Many IT managers today are grappling with how to effectively manage the responsibilities of off-hours support. The concept of 24×7 support is not new, but many IT managers are now being forced into doing more with less, thanks to the struggling economy. This translates into having to provide more services, more often, with fewer resources. When an IT manager is faced with asking staff to also take on the responsibility of off-hours support, the manager needs to think beyond simple monetary compensation. Appropriate compensation is important, but empowerment and service levels are also vital to the overall plan for effective off-hours support.

There is no getting around the fact that off-hours support staffs need to be monetarily compensated. Unfortunately, there’s no one perfect formula for compensating staff, and there are many ways to slice up the compensation pie. Before designating a dollar amount, IT managers should consider these issues affecting compensation:

  • Inconvenience/disruption: Having to carry a cell or pager 24 hours a day, as well as having to respond to problems, can take its toll on the personal life of your support staff.
  • Added stress: Having to deal with daily problems and off-hours issues can spike the stress-o-meter.
  • Burnout: Never getting a break from work can potentially lead to burnout in the long run.
  • Staff turnover: If you ignore the warning signs of burnout and stress, you’ll inevitably start facing difficulty retaining your (good) staff.
  • In-house vs. outsourced rates: What rates would an outsourcer charge? Keep in mind that reasonable compensation will still likely be cheaper than outsourced off-hours support.
  • Best practices: Look not only at your industry and other branch office locations, but also consider the regional (state/province and city) best practices. Join some local associations, network, and find out how your peers are compensating their staffs.

Regarding the amount/type of compensation, there are two important principles to keep in mind: Keep the compensation flexible and don’t be stingy. Here are some formulas to consider:

  • Based on percentage of salary (for example, X percent per hour weekdays / Y percent per hour weekends)
  • Minimum hourly reimbursement: 2 or 4 or Z hours
  • Travel time included or excluded
  • Time off in lieu of money or money in lieu of time off
  • Monthly per diem or one additional day off per month

Having to perform off-hours support should be as minimally disruptive as possible to customers, clients, and support staff. The key to lessening the disruption is to empower support staff with the tools and authority to perform the necessary tasks as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Some of the elements that lead to empowerment are:

Provide appropriate staff with the procedural authority that accompanies the responsibility. Assume the best by trusting staff to make appropriate decisions. If decisions are made that are less than ideal, deal with them as exceptions. If you don’t trust your staff to make the right decisions, don’t have them doing off-hours support.

Provide staff with the technical authority that accompanies off-hours responsibility. Your off-hours staff must have the sufficient system access permissions to affect the necessary changes. Don’t provide only some of the system passwords.

Adequate computing power is a must. While not directly related to off-hours work, having (multiple) high-end workstations will allow staff to be more productive and will potentially minimize the amount of work or incidents that create off-hours situations. Monitors that are capable of viewing extensive amounts of information, without having to swap screens, should be bundled with the PCs. This will require dual-displays and/or 19-inch or greater consoles.

Server operating systems on support staff PCs are also extremely helpful when managing and troubleshooting problems related to Windows-based networks (WinNT, Win2000, Active Directory, and so on). Remote take-over works, but it adds a layer of indirection and inefficiency.

Provide support staff with access to vendor and third-party tools, utilities, and resource kits. Subscriptions to vendor support utilities and knowledgebase information, such as Microsoft TechNet, are a given. Providing quality support, especially in an in-sourced IT environment, is very difficult without them.

Remote take-over tools for servers is also a given. Whether working onsite or offsite, the ability to remotely control servers is essential. Ideally there should be more than one in the event that one tool fails.

Remote management cards should also be considered for any server that requires 24×7 uptime. This requires the install/activation of manufacturer specific products such as Compaq’s Integrated Lights-Out (iLO) and Remote Insight Lights-Out or IBM’s Integrated System Management Processor (ISMP) and Remote Supervisor Adapter. The advantage of using these hardware-based solutions for remote management is they offer complete take-over capabilities right from boot-up; they are operating-system (and service pack) independent, and they provide remote power management to servers, which, of course, is lost in the event of a server OS failure.

The ability to reboot servers remotely must be available. Without such capabilities, support staff may need to come onsite simply to perform such a task. This functionality can be provided via remote take-over software, from a remote management card in the server, or by way of remote power management tools from UPS vendors.

A high-speed VPN is also very important. This greatly reduces the time required to perform tasks. Some considerations regarding VPN access include:

  • By utilizing remote desktop PCs, the support staff is not burdened with having to lug a company laptop home in order to provide support.
  • In addition, by allowing support staff members to use their own PCs (if they desire to do so), this spares the company from having to purchase more PCs, and it respects the staff member’s desire to have fewer rather than more PCs around their home.
  • When utilizing a VPN to perform support, all internal network segments must be accessible.
  • The company should cover the high-speed Internet service costs, as well as software and hardware firewalls.

Service levels
Finally, with all the systems in place to provide off-hours support, the service levels for such a high level of support need to be very precise. Items that need clear definition include:

  • How quickly will somebody respond? Is a call or page answered within five minutes or two hours?
  • Once a call is accepted, how quickly will support be able to act? If it’s within two hours of the call, they are not going to be able to leave town during the times they’re on call.
  • What is the expected minimum downtime? Clients and customers need to know that although a call is received, and remediation action has begun, the minimum downtime will be at least an hour. Logistics makes it very difficult to rectify problems in less time.
  • What is the anticipated maximum downtime? Don’t ever guarantee a maximum outage time. This cannot be guaranteed.
  • Which products are covered, and to what levels? Once people get wind of off-hours support, the floodgates can open up with all sorts of nonbusiness or nonmission-critical support calls. Also, for some systems off-hours support levels are perhaps less than during regular business hours and callers shouldn’t expect the same level of technical expertise.
  • Who can contact support staff during off-hours? Can any clients/customers contact the off-hours crew, or is it filtered through IT management, or is it limited to only senior managers being able to call?
  • What days/hours are covered by off-hours support? Are off-hours 24×7, 24×5, 15×5, or some other formula?

Done properly, providing good off-hours support can go along way to improving customer satisfaction and enhancing the careers and work experience for your IT staff. Done poorly, it can result in dissatisfied customers and numerous problems within your IT department. This article doesn’t provide all the answers, but hopefully it does offer some insight into what items you have to consider to provide quality off-hours IT support.