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On-call in 2020 Can't Look Like On-call in 2019

The Morning Mind-Meld
On-call in 2020 Can't Look Like On-call in 2019
By Jaime Woo and Emil Stolarsky • Issue #7 • View online
We’re entering week nine of sheltering-in-place (which means some of you are already into double-digits) and we’re in that weird place where we’ve sort of adjusted but also our brains are like, THIS IS AN EVER-CHANGING PANDEMIC AND THERE IS NO TRULY ADAPTING TO IT. Still, the world is moving quickly with or without us. We agree with Scott Galloway’s prediction: “things won’t change as much as they will accelerate… making the future happen faster.” 
One thing that’s quickly accelerating is the conversation around on-call. We’ve noticed it has become a lot more top of mind for people as they reflect on how mandated work-from-home has shifted their habits and patterns. At the start of the pandemic, on-call felt easier because you could reliably be at home with a stable internet connection. 
But while we accounted for physically being able to perform on-call, we neglected the emotional and psychological impact. That impact is clear when you look back at how optimistic many of us were in the beginning, thinking we’d build a shed or learn a new language in our spare time. If you’ve managed to even pick up a dozen words in your studies, we’re giving you a standing ovation. 
It’s no surprise we ignore the mental health component of on-call during a pandemic: we ignored it before the pandemic. We gave a talk at SREcon EMEA about the science of stress and burnout, and how it applies to on-call and incident response. In that talk, we laid out the four ingredients to stress: novelty, unexpectedness, lack of control, and threat to ego. On-call and incident response fulfill every ingredient. 
Incidents are often new problems, coming at unpredictable times. You have to put down everything you’ve been doing to make a fix that may or may not work, and you’re also aware that your actions are being evaluated for your proficiency as a responder. It’s stressful even before you add a global pandemic into the mix.
Afterwards, we got two kinds of feedback: thank you for talking about this, and, on the flip side, are we babying people who are unable to mentally handle things? This perception unfortunately comes from the outdated image of mental toughness as a John Wayne-esque unemotionality. It’s wanting to be unyielding under stress, and yet we know that if you don’t bend you’ll ultimately end up breaking.
That second attitude contributes to the worry around discussing mental health openly, and why it felt cathartic for many to see it being discussed on-stage. We treat mental health as something we just need to work hard enough for, and anyone who has felt the frustration of sometimes finding even simple tasks difficult to do during this crisis knows it’s not about wanting it enough.
So what are we going to do about it? Clearly, it’s time to openly question the status quo around on-call. Very few people enjoy on-call, and because it can be painful, like going to the dentist, people avoid thinking too much about it until they have to do it. Even if you’re lucky enough to be on a relatively quiet on-call rotation, you probably avoid spending any cycles training for the off-chance disaster strikes. Which is a shame, because as Charity and Cindy have argued, on-call is an invaluable learning opportunity.
2019 on-call hinged on worrying about the hassle of lugging around a laptop and ensuring there was sufficient internet connection. How do you evolve on-call when physical accessibility isn’t the issue, but instead that you (and everyone else on your team) are juggling 100 worries at any given moment? 
We think the on-call of the future incorporates the complete person as they go into their shift. Before the pandemic, we were able to cope with being in a closet of sorts, putting on our “professional” hat, even if that definition left out important parts of ourselves. It’s time to come out. We use the metaphor specifically: research has shown that LGBTQ-identified people perform better at work when they feel like they can be their fullest selves at work. Similarly, someone’s ability to perform during on-call means acknowledging more than whether they can physically be at the keyboard. 
We have to learn to evolve our understanding of what constitutes a work self, especially since on-call has already timewise inserted itself into every other part of our lives. Maybe it’s okay that someone needs 45 minutes away from the computer to decompress, even if it’s not strictly work-related. Maybe a week-long shift is too much when every week now under this threat feels like a month. 
In the latest Post-Incident Review, we compare on-call to embarking on a long road trip. If someone has a particularly nasty stretch—maybe there’s bad weather or another driver nearly causes an accident—you don’t shrug and demand the driver keep going because it’s still their shift. Being on the road together means being able to support one another until the journey’s complete. That’s the future of on-call. Given that mandated WFH could happen until the end of the year, we expect teams to start having these kinds of conversations, if not already.

This is an Incident Labs project. We’re interested in figuring out the best practices for incident management for software companies. We’re building Ovvy Insights, an analytics product on top of PagerDuty to gauge the human impact of on-call, now in private beta. We also produce the Post-Incident Review, a zine focused on outages.
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Jaime Woo and Emil Stolarsky

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