As I wrote about earlier this year, taking time off will be critical to address issues around burnout and employees’ ever-worsening mental health. But while few workers were able to travel during COVID-19, most employees now feel safe enough to take a vacation and many are eager for a much-needed break. Some have even accumulated more PTO than normal, since one-third of companies let their workers carry extra time from 2020 into this year.
Bu this has created a less-than-ideal scenario for many businesses: an unmanageable number of PTO requests, at a time when workers desperately need time off. It’s a challenge that’s likely to linger into the fall and even into 2022, unless employers become more proactive and creative about tackling this issue head-on.
Of course, companies want to accommodate PTO requests to the best of their ability. They understand that taking time off can help boost employee well-being, promote work-life balance, and decrease burnout and stress. But there’s also a business to run, and when too many people are off at the same time it can bring operations to a standstill.
So, what can be done to avoid situations where managers are short-staffed around peak periods or holidays, or forced to reject some PTO requests? Here are 6 ways to stay ahead of the avalanche of requests your company may already be facing (or may face in the coming months), starting with the basics around proactive communication:
Tip #1: Regularly communicate about your PTO policy
To make sure there are no surprises when your staff request time off, it’s important to be clear about your company’s PTO policy well in advance of peak periods. Remind employees about the process to submit requests (including how far in advance they should do this), whether they can carry over vacation into the next year, how many staff can take off at one time, and how requests are approved.
If your company made any changes to its policy as a result of COVID-19 — for example, offering additional PTO or allowing employees to roll over more time off — be sure to remind your staff about this so there’s no confusion. And you’ll also want to communicate about any incentives you’re offering to employees who avoid taking off during busy weeks (see #3 below).
Tip #2: Be proactive about getting PTO requests
If you’re concerned about coverage during peak times or holidays, it’s a good idea to check in with employees about when they’re thinking about taking off. You could send out a survey or ask workers about their plans during any regular 1:1 check-ins you have with them. Keep in mind that while you’re only gathering this information informally, doing so provides an opportunity to remind staff about the importance of getting in their requests early.
You could also consider sharing everyone’s informal plans and/or the PTO calendar with your team. They might notice each other’s overlapping vacations and adjust their own plans to help out. Or at the very least, they’ll become aware of which weeks are booking up quickly and be motivated to submit their PTO requests as early as possible.
Tip #3: Incentivize workers to avoid peak periods
Another way to avoid finding yourself short-staffed this year is to reward employees who are willing to take off during less busy times. For those who’ll agree to rearrange their plans, consider offering incentives like extra PTO, a monetary bonus, or first pick for another holiday or peak period.
And there are other ways to incentivize employees. Some companies are allowing workers to roll over additional vacation into 2022, and a few are even buying back PTO from employees when it makes sense. For example, BHI Insurance Agency offered a payout to its staff members because so many of them had rolled over an unusually large amount of PTO from 2020.
But you’ll have to be very careful here — cash-strapped workers may feel they have no choice but to “sell” their PTO back to their employer, even if they’re badly in need of a break. To avoid spiraling rates of burnout, it’s a good idea to cap the amount of vacation your company will buy back from its staff.
Tip #4: Hire temporary staff to cover for employees
Depending on your industry, you could bring on part-time workers to fill in the gap during extensive employee absences. In fact, as I recently mentioned in an interview with Fast Company, the gig economy might boom even more over the next 6 to 12 months because it’s a way to offset people taking vacation at a lower cost than hiring full-time employees. The big benefit is it allows you to scale quickly without too much cost or commitment.
However, you won’t want to just throw an intern into every position in the organization to let people take a vacation. For many roles, you’ll be better off using a gig worker with more experience who can more readily and quickly take over a job temporarily or add support without much training.
Tip #5: Use automation to offload some tasks
If your company has been on the fence about adopting automation technologies, now might be a great time to take the plunge. Not only can automation tools can be used to handle routine or less difficult tasks during an employee’s absence, some can also forward requests and workflow processes to the right people while they’re away.
With fewer things to follow-up on when they return to work, this makes it that much easier for employees to get back up to speed and avoid any post-vacation stress. And on top of helping your business function more smoothly when workers are away, automation tools also allow employees to spend less time on tedious tasks in their day-to-day jobs — a win-win scenario for everyone.
Tip #6: Encourage shorter vacations
Depending on your company culture, workers may feel that taking a full week off is better or more acceptable than taking shorter vacations. In fact, mini-breaks — whether a long weekend or a few days off in the middle of the week — can actually be more beneficial for employees’ mental health. This is because frequent breaks offer more opportunities for employees to recharge, and they’re also generally less stressful to plan than longer trips.
And remember, in the aftermath of the mental health crisis brought on by COVID-19, it’s more important than ever that workers have the ability to regularly take time off. With this in mind, encourage your staff to take shorter breaks, mental health days, or half days. Not only will this benefit their well-being, it will also help spread out PTO requests and make this easier to manage.
Finding the right balance between employee needs and business needs
Your company may already be facing significant scheduling issues, or perhaps you’re just beginning to notice an uptick in the number of PTO requests. The tips I’ve provided offer ideas to help you manage this challenge no matter whether you’re being proactive, reactive, or a combination of the two.
At the end of the day, it’s about finding the right balance between your company’s needs and the needs of your people. And while the challenge around PTO requests is likely to be a temporary one, it’s important to approach it just as thoughtfully as you would any other business challenge, because so much is at stake.