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May 3, 2024

5 min read

Remote Team Rotations: On-Call Across Timezones

Use the different timezones and varied needs of your team to schedule on-call rotations that make everyone happy

Jorge Lainfiesta
Written by
Jorge Lainfiesta
Remote Team Rotations: On-Call Across Timezones
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While some companies—16% of them, according to StackOverflow’s ‘23 survey—have opted to call back employees to the office, many teams have opted for a remote-first approach (41%) or a hybrid solution (43%).

For managers, remote workplaces open up a world of possibilities in terms of recruiting. However, this also means more effort towards people management: keeping team members engaged and motivated requires special attention when you can’t meet in person.

Roles that require on-call shifts will also require special considerations in a remote setup. You’ll likely find yourself working with people in different states, countries, and thus, time zones. Organizing rotation schedules will need some extra work, but modern on-call scheduling software can help you manage much of the heavy lifting.

In this article, I want to outline basic considerations when planning a remote-first on-call schedule and how to leverage your tools to ensure you have 24x7 coverage.

First, hear out your team

On-call duty is not everyone’s cup of tea. Thus, asking your teammates about their preferences before scheduling rotations can help you keep everyone happy. Leveraging the human side of on-call when planning can improve your reliability.

In the case of remote teams, understanding you employees’ time zone and preferred working hours will help you understand when on-call is less taxing and ensure full coverage.

You might not be able to please everyone, but timezone differences and preferences can sometimes play in your favor when scheduling rotations.


Rotation strategies for distributed teams

When you have multiple timezones and diverse needs within your team, you’ll want to optimize your rotations for flexibility. These three strategies work particularly well with remote teams:

Follow the sun

If you’re lucky to have a team distributed through a wide range of timezones, you can organize a follow-the-sun rotation. This strategy leverages the natural timezone differences within your team and assigns them shifts according to what might be less taxing for them.

For example, if you have teams in San Francisco, Toronto, and London, you have a span of about 14 hours of "business time," which reduces the need for people to be on-call during their time off.

Using a Follow-the-sun approach, you can plan shorter on-call shifts, or manage separate evening and weekend rotations based on team preferences.

Example of a follow-the-sun schedule

Flexible rotation schedules

It might sound odd to suggest that not having fixed rotations is a good strategy, but flexibility is key! When your team has varied needs and timezones don’t align, giving people some freedom to choose their shifts will help keep morale high and the coverage intact.

Flexibility can be implemented either through shift swapping among the team, or by letting the team self-select on-call times. In both cases, a scheduling tool that allows you to manage such flexibility will be crucial. Doing this manually will cause you a lot of administrative work.

You’re working with dedicated professionals, so giving them autonomy will likely lead to better outcomes. However, ensure no individual is taking on too many challenging shifts and that work is fairly distributed.

Layered on-call schedules

Alert churn is a significant source of fatigue for people on-call. If your phone won’t stop going off for alerts that you have to acknowledge, some of them simple and some complex, it might be time to call someone else to help out.

Layered on-call schedules try to distribute the load of being on-call, focusing not only on time distribution but also on workload management.

Use multi-timezone scheduler

Arranging rotations on Google Sheets and trying to manually sync things on the calendar won’t cut it when you have to manage different timezones. Modern rotation scheduling solutions, like Rootly On-Call, will help you organize team rotations through a dedicated UI that supports multiple timezones.

A timezone picker in the on-call scheduling software

Gap Detection

It’s easy to miss a few hours between rotations when you’re juggling preferences and timezones when setting up the on-call schedule for your team. However, you can rely on your on-call scheduling software to discover gaps in coverage.

Gap finder in the Rootly admin

On-Call Doesn’t Have to Be Painful

Working remotely brings many benefits for teams, which makes it one of the most popular ways of working. You can use the different timezones and varied needs of your distributed team to schedule on-call rotations that make everyone feel empowered and ready to resolve any incident when it arises.