People are always taking time off, and that’s as it should be. In the US, we have a problem with people not taking enough time off. The best way to encourage people to take some much-needed time away from the office is to run projects in a way that creates space for that to happen without causing a crisis.
There are three ways your team takes time off that you need to be prepared for:
1. A holiday that everyone gets
2. A scheduled vacation
3. Unscheduled time off
Here are some helpful tips for when your team takes time off or is out on vacation.
1. Set Your Project Up for Success
When you’re putting together your project plan, don’t overload your team members. They might be in the office for 40 hours a week, but that doesn’t mean they’re working on your projects for that many hours.
If everyone in your company gets four weeks of PTO a year, assume that it will be spread evenly across the year (I’ll talk about a long and scheduled vacation separately). If your company invests in training (good for you), then factor that into the availability. Team and all-hands meetings, interviews, and other non-project time all eats into their availability. Some days you’ll use less of this non-project time (e.g. no one is sick), and sometimes you’ll use more (e.g. there’s a nasty bug going around the office), but on average you’ll do fine.
What you shouldn’t do is assume that everyone is going to work 80 hours a week for a year. That can work in a pinch for a week or two, but over the long-term, people will get burnt out and turnover will become a problem.
2. A Holiday That Everyone Gets
These types of out-of-the-office are relatively easy to deal with. It’s so easy that sometimes you don’t need to do anything at all. Many project management tools have holidays that you can load into your tool, and the schedule will automatically consider these days as unavailable for project work. If your team is distributed, you may need to consider the holidays that are local to all of your team members. If you’re building anything in Asia, then Chinese New Year is a big deal because China shuts down for at least a week. I’ve often had deadlines that involved getting a prototype from Asia before things shut down and getting the design changes ready for when things start moving again.
3. A Scheduled Vacation or Absence
It’s reasonable to expect your team members to give you advanced warning of any leaves their taking: the longer the vacation, the greater the warning. I’ve taken a month off, and I gave a six-month notice. Once I even told a prospective employer about a month-long trip to Australia that I had planned, and if that was a problem, they shouldn’t hire me. Not only did I get the job, I got an extra paid vacation to cover the trip as a hiring bonus.
As a project manager, if you can’t manage your project when someone is gone for a vacation with sufficient warning, then your project is in trouble because anyone can give a 2-week notice and leave for good. Everyone should be valuable, but no one should ever be indispensable. If they are, start looking for ways that you could live without that person. That might involve cross-training, better documentation, or sharing resources with another group. You may need to bring in an outside consultant to keep things moving during the absence.
In the US and Europe, the Christmas – New Year’s window is a challenge. It’s common for so many people to be gone, those who remain find they can’t be productive. In Seattle, Boeing is well known to just shut down during this period, since it was hard to staff the production lines fully. And if you were a Boeing supplier, you would shut down as well, since there wasn’t much to do with your primary client closed.
4. Unscheduled Time Off
Sometimes things come up with little warning, and one of your team members is going to be gone without notice. Sometimes this is just the flu, and they’ll be back in a week. Other times it could be something more serious, and they might be out for months. Coming into the office isn’t as important as spending time with an ill family member or following doctor’s orders for bed rest during a difficult pregnancy. As the project manager, it’s your job to create a space where this can happen.
If this absence is short term, do what you would have done if this had been a vacation, but do it more quickly. Scavenge for resources to back-fill and (with managements blessing) play the pity card. Most people are willing to pull harder to make space for a dad to be with a sick kid.
If the person is going to be out for a long time, pretend that they’ve quit and find a replacement. This is probably a good time to hire a contractor or a consultant. This will impact your budget, so work out with management the financial implications. And be sure that you’re compliant with the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 or the appropriate laws in your country.
I’ve never liked the term work-life balance since work is part of life. But I do like the concept that life can’t just be about work. Or, as Jack Nicholson said, “All Work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Make space for your team members to recharge their batteries during a vacation, rather than taking an ax to the office doors.
Andy Silber has been an astrophysicist, an engineer, project manager, and author of Adaptive Project Management: Leading Complex and Uncertain Projects. He has worked throughout the Puget Sound region in everything from small startups to Fortune 100 companies. He has been an environmental activist and that passion is responsible for first bringing out his desire to write. More of his writing on project management, energy policy, and politics can be found at his blog A Silber Lining.