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April 17, 2024

6 min read

Navigating On-Call Compensation for SREs: Strategies and Insights

Discover 5 models of compensation for on-call

Jorge Lainfiesta
Written by
Jorge Lainfiesta
Navigating On-Call Compensation for SREs: Strategies and Insights
Table of contents

I was once at a rooftop party with a doctor on her day off: everybody was vibing to a great DJ, escaping Barcelona's summer heat with a beer or a mojito. However, she couldn't drink at all, not until 20:00:00. She was on-call and couldn't let loose. She literally counted the seconds left on her shift. "It sucks, but at least I get paid for it," she kept explaining.

Being on-call is not "nothing." It doesn’t allow people on-call to live their free time as they want. They have to be available, mentally and physically ready for a crisis to come crashing down at any given moment.

Even though not paying for on-call has been the cultural norm, the advantages of compensating for this duty are clear. First, your team is more motivated to get you out of that incident. And they'll be more likely to stay longer at your company because they feel valued.

I know we're in a tight economy right now, but not everything is about big cashouts. I’ve compiled a list of common compensation schemes that can give you ideas on how to structure an on-call program that feels fair for your team and stays within your budget.


Models of On-Call Compensation

Every organization is unique, facing its own set of challenges and advantages. The models below are popular choices that teams adopt to compensate for on-call duties, offering flexibility to employees. For instance, at Google, employees can choose between extra cash or additional time off. Thus, grab everything with a pinch fo salt and mix and match to make something that works for you.

Additional Pay and Stipends

Many organizations opt for straightforward additional pay or stipends per on-call shift, ensuring clear and direct compensation for these duties.

Pros: This method offers immediate, tangible rewards for on-call work, providing clear financial compensation.
Cons: It might not fully address the potential long-term stress and burnout that can accompany frequent on-call responsibilities.

Compensatory Time Off

Some companies compensate on-call work with time off, allowing SREs to rest after intensive on-call periods, aiding in maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Pros: This approach helps employees reclaim time spent on-call, contributing to better work-life balance.
Cons: Not everyone might find time off as enticing as direct financial compensation.

Differential Pay Rates

Offering higher pay rates during less desirable hours, such as nights and weekends, compensates for the inconvenience and is often more attractive to employees who value higher pay for their flexibility.

Pros: It compensates for the inconvenience of working during undesirable hours, and can help with hiring/filling difficult roles.
Cons: It can be complex to keep track of hours per employee, especially when dealing with different regions.

Tiered On-Call Levels

A tiered system where different levels of on-call duties receive different compensation can more closely align pay with the actual demands placed on the SRE.

Pros: It reflects the varying degrees of responsibility and workload.
Cons: This could lead to perceptions of unfairness or add complexity in managing the balance between tiers.

Performance-Based Bonuses

Linking bonuses to performance metrics such as system uptime or the effectiveness of incident responses can motivate SREs to maintain high performance standards.

Pros: Encourages high performance even during off-hours.
Cons: It can be demotivating if factors outside SRE control impacts uptime. And there's a risk that it could discourage teamwork if individuals focus solely on achieving metrics for personal gain.

Wellness and Support Programs

Including wellness programs and mental health support acknowledges the psychological and physical toll of on-call work and supports overall employee well-being.

Conclusion: The Future of On-Call Compensation

More and more companies are defining on-call compensation schemes that work for employees and budgets. Being on-call won’t ever be a pleasure, but a fair compensation makes your team think “at least I get paid” instead of “I should look for a new gig.”

By thoughtfully selecting and implementing suitable compensation strategies, organizations can ensure that their SRE teams are not only adequately compensated but also remain motivated, satisfied, and prepared to manage the challenges of maintaining essential IT systems.

However, paying for on-call is not everything. Other factors like providing flexibility during shifts can improve your reliability practice and boost your team's productivity.