At a recent team meeting, the topic was happiness. Part of the talk revolved around un-plugging or getting away from the office. When I opened the floor for discussion, it was clear the group as a whole struggled with the idea of taking time away from the office. Full transparency: I also struggle with the idea of taking extended time off. Yes, this is a problem, and yes, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one. As a supervisor, I find myself seemingly nudging my team to take vacation time, and I get the same from my supervisor. Vacation requests are often a day or two here and there or an afternoon rather than anything extending beyond that like a two-week vacation.
As I write this, I am approving time sheets and looking at the unused hours of paid time-off for the people on my team. It is excessive. My campus will only pay out roughly 175 hours if I were to leave. I have well over 350 hours. On average, my team has over 250 banked. The lowest amount was 160 hours. That individual has only been on our team a year. We have a problem with getting away. Many campus recreation professionals fall into this same issue as we operate 340 plus days a year and typically 18 hours a day and weekends. Unlike our faculty colleagues, our summers may be our busiest times.
Unfortunately, this is a common issue for most on my team. It seems this is also a common issue in society in general. According to research from the U.S. Travel Association, over half of employees at U.S. companies did not use all of their allocated time off during a calendar year. Why is this?
Defining the Rule
One of the common reasons my team tells me they avoid taking time-off is the thought of the staggering amount of work upon returning to the office. Another common reason is the discomfort of their team to have to carry their workload for any length of time or with that a fear that someone might — “gasp!” — be able to do their job. Rather, they might fear that no one can do their job or lack the trust in their people to try.
While thinking of this issue, I had an epiphany. I decided to implement the two-week vacation rule with my team.
The two-week vacation rule states each professional outlines what would need to happen in their area for them to be able to take an uninterrupted two weeks’ worth of vacation. The two-week rule does not mean the workflow just stops for two weeks awaiting the return of the employee. The plan should outline backups for any tasks, meetings, projects, etc. the employee is responsible for executing as well as the communication chain during the two-weeks that does not involve the employee on vacation. This idea goes beyond the tried-and-true practice of continuity binders as those are used only when someone actually leaves the department. I fully expect this exercise to challenge my team in ways they have not been challenged before, pushing them to let go of things they hold dear.
Why the Rule Works
We all generally believe they are the only one that understands the intricacies of doing the jobs we have. However, living with the idea that they might actually be out of the office for two weeks will force employees not only to train others how to do their job but also put it in writing. My hope is this will lead to some inherent improvements in areas as fresh eyes get to see systems and processes.
All of us get stuck in a rut at one time or another. We do things simply because it’s what we are used to doing. The process of training someone and then having a person do your tasks ought to lead to many new ideas, improvements or an entirely new systems altogether. This should be an opportunity for your team to learn, grow and develop.
As you move up, they may move into your roll or leave to step into a similar role, and they should be ready to do that. Make this a true win-win by giving your employees the opportunity to learn something new. With a plan in place, anxiety about leaving the office for extended periods should be less.
No one person in a department should be irreplaceable from the director down to the student employee. This policy helps create built-in backups to your key people. Cross-train at least one other person on each person’s job means no one can become a bottleneck in the event of an extended absence.
Upon return from extended time-off after implementing this plan, debrief with those that took on the delegated tasks to include the following:
- What didn’t work?
- What remained too dependent on the person taking time-off?
- Which delegations were not clear or comfortable?
- How could the plan be better?
- What changes should result to operations if any?
When actually utilizing the plan and taking vacation time, try to minimize your check-ins with the team. Let them problem solve and give them the freedom to work through situations. If it’s an emergency, they will call you.
Whether it’s anxiety around planning the logistics to care for kids and pets, fear of being replaceable at work, or concern about a massive workload upon return, all roads lead to unused PTO and a massive uptick in employee burnout.
The best way to combat this mindset is to lead by example. Take a vacation. Set an automatic “out of office” response email. Make sure you list each person’s function in your out-of-office email contacts section.
Don’t forget to tell your employees only to call you in case of emergency. Think of this time off as a way you are making your team stronger. In delegating responsibility, you are helping them grow or at least helping to identify areas where they need additional training to move up the ladder when they are ready. The two-week rule sets up your team for continued success in the face of any future situation. Trickle the rule down to other positions. Delegate and don’t dump. If there are things that need to wait for you to return, don’t put those on the plate of someone who does not have the ability, training or access to accomplish the task. Planning is the key. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.
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