As the temperature rises, vacation conflicts heat up at work. For managers, summer can mean the annual bickering over prime vacation time slots, headaches over juggling work and productivity when too many workers take off simultaneously and endless reminders to get some employees to actually use their accrued time off.
HR can help managers deal with vacation issues fairly and effectively. Top talent managers offered HR Dive tips on scheduling, conflict resolution and covering all the work such that those at the office aren't deluged (and can maybe even take time off themselves) as they grudgingly "like" their colleague's selfies from far-away places.
Tip #1: Have a vacation policy in place
For starters, businesses should have a written policy, Michael Steinitz, senior executive director at Accountemps, told HR Dive: "Start by putting all policies in writing, and communicate ground rules to employees with plenty of notice to allow staff time to ask questions and prepare."
O.C. Tanner recently made a shift from traditional vacation/sick time to a PTO approach, Mindi Cox, senior vice president of people and great work at O.C. Tanner, told HR Dive in an email. But big change meant communicating to employees what the company hoped to accomplish: provide a generous amount of leave time that could be used in a more accessible way and encourage them to use time away from work for vacations, better health, and to attend to personal needs.
"This approach was really important to us in order to remain competitive and to foster a healthy culture that fosters well-being for our people," she said. "In short, if your policy isn't supporting your objectives then you must change one or the other."
Policies give employees guidelines and spell out priorities, Julie Stich, vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, told HR Dive in an email. "A policy may not ease disappointment, but complaints should be minimized if the policy is applied fairly," she said.
Some organizations implement black-out days or weeks based on production peaks and flows. As long as the policy is in place and clearly communicated in advance, "that may help eliminate vacation conflicts among certain departments," Stich said. It depends on the organization and company culture, too; "It's up to leadership to decide what makes the most sense for their organization vs. what's the most equitable/fair," she added.
Tip #2: First come, first approved
It happens every year: schedule conflicts pit one employee against another. Part of the policy can say that time off will be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. That way, time off is allocated more fairly and managers have time to prepare for the absence and provide sufficient coverage, Steinitz said. He also suggested teams create an editable calendar, which can help spot times when coverage could be problematic or conflicts would arise.
Ask employees to notify their manager immediately when they've updated the calendar with their request; managers should approve it quickly if possible. Once it's approved by the team leader, staffers will know when they have to work around other's scheduling or if they'll need help with their own work load.
Steinitz recommended accommodating requests as often as possible. "This will keep morale and engagement high and help staff stay energized," he said. Fast approvals also signal to workers that taking vacation time is a priority.
Tip #3: Encourage self-resolution
Some time off requests may be difficult to change like non-refundable airfares or those involving children's schedules. Conflicts or multiple requests can put managers in a tough situation when it comes to determining whose leave to approve and who to disappoint. Steinitz recommended promoting open communication among the team: "Encourage individuals to be aware of each other's plans for time off and so you can reach an amicable coverage schedule."
Some people will have needs that are not flexible, but usually the team will be able to shuffle things around in a way that works for everyone, Cox said. "I truly believe teams can solve their own problems when it is an expectation," she said, "so my first step would be to get team members together and ask them to collectively help solve the issue and prioritize the time off schedule."
Tip #4: Plan ahead for coverage
Before planned leave, ask staff to outline what they're working on, including upcoming deadlines, and whether items will require other employees to cover. "Employees scheduling a vacation may want to do so after a major project has been completed or when it's anticipated that their workload will be light," Steinitz said.
Keeping stress levels down may involve spreading work out between a handful of employees during absences. Try to delegate to as many as possible to lighten the load; remember, they each still have their own job to do. Team members should look for an assist while they're on PTO, and expect to do the same for others.
"Managers are often reluctant to decline requests," warned Stich. "However, depending on the company, staff coverage and balance may take priority."
Tip #5: Pay attention to the non-vacationers
For some employees, travel plans just aren't in the cards. Some feel time off isn't worth the mountain of work they'll return to after their absence, while others may believe that not taking time off is what good employees do. In response, managers must take time to discuss the value of time off, even if it is just a week off to relax at home.
For too many, time off is lost; 52% of workers had unused vacation time at the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Travel Association, with over 200 million days forfeited on an annual basis.
"As a leader," wrote Cox, "it's your job to be observant of this. If you notice someone isn't taking time away, I would bring it up it in a one on one. I'd use that time to talk with them about the reasons vacation is important for their well-being, and ask if they can offer some insight on why they aren't taking the time."
Tip #6: Suggest mini-breaks
For employees who don't feel comfortable with a 10-day absence, suggest mini-breaks instead, experts suggested. Fridays or Mondays off all summer can be just the rejuvenating ticket to offer a mental health break without creating workload chaos. It's an easy way to transition the non-vacationer into being comfortable taking time away.
Tip #7: Model time off
If employees don't see managers taking time off, it's easy for them to assume good workers don't either. Words have import, but modeling behavior is the best way to communicate. "I think transparency is critical," Cox said, "because we all know there's the policy and then there's the practice, and if you truly want the policy and the practice to complement each other, you have to be an example of it."
Leadership is, after all, responsible for modeling work-life balance, said Stich. "This helps to create a company culture free of vacation guilt."
Tip #8: Stop checking in
"Managers have to lead by example," Steinitz suggested. Taking time off as a manager is key, but they also have to show staff that they trust them to get the job done in their absence. The more a manager calls to check in, the less competent the team will feel and the more they'll feel obliged to do the same when they take time away. If employees are regularly checking in, their PTO is diminished.
"If employees see you taking regular time off and not obsessively checking in, they'll see it's safe for them to do the same," Steinitz said.
Tip #9: Resolve workload issues
If employees believe they can't take time off because no one can cover for them, "that's on me as a leader to correct that as a capacity and workload issue," Cox said. Cross-training, or training employees in roles outside their own, may give employees confidence that they can take time to themselves without leaving everyone in the lurch.
"Many companies have started implementing mandatory vacation policies which may help to encourage non-vacationers," Stich said. These can demonstrate an employer's commitment to employee well-being and health, but if mandatory vacation isn't an option, helping employees manage workload can go a long way.
Tip #10: Bring in reinforcements
While waiting their turn for fun in the sun, Steinitz suggested that managers check in with non-vacationers about workload; "If they're feeling overwhelmed, you may want to consider hiring interim employees to help out."
Vacation time doesn't have to mean conflict and guilt. With a policy, communication and planning, everyone can relax and use their time off to recharge.