By Hema Ravichandar
It creeps up on you stealthily. As we bid adieu to the barren heat of summer, so too to the barrenness of holidays in our annual calendars. The holiday season starts innocuously enough in August with a couple of welcome breaks, but the trickle becomes a steady flow in September/October and a veritable deluge in November and December. “I noticed that this period had eight holidays of the stipulated 10 holidays in my office holiday calendar,” a harried manager said to me. It is only when New Year dawns that productivity comes up gasping for some air, and the office starts looking inhabited again.
Tune in to chief executive officer/chief financial officer chats in October, around the previous quarter’s results, and it is quite passé to hear them bemoan the lack of enough billable or productive days in the coming quarter, October-December. It’s primarily the festival season, but the holiday cocktail becomes heady when combined with the goodmuhurtham or muhurat days around which most Indians plan weddings, house-warming and even naming ceremonies. The practical need to combine the annual vacation with school holidays, or augment vacation days by weaving the break around declared holidays, further shrinks the total number of working days. For working parents (and I resist the temptation of singling out women), there is the added pressure of the well-oiled home machinery creaking to a halt with domestic staff taking their own breaks, exam fever, and the need to keep offspring busy with the holiday season round the corner.
So, what’s the trick? How does one marshall resources and keep the show running during this season of sparsely populated working days? How can you shield the organization in particular from the demands of clients and stakeholders based on continents where national holidays always fall conveniently on specified days (no waiting with bated breath for the annual almanac to decide when a festival will fall in the coming year) and weddings, and even funeral services, are scheduled to coincide with weekends?
Anticipate and organize
Plan your team’s calendar in advance and publish it is the first refrain from smart managers. Encourage a culture where managers ensure that not more than a specified number of the team can be on holiday at the same time. In agile working environments, these are discussed in advance, with the entire team involved in deciding how to balance vacation plans so that the impact on delivery commitments is minimized. Some Western organizations plan for two leave batches—June to early July and between July and August. We in India could have three—one in October, another around the festivals in November, and the last in December, preceding the Christmas break.
As a corollary, don’t let the same persons block prime weeks year after year. Rotate the strike. The first off the block has an advantage, of course, but history needs to be analysed before sanction.
Taking stock of all time-bound and critical tasks and dividing responsibilities ahead of crunch time is a must. Employees must be advised to stick to their deadlines and deliver before they leave for their breaks. In fact, create a priority task list in consultation with the stakeholders who matter and track closure.
Make rosters so that all operationally critical roles are covered and display the roster in advance. Again, be fair and objective in creating the roster. Ask critical people to be on standby in case of an emergency, rostering here as well.
Align the corporate calendar and culture
Make the problem the solution by declaring official shutdowns or furloughs, sometimes even twice a year. Organizations may either plan ahead to work some Saturdays before the break, and declare bridge holidays around the season, or instruct payroll to auto-deduct leave days excluding the public holidays. This not only helps employees plan vacations well in advance, it also provides downtime for maintenance and saves the overhead costs required to keep offices running in lean times.
Or schedule kick-offs, customer meets and award outings around the “easy” months of October-December. This helps families plan their vacations alongside if they should so desire. Celebrate award winners by making them eligible to travel around the holiday seasons with family.
Work-from-home options and managing work through KPAs (key performance areas) can also be great. If the performance culture is strong and deliverables clear, it doesn’t really matter if people work from home during the holiday season. However, wise companies are firm in ensuring that employees commit to being available for all key meetings and calls while they save on the commute to office and are able to use that for personal time.
Create bench strength
If you are one of the lucky few to have been given the nod to hire temporarily for the season, do so. Regular temps (an oxymoron if ever there was one), familiar with the context, are good to cultivate. Even if the rates are premium, it’s worth it.
Additional capacity could also be created by institutionalizing cross-training of employees, especially for key positions, well in advance. Single-people positions like team administrators or communication specialists should be advised to create backups from their communities (supporting other teams).
And if you want to showcase leadership by example, managers themselves can step into the breach and fill in key positions during the sparsely populated work weeks. That’s one engagement initiative which is hard to beat.
Reward and motivate
When preparing your team to work flat out before the holidays, promise to compensate them with well-deserved breaks in the weeks to come. Organizations have been known to provide both compensatory offs and additional pay for days spent in office during the season, when it is critical to meet a corporate deadline; thank-you gifts, too, are a nice touch. Make their workdays easier with pick-up and drop-back and extra childcare facilities, should the need arise.
If you are deliberately operating a leaner schedule, inform stakeholders. Prepare them to expect delays in task closures, but also tell them of your efforts to minimize this. Then ramp up with everyone working a little extra for the first few days they are back. And always, always, have appropriate and up-to-date out-of-office replies through email.
Be firm with clients on deadlines. Don’t succumb to undue pressure for unfair advancement of due dates, just before the holidays kick off.
A word of caution for those on the speaker circuit. Don’t fall into the trap of cluttering your calendar with speaking engagements. That will not only keep you away from office, but will mean that you will be left pretty much on your own to drum up those fancy presentations. This caution is warranted because the festival season also coincides with the speaking season. It’s a good time to hold conferences and seminars, when international travel peaks, and before the year sighs to a close.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.