar to existing answers) so I upvoted
    – coagmano
    May 11 at 23:48
  • +1 for suggesting redirecting the nervous energy to self-improvement to find another job if this one goes south.
    – bob
    May 13 at 12:19
4

You could refuse to be part of the roster, but this might turn out to limit your career advancement opportunities and possibly your standing within the team.

The people currently on the roster might be doing it to earn a little more money for themselves, but they're also increasing their visibility to management in terms of being available to work on and correct urgent issues.

You should really talk to your manager and the team members who currently work on the roster and see what the actual work entails. Do people really get woken up at 2am and told to fix issues? Is there any documentation to help resolve common issues?

Being a part of the roster can only be a positive for you. Even if you can't resolve specific issues to full resolution, performing the initial diagnosis steps is a whole lot better than nothing at all happening.

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    I can think of many reasons why being on the roster can be negative: - no social life outside of home on these days, getting awaken in the middle of the night or whatever time you choose to sleep, working 7 big days in a row if you're not lucky, etc... While I understand that kind of availability is mandatory in some positions, this is usually part of the contract, not pushed on workers. Or at least it should be.
    – Laurent S.
    May 11 at 14:19
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Would it be the right thing to do or might it paint me in a bad light?

I wasn't hired for the maintenance of the coffee machine at work, so I won't do it. I have other work to do. But if the coffee machine was on fire, I'd drop my work to extinguish it.

The same principle applies to any activities in the company that are not officially in your contract. You are legally allowed to refuse them (within the legal bounds of course), but if you are a stickler for the contract at a time of true need, that is going to paint you as unhelpful (at the very least).

But this is highly contextual.

  • Maybe the company has a genuine short term "act of god"-type emergency requiring more attendance
  • Maybe the company hides a lack of budget/proper management by making everything an emergency all the time
  • Maybe the company is consistently understaffing its efforts and expecting employees to voluntarily fix it for them

Whether I would help out or not massively depends on the context. For a true emergency, I'll be willing to help out, but not for a consistent issue that is caused by bad resource management.

That is my decision, but that is not necessarily yours. You have to make this for yourself.

-3

I am going to offer a contrary outlook (at least to those that have answered here), but you may want to consider.

  • Some small(-er) growing companies that I have worked at had similar arrangements where developers provided support, where the support work did not justify hiring full-time staff as of yet.
  • Joining in the shared support work shows you are interested in becoming part of the team. Conversely, refusing (or not volunteering) gives the impression you are only interested in your own short-term wants, and not the supporting the larger goals of the team.
  • Working in customer support for the software you develop can be very beneficial. Hearing first-hand user pains and problems will help you in crafting better solutions and evaluating alternatives when you work on the software.
  • Many of the opinions provided here are obviously geared to larger companies, and jump on the "company is cheap" or "company is evil" rationale, and think support is beneath them. I would suggest ignoring these people.
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    Presenting a "contrary opinion" is one thing. Characterising people who simply wish to be paid properly for their own time and/or wish to spend time away from work doing things they find more fulfilling as "selfish" is unhelpful and unnecessary.
    – Rob Moir
    May 14 at 4:26
  • @RobMoir: Point taken. I've edited out the unnecessary characterization. I hope you will consider the rest of the post in the proper manner, and not judge it based on one stray word.
    – mharr
    May 15 at 11:52
  • You've still got "many opinions...jump on the company is "cheap" or..."evil" rationale, and think support is beneath them", which is obviously intended to refer to the people who wrote those opinions and not the opinions themselves. Which answer exactly says support work is beneath them or supports their assertions by saying the company is evil and/or cheap? This is the problem with name-calling as a way of supporting your point. People focus on the name-calling instead of the point. Ideally, your answer should stand on its own without disparaging other answers.
    – ColleenV
    May 17 at 12:28
-8

Would it be the right thing to do or it might paint me in a bad light?

You say "its not about the money. Even if they pay me a lot more, I still wouldn't do it do maintain work-life balance".

Well what about the work-life balance of your coworkers? By not stepping up and helping your coworkers you're decreasing their work-life balance. Sure, I suppose that's not your problem, but then again, maybe they'll be less inclined to go to bat for you, should you need it, if you're not going to go to bat for them.

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    – Kilisi
    May 12 at 12:55

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