Extended employee leave is becoming one of the more prevalent staffing challenges for business owners. While it’s not a new issue, it certainly is gaining significance as the job market is shifting. Younger generations have a more pronounced demand for work-life balance, paid parental leave is on the rise with leaders, from both parties calling for a nationwide program and more and more companies join the growing trend of flexible work hours and sabbatical options for employees. Sure, all that is great news for employees and while big corporations might have enough resources to fall back on, it is often difficult for small and medium businesses to plan for and get through extended leave situations. The matter of the fact is that no matter the industry or the size of your business, eventually you will have to deal with being one or several staff members short for an extended period of time.
Our team had to recently deal with such a situation and I was the culprit! I didn’t spare them any hurdles either by being the textbook example of what NOT to do! Here’s what happened: I was expecting my first child and planning for 12-week maternity leave and had the best intentions of prepping for my absence, briefing my team and leaving detailed notes on everything I was working on. Little did I know that my little guy had a mind of his own and decided to show up seven weeks early, leaving my team scrambling and me feeling horrifically guilty. Thankfully, everyone stepped up to the plate and did a fantastic job picking up what I had left and we got through it! But that experience really made me consider how reactive we go about dealing with extended leave without much strategy or planning. So, I decided to turn this into a learning moment and give you some takeaways to help you hopefully avoid repeating my mistake. Here are my five big Ahas. Disclaimer: I am not an HR expert, just someone who had to learn the hard way.1. Prep early. In fact, prep frequently.
We had this conversation and I had every intent to prepare for my absence early and have a plan put in place. But things happen, daily business takes precedence and you keep thinking you still have plenty of time left... The truth is, sometimes you don’t, so no matter how far out, make a plan for your absence as soon as you find out that you need to be out! Include details, such as daily activities, projects and specific duties and who can take those over to keep things running. Even better: build in fail-over into your processes! Adopt a “if hit by a bus” mentality (maybe calling it “if winning the lottery” for a less morbid image), assuming that anyone of your team members could become unavailable long-term at any moment. Does someone else know how to do their job? There is no question that you will always have a period of adapting when you’re missing a team member, but you can shorten those and make the transition smoother if you are more strategic in building your process to allow for employee absences and backup knowledge and duties.
2. Prep well. Documentation is key.
It’s pretty obvious: the better your documentation, the easier to pick up for someone else. Again, build this into your routine! You’re working on a project? Keep a log of the progress. You’re running a weekly report? Keep How-to instructions up-to-date. If you do this frequently, you won’t be scrambling trying to jot down everything the day before your big surgery. Then, make sure you have everything stored in a shared location that other team members can easily access, such as a cloud storage space like ShareSync.
3. Communicate with your team and set expectations.
Once your plan is laid out, make sure you communicate it with your entire team and anyone outside of your department who might be affected. Even if things still change: communicate early and often, so that everyone is aware of potential workload increases or additional duties they may need to adopt. This way you set the expectations and there’s not a dip in morale when other employees all of a sudden have to pick up pieces outside of their usual workload.
4. Use this as an opportunity for growth.
One great side effect of missing a team member is that it gives the rest of your team an excellent opportunity to step up and lead! You will see people rising to the challenge and show new capacity and strengths that otherwise might have been hidden behind their usual routine. It’s a great way to expand on that repertoire of skills, become more knowledgeable in new areas of the business and show leadership!
5. Culture boost for the whole team & the returning employee.
Finally, the most impactful thing for me is that leaving for three months actually proved an incredible culture boost for me and my team: there’s nothing that unifies more than a dire situation. That’s when you really learn what people are made of and I learned that I’m part of a truly amazing team that I could depend on. That re-energized me and re-lit my passion for my job and the people I work with. It also gave me much-needed distance and perspective to evaluate what I do on a daily basis. So, when it was time to come back, I was excited, more focused and ready to take on anything! In the end, that positive impact may very well outweigh the stress an extended leave may cause, so instead of dreading it, my advice is to embrace it as an opportunity: prepare well and let your team show off how good they are!