On-Call Team Management: Improving Lives & Improving Culture

Mike Meredith - November 05, 2014

The culture of our industry is broken, and it’s killing relationships. You need to take the lead in making a change.


Ask just about anyone who spends time on-call, and they’ll tell you that being on-call has had a negative effect on their personal life.  In fact, VictorOps did ask hundreds of people who pull on-call duty; here’s some of what they said:

"_I get stressed, and that causes tension which then affects my marriage_." "_My girlfriend makes me sleep on the couch if she knows I’m going to be on-call._" "_My significant other doesn’t like the family interruptions_." "_I don’t have time to be a Dad when I'm at home and on-call..._"

We’ve all seen it a million times, and we’ve lived it.  The long-hours and interruptions are ruining friendships, romantic relationships, even marriages.  We’re distant from our kids, we miss important events, we let our stress and exhaustion from work spill over into our personal lives.  Now obviously, someone has to take the call when the platform goes down at 3:00am, and we design our on-call schedules to be fair, and make sure everyone shares the burden.

But as DevOps leaders, is there more we can do to give our teams their lives back?  Are the company cultures we’re creating making peoples lives better, or worse?


Everyone has to work hard at a startup, and everyone wants to do their part to push the company forward.  We all want our stock options to be worth something some day!  But the natural drive to move quickly can create an atmosphere where people feel obligated to throw their personal lives aside and neglect their families in favor of the company.

This atmosphere can create a lot of energy and drive in the short-term, but it’s empty calories, and it will do more harm than good in the long-term. The honest truth is that most people can’t maintain a work-life balance that destroys their personal life. They’ll become bitter and frustrated. They may leave for a better situation, or become, through no fault of their own, a drag on the organization as their stress and anxiety affects their performance.

So how can you break the destructive cycle without breaking your stride? Communication and cooperation are the key. The DevOps movement is built on communication and empathy; people working more effectively together because they understand each other and are helping each other succeed. The burden of on-call is lessened if you can take little breaks for important events.

At VictorOps, we always knew that enabling a quick and frictionless “passing of the torch” would be important, but it has been surprising how much the “Take on-call” button has been one of our killer features. The ability to reach out to the team and ask for a few hours of coverage to go to a recital or an anniversary dinner, and to be able to just let the stress of on-call go and forget about it for those few hours, is huge. That little oasis of peace in the midst of an on-call week can make all the difference to your sense of well-being.  And it gives you the ability to really put your spouse, significant other, or kids front and center, where they belong.


Scheduled overrides can be an even better tool for this.  If you know in advance that you have a big personal event coming up, you can work out a scheduled override, and go into your on-call week knowing that you have that time reserved for yourself.

As team leaders, we can play a key role in helping our teams make use of overrides.  Encourage your teams to speak up and ask for coverage when they have a personal event, and be a leader in taking overrides for others on your team. Channel that competitive drive to work hard into a drive to help those teammates that need coverage.  Lead by example, by taking the time out to attend to your own personal life.  And make it clear that not only is it okay for employees to put family first, it’s expected.

The working culture we create for our teams has real, significant effects not just on life at the office, but life at home as well.  We can provide tools that can help improve personal lives, but it’s also up to us to foster an atmosphere where these tools get used.  Encouraging a more humane work-life balance will pay dividends in productivity, in recruiting, and in employee churn. It’s the right thing to do for better on-call team management, but it’s also the smart thing to do.