Every time summer arrives, business owners worldwide face an eternal conundrum: how to manage your company’s vacation policy and get coverage when employees are out. For larger companies, there are usually enough staffers to fill in the gaps when warm weather beckons. But for smaller businesses with a skeletal staff, it becomes a hair-raising challenge. What then are some ways that small business owners can make sure that everyone gets their duly requested time off without hurting the bottom line?
1. Don’t be rigid when it comes to scheduling
Flexibility is a key priority to Sara Sutton Fell. So much so that five years ago she founded FlexJobs, a site for people seeking part-time, flexible or telecommuting jobs. Leading a staff of 24 employees, many of whom are working parents, Fell says the summer always requires adjustments in work schedules.
“We have flexible schedules where people set their own hours, but we still need to know generally when people are working to make sure we're meeting goals and customers' needs,” Fell says. “Our research and writing teams, the two biggest groups at the company, confer with their managers when they'll be working during the summer and we find coverage for them as needed.”
But sometimes a curveball, even if it’s pleasant, can be tossed into the mix and upend the prescribed order. Fell cites a summer vacation issue for one employee that cropped up recently.
“One of our writers was whisked away on a surprise anniversary vacation by her husband,” she explains. “The writers have a meeting every week so during that time we discussed the need to distribute her workload for a few days. Two volunteers immediately stepped up. That's usually how things are handled. We say, ‘Who is able or wants to take on some additional work for the next few days?’ Our staffers have always been great at picking up the slack because they know someone will do the same for them in the future.”
If you want to streamline your company’s summer vacation policy, treat everyone’s need for time off individually and with respect. Liza Anderson, founder and president of the five-year-old Anderson Group Public Relations, which caters to Hollywood’s crème de la crème, with clients drawn from TV shows (i.e. “Revenge,” “Criminal Minds”) and film (i.e. “The Dark Knight Rises” and the “Twilight” franchise), adheres to this work principle as she oversees a staff of 20 at her LA flagship office.
“Some people are going to want the beginning of the summer off, some the middle, and some the end,” Anderson says. “It really depends on the individual employee.” But the overriding idea behind a small business’s vacation policy should be clear, she says: “You’re not afraid for them to take time off because you want them to recharge their batteries and to have a balanced life.” And because taking vacation can sometimes involve more serious and personal reasons than just getting out of a rut, Anderson recommends having an open door policy so employees won’t feel intimidated or embarrassed about asking for extra latitude or priority consideration during peak times. The more employees and employer communicate, the less chance there is of a staffing debacle.
Recently, Anderson learned this lesson the hard way when most of her staff bolted from the office to attend the three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California in late April. What did the industrious Anderson do? “I wound up working double-shifts and answered phones with my intern,” she says, laughing.
3. Make sure staff requests time off way in advance
Jeanine Hamilton, founder and president of the Boston-based, Hire Partnership, a small recruiting firm with a staff of four, says because her company is so small, this best practice is an imperative.
“If two people [are off], we’re down 50 percent,” notes Hamilton. Although having two people out simultaneously at a larger company is fine, with other staffers providing coverage, it’s not such an easy proposition at a much smaller firm where everyone is on-site.
“You have to make sure you know who’s going to be out and when,” adds Hamilton. “We communicate to each other as soon as we know. I can look at everyone and say, ‘I’m going to be out on this day –let’s work around this.’”
4. Look to outside help
If you know that, for example, half of your staff will be out during the July 4th week, then it might behoove you to hire temporary help to tide you over until their return.
“If someone’s going to be out and I feel it’s going to be a busy day, I’ll bring in someone to help me with the phones,” explains Hamilton. “For example, I have somebody coming in just for the summer as a contractor to help me out with the recruiting side. I definitely think it’s a good way of filling in gaps.”
5. Tone down the micromanaging
“Assume everyone is an adult,” advises Fell. “Complicated vacation tracking systems and oversight can almost turn managers into parents who watch over their children's work habits because they can't be trusted.” Instead, she counsels creating a policy that assumes everyone at your small business can behave like a responsible adult. “Most managers will be surprised at how well people can handle a flexible vacation policy and how few people take advantage of it.”
Managing your company’s summer vacation policy can induce migraines if you are ill prepared and own a small business. But if you do your proper due diligence and make sure everyone is in the loop, the logistics should be as simple and breezy as a picnic on a warm, summer day.
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