We've all experienced the issue firsthand, as managers or project leads in various functions and industries. Many of us may have just experienced it with Thanksgiving and are dreading the month / holiday season ahead. The absence of one critical employee can delay timelines, create confusion, depress morale and cost your company money. The reason why? Lack of communication and preparation. Today, we're going to take a closer look at why this problem exists and how we can go about fixing it.
For starters, let's review the process that most employees go through when taking time off because generally speaking, it's lackadaisical, outdated and the root cause of this problem.
- An employee submits a time off request to their manager.
- The manager hits approve.
- The request gets noted in some system of record.
- Everyone goes on with their day.
The next time this time off gets mentioned is two months down the line when the employee reminds their manager a few days prior to leaving that they will be out of office. Surprise! That's when things start to break down.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), managers spend an average of 4.2 hours per week dealing with employee absences, including obtaining replacements (which could mean assuming responsibilities themselves), adjusting workflow or providing training, which is equivalent to 210 hours or 5.3 weeks per year. Yes, you read that correctly! Out of the 50 weeks per year your organization is open, your managers waste ~10% of their time picking up slack for absent employees.
Take note, the survey isn't suggesting that managers have a direct report absent every single week. It's saying that when managers do have someone absent, it's the bane of their existence. Most employees don't adequately prepare for time off - find replacements, hand off tasks, communicate with teammates - because those steps are rarely mandated by the company. So when an employee leaves, managers are often reacting to the absence, scrambling, trying to keep projects afloat. The team still has goals to hit and it's the manager's duty to drive the company forward regardless of whether they're down an employee.
The immediate team feels the impact as well, working hard for their manager to help fill the void, but the common misconception is that that's as far as the impact extends. In reality, the absence permeates much further, impacting everyone in the organization with some connection to the absent employee.
Imagine an employee who, in addition to their core responsibilities, works cross-functionally on 5 other projects across the organization. What happens to those 5 projects while the employee is away? Do they come to a grinding halt? How do you think the other employees working on those projects, whose performance may be tied to the success of that project, feel about the absent employee? Taking it one degree further, if those employees are now forced to adjust their focus or workflow to make up for the absent employee, how does that impact their department, their immediate team, the other projects they're working on?
"Poor management of employee absences can lead to a vicious cycle of rising stress levels that negatively affect employee health and morale and lead to even more days of missed work,” said Evren Esen, SHRM’s director of survey programs.
This one simple experience, if mismanaged, has the potential to not only drown output, but destroy a company's culture.
When the vacationing employee returns, they may feel guilty for the halt in progress they caused or the extra stress their co-workers endured. Or worse yet, they may feel resentment toward their co-workers for disturbing them while they were away with one crisis or another (which, coincidentally would be their fault for under-preparing). Either way, they think twice about asking for time off next time around and others around them take note. And as soon as that mentality creeps in, the entire organization falls victim to the well-documented stigma surrounding time off that has affected so many.
In a 2016 study conducted by Project: Time Off, a non-profit dedicated to researching the crisis of under-vacationed workers in America, it was discovered that nearly six in ten (58%) employees report a lack of support from their boss for taking time off and, perhaps more surprisingly, more than half (53%) sense a lack of support from their colleagues. Clearly, the underlying resentment feels palpable.
That stigma leads to less time off being taken. Less time off leads to more stress. More stress leads to absenteeism. Absenteeism leads to turnover. Turnover leads to wasted money for organizations. Or alternatively, folks may ignore the stigma and take time off anyway, but lack of preparation leads to productivity loss and still leads to wasted money for organizations. Lack of preparation also creates more work for teammates, which leads to stress, which leads to absenteeism, which leads to turnover, which leads to wasted money and around and around we go.
So the question I'll pose to all of you is, why do we keep letting this happen? It doesn't take much to make this experience better. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the chaos:
- Create a time off checklist. One company that does this extremely well is GitLab. If you're not familiar with them, they have 350+ employees in 45+ countries and support an entirely remote workforce. To make sure their team stays well aligned, they have a section in their employee handbook that outlines all the steps an employee needs to take prior to taking time off. spoiler alert - it's thorough
- Prioritize Communication. Make sure employees do more to communicate their time off than just setting up an auto-reply in email. The goal here is to make sure teams/co-workers are prepared for the absence, not reacting to it. That means out of office events should be discussed in team meetings, posted in task management systems, displayed on team calendars, etc. weeks in advance of the actual departure date.
- Hold Employees Accountable. Add absence management as a section in performance and peer reviews. Ask co-workers and managers how well prepared they felt when a particular employee left the office throughout the year. Review that information with every employee in detail.
- Look Into Systems that Can Help. If you're low on your HR/People Ops headcount to monitor absences effectively, here are a few systems that can help. 15Five facilitates weekly feedback from employees and can help you weed out stress-related issues caused by absences. PTO Ninja is a Slack app built to simplify the out of office experience for teams and employees. Reflektive can help you poll and keep a pulse on your workforce so that you can track the impact of any new time off policies implemented.
All in all, this process is too critical to the employee experience to be buried in HRIS and legacy systems. Let's take it out of those systems, bring it into the 21st century and show it the light. Until then, godspeed to everyone as we navigate the holiday season ahead!