My company recently implemented a mandatory vacation policy because the CEO believes we will benefit personally from time off, and the company will benefit from a happier, healthier, and more creative workforce. I’m concerned about how to manage team vacation requests. As you know, the workload doesn’t change based on who is in the office. I’m not sure how to make time for my team to take these vacations when we’re already over-worked.
No Vacation in 5 Years, Chattanooga, TN
I can relate to your dilemma. Knowing how to manage team vacation requests is certainly a challenge for any team leader. The workload is constant no matter who is there to perform it.
With a mandatory vacation policy, most employees will (and should) opt to take their vacation. Our company policy was “use it or lose it,” and no one chooses to lose days. With two weeks of vacation, 11 holidays and two personal days, it meant that every employee was out of the office for about a month of each year.
There are two obvious potential answers to the question of how to manage team vacation requests: 1) Staff your team 10% higher to compensate for the “lost” time, or 2) Ask your team to work overtime to make up for the deficit.
While I said those were obvious solutions to the vacation request dilemma, they may not be the right solution. Let’s look at the problem from the perspective of the CEO and get creative, especially since those two costly solutions might not fly anyway.
Why Vacation is Critical for Your Team
Most of your team members are knowledge workers, especially when it comes to their specific role. Optimizing results means relying on the wisdom, experience, and unique perspectives they bring to their job. In addition, chances are high that most of your incoming team is of the Millennial generation. These 20-30-somethings are focused on accomplishment (not time at the office) and using technology to connect and contribute.
In his book The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin discusses the addiction and effects of technology and the fact that the brain uses a disproportionate 20% share of the body’s energy. These two factors support the need for vacations to allow workers to unplug, refuel, and replenish the motivation and creativity needed to perform as knowledge workers.
As a leader, you set the example for your team. If you don’t take your vacation days, or if you’re only taking “working vacations” (i.e. constantly checking your email and calling in), your team knows you don’t value vacation. There is no “do as I say, not as I do” when you are in a leadership role. Additionally, the benefits of vacation extend to managers, CEOs, and team leaders as well as their staff.
Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, found that employees who take time off perform better. Research supports that “when the brain can think positively, productivity improves 31%…and creativity and revenues can triple.” As a corollary, employee retention increases. Not only are your people happier, healthier, and more productive, but their attitude will influence others on the team.
Addressing the Fears of Encouraging Vacation
With all these benefits, it seems logical that employers would jump at the chance to promote vacation, but of course, the show (or in this case work) must go on. It’s easy to see the benefits of team vacations on paper. It’s quite another to manage team vacation requests that leave you shorthanded.
The US Travel Association offers some statistics that show just how common the fear is for employees when they fill out their PTO request:
- 40% of employees are afraid of the mountain of work that they will have upon return.
- 35% say they are the only ones who can do their jobs.
- 25% are even afraid of losing their jobs (although the current tight labor situation may impact this stat slightly).
While you may be one of the 28% of leaders who “cringe” at approving time off or the 32% who believe other employees have extra burdens when team members take time off, the fact of the matter is a vacation is still important for morale. If you’re seeking optimal performance from your team members, you need to approve at least some of those requests.
In fact, it could be a fear of judgment or repercussions that is preventing your team from putting in their requests. Yet, if you want to encourage productivity and a positive work environment, vacation is necessary for everyone.
Cruise Planners CEO, Tanya Murphy says, “Before I owned my travel agency, I worked in corporate America. I observed that some of my colleagues wouldn’t take a vacation out of a sense that it would hurt their career ambitions. I took every vacation day I was allowed, and I was promoted several times in my 16-year career. If employees are delivering work while they’re there, then they shouldn’t worry they’ll be seen as a slacker. Take your vacation days!”
As CEO of a small company with a policy of 23 days off per year, I dealt directly with the dilemma of how to manage team vacation requests. The fears of untold piles of work, being the only person who knew the job, or worries about being replaced were very real. In a small company, there are several steps to take to relieve these fears and this is where strong systems and company culture come into play:
- Every position should have a set of clearly outlined policies and procedures that assure consistent treatment of the company business. This would allow anyone to step in at a moment’s notice to perform the job
- At least two people should be trained in each position. At my company, we used vacations as an opportunity for “refreshing” the skills of the backup person.
- Process critical work while a team member is on vacation. For example, the backup person processes cash but filing can wait for the regular team member’s return.
- Spread some tasks among other team members to alleviate the backlog. All team members recognize that the same consideration applied when they vacationed.
- Manage your company (or department) culture to assure that team members feel appreciated and valued for their contribution.
- Consider hiring a temporary worker to fill the role if circumstances make the aforementioned steps too difficult. If this is a continuing issue, consider ways to streamline some processes.
- Another option might be to allocate some of your budget to a vacation fund – that the employees may ONLY use for vacation.
How to Encourage and Manage Team Vacation Requests
Vacation policies are usually quite clear on the “what” of the vacation, such as each employee earns one day of vacation a month for the first year, or each employee starts with two weeks of vacation. Often the policy defines the use by an anniversary, fiscal, or calendar year and other details like additional weeks at 5/10/15 years.
However, the application of the “how” of vacations may not be clearly stated in the policy. Many leaders manage team vacation requests by seniority or on a first come/first serve basis. This can be effective, but it may also lead to some tough choices.
To ensure continuity, often departments in an organization have specific times of the month or year where no vacations can be scheduled. For example, retail typically has a no vacation policy for Black Friday. Accounting departments may not allow vacation before the month is closed or at the time of inventory.
It’s important for morale that team members perceive the “how” of vacation use as fair. I found it best to be clear when you outline blackout vacation days. Lay out the schedule at the beginning of the year and allow first come/first serve requests. In my experience, we generally had a policy that two people couldn’t be out at the same time in our small organization. If there was a conflict between vacation requests, it could generally be resolved with a diplomatic conversation.
Alleviating the anxiety around employee vacations requires planning. Once the team member is assured the company has their back with cross-training, policies, and procedures, they should still prepare the team for their absence. Encouraging vacation planning best practices reinforces the message of leadership’s commitment to and the sanctity of vacation time.
Encourage your team to use these vacation planning guidelines:
- If possible, plan the first day back as a half day to reboot mentally and physically.
- Review the policies and procedures of the position to ensure that you’re up to date and perform a dry run with the back-up team member.
- Make the boss or a delegated team member aware of open work and the status of all projects.
- While no one can predict every concern that comes up, you should share any anticipated hiccups or challenges that might occur during your absence.
- Clear up as many urgent tasks as possible. Often, the time leading up to a vacation can be very productive, so take advantage and leave the desk clear.
- Set expectations for action in your emails and voicemail. I would recommend setting the away message to direct correspondence to your backup person. Keep the message brief with just a simple return date.
- Follow-up with the boss, team members, clients and others at a one week and then three-day timeframe reminding them of the vacation. Offer management an opportunity to resolve any anticipated issues before departure.
- Only let family or close friends know your whereabouts. There is no need to let the office know where you’re headed.
- Truly unplug and avoid taking a phone (or at least answering it) on every expedition and excursion within your trip.
These practices encourage employees to really unplug and take a break from the busyness of their position. While it can be tough for some workers to leave the role, ensure them that the office will be just fine without them there for a few days. Focus on the importance of their refreshed return, where they’ll be able to offer a renewed perspective.
This also means, that as a manager, you need to adhere to your vacation policies. Use the opportunity to identify gaps in your cross training and delegation traps. Even when it would be easier to pick up the phone and call a team member on vacation, refrain. Troubleshoot the answer on your own and reinforce your company’s philosophy on vacation time.
Changing your mindset to one that understands and appreciates the benefits of vacation will help you think more creatively and support the full use of vacations for yourself and your team. By encouraging and learning how to effectively manage team vacation requests, you’ll promote a healthy, happy and productive work environment.
Vacations should be a regular (not a once every five years) occurrence. Best wishes that you also get to schedule some time away as you reinforce your company’s new vacation policy.