Monday, 13 June 2016

Catching up...

...is the worst part of returning from vacation.

All of my unread work emails are a reminder that the rest of my workplace didn't stop, just because I went away. Whilst I try to catch up with everything that happened in my absence, colleagues will welcome me back in the office - not just because they're happy to see me, but also so that they can hand back the extra load that they've had to take on... along with the various things that they weren't 100% sure how to handle so instead they kinda figured it could just wait until I got back. And, of course, there are others who will expect me to be back up to speed like I haven't been away, but the reality is that, after 15 days of not thinking about work, I'm going to need half a day to get back "in the zone" - or at least a couple of coffees!

This, of course, has been my experience many, many times, in almost every job I've been in. And it doesn't get easier! Back when I was an entry-level employee, my tasks were more interchangeable, and there'd be at least one other person who could do my job in my absence. But as my roles become more specialised, I become less dispensable - which is a good thing if I want to keep my job, but a source of frustration if I want to take leave. There's rarely going to be a convenient time to take leave, and (of course, arguably) few people in my workplace are going to be able to do my job as well as me - at least not on top of doing their own job at the same time!
So, it's made me think a bit about team skills when it comes to managing leave. When I was managing a small public library, the main thing was that there was always somebody on the desk, and somebody available to do story time. My priority as a manager was to keep my staff happy, and to keep the wheels turning. If people had earned their leave, and they wanted to go away, then as long as there were enough staff left, then I'd approve them on their merry way.

But now, I do wonder more about best practices when it comes to managing leave. The more specialised and valuable a staff member's skills and knowledge are, the more there is at stake every time they go on leave. Is it enough just to keep the basic wheels turning while they're away - letting the work pile up? Or do we exercise some knowledge management in documenting specialised processes that another staff member can follow in their absence - with the risk that the less experienced replacement might make mistakes? Or do we put our foot down and refuse to grant leave to staff during times where their knowledge and skills might be in particular demand? Or worse still, allow them to go, but expect them to respond to work emails or phone calls while they're away?

Ideally, the solution could be simple - that we have two full-time staff performing each specialised role. They can collaborate and learn from each other, and if one goes on leave, then the other one is still present. But perhaps such a organisational structure is a little idealistic, in this day and age where organisations are cutting back more and more...

Perhaps the most effective model was when I worked in schools. Everybody goes on leave during the school holidays. Nobody goes on leave during the school term. Problem solved!

Any other solutions?