13 July, 2020

How to Prepare Your Project Before You Take Leave

Vacation, sabbatical, business trip, holiday, parental leave… There are many reasons why you may need to step away from your project. But how can you prepare so that you can do so and feel confident?

Project Managers tend to want to feel in control. But you can’t be when you aren’t there. So, the next best thing is to take control of preparation and set it up to run the way you want.

Summer holidays are approaching, meaning vacations for some. And some commentators are anticipating a burst of new babies next winter, meaning more maternity and paternity leave. Indeed, sadly, there will always be times when you need to take take time for compassionate leave. So, a good Project Manager will have a clear idea of how to prepare for their absence.

What we Will Cover

How to Prepare Your Project Before You Take Leave

In this guide to how to prepare your project before you go away and leave it, you’ll learn:

Delegating Leadership: Leave Your Project in Safe Hands

As with any delegation, you first step is to identify your proxy. You may already have a deputy or an obvious next-most-senior colleague. In which case, it’s easy.

However, if you don’t, you may feel it’s not necessary. And often, it won’t be. But, if your sponsor or client needs to speak with someone, who should they go to. If two of your work stream leaders disagree, and need a decision, who will resolve the conflict and decide for them?

Who to Choose…

There are two primary reasons to select someone for this role. And they won’t always suggest the same person. So, whichever person you choose, do let them know your reasoning. Whether you share this with the rest of your team is up to you.

Reason 1

Choose the person who is best-able to carry out the rle by virtue of experience, expertise, or seniority.

Reason 2

Choose the person who can best benefit from the role as a part of their career development.

Schedule Time with Your Proxy

Handing over is an important formality. The amount of time you need for briefing them will depend on how closely they understand the whole beadth pf your project. But the important things to relay are:

  • your confidence in them
  • how you want them to handle the role.

It will often be helpful to both of you, if you can create a document with key information and instructions.

What to Include in Your Project Handover Briefing

Your project handover briefing is the way you ensure that your deputy knows:

  • what you consider to be important, and
  • how you want them to act in general, and in specific circumstances.

I sugest you work through your diary and the project schedule, to ensure you cover-off everything your expect to occur, while you are away.

In addition, you may want to discuss:

  • Key Contacts
  • Current Issues
  • Project Schedule
  • Forthcoming Milestones
  • Meetings to attend in your place
  • Outstanding Decisions
  • Key Risks
  • Communications Schedule

Finally, you will both need to schedule a mirror meeting as your Return-to-Work Handover.

Work Package Ownership

Beyond your proxy, you may want to confirm the responsibilities and delegated authority of your work stream leaders and work package owners.

These are the people to whom you can also distribute elements of your day-to-day workload. This way, stuff will get done while you are away.

Task Allocation Grid

I’d recommend you draw up a simple grid (either on a flipchart, table, or spreadsheet) to show who is taking care of what. This will help the team. And it is a useful communication tool to inform and give confidence to your stakeholders.

In this grid, record:

  • Roles and Tasks the team will be carrying out during your absence
  • Who will be responsible for each
  • Their contact details:
    • phone
    • email
    • slack/IM
  • Key documents relating to the task
  • Notes

Who to Notify Before You Leave

Start notifying essential people at least a couple of weeks before your scheduled leave. It may be longer still if you have a longer meeting cycle. If you can, let them know at the meeting before the one you will miss, so they have plenty of warning that your proxy will represent you.

Other people will need a small amount of advanced warning, so aim to let them know of your leave dates, and who your proxy will be, at least a week in advance.

How to Inform Them

I recommend you make yourself a list of people to inform, prioritize that list, and work through it. For each eperson, think about:

  • when to inform them
  • how to inform them:
    • in person
    • by phone
    • by email or instant message
    • in a round-robin message

If key people do not know the person you have identified as your proxy, you’ll also need to make some time to make an introduction.

People You Need to Inform of Your Forthcoming Absence

Here’s a checklist of people you may need to inform:

  • Top Priority:
    • Your Project Sponsor, Client, or Boss
    • Your proxy or deputy
    • Workstream leaders
  • Others:
    • Other members of the governance tier of your project
    • Team members
    • Client/customer team members
    • Colleagues in your organization
    • Project partners, contractors, and suppliers
    • Stakeholders in your project

Tidy-up Loose Ends and Leave Your Project in a Tidy State

Don’t leave your house in a mess before you go on holiday. Likewise, tidy up your project before going on leave. not only does this leave your proxy with a neater transition and fewer trivia to deal with; it also makes for a clearner break for you.

Ensure Project Documentation is Up-to-Date

In your final week, go through all project documentation and ensure it is up-to-date and approvals are in place. Pay special attention to anything that your team will need while you are away. This will always include your risk register.

If your project uses a Project management tool or shared calendar, be sure to update all your actions and statuses on this. And, while you are at it, check permissions, so your proxy can access the documents and sections that they will need, to fulfil the roles you’ve set them.

Team Meeting vs Team Leader Meeting

Will team meetings continue in your absence?

I hope so. If they don’t, then they are not real team meetings. Instead, they are what I call ‘TeamLeader Meetings’. That is, they are meetings for you, the team leader.

If the meeting is for the team, then the team should be able to call and hold its meeting regardless of who is absent. Let them know that this is the case!


Reporting is a central part of your role, so I would always recommend that any outstanding reports are up-to-date before you go on leave. Where one is coming up, you may like to let your proxy know of any comments or priorities you would like them to reflect in it.

It’s also helpful to speak with members of your Governance tiers, you sponsor etc, before you go. This will help you assess any concerns that your proxy needs to be aware of. Equally, you can use it as an opportunity to pre-empt any problems.

Likewise, I also recommend you speak with your key stakeholder to re-assure them about continuity in your absence. Introduce them to your proxy and pass on contact details.


Don’t forget to tie up loose ends with your personal admin. I would recommend you clear your inbox. Anything that is not urgent enough deal with before you go on leave, is likely to be unimportant when you return. Seriously consider deleting it!

Set Yourself up to Put it Down Completely

If you are to have a relaxing holiday, a fulfilling maternity or paternity leave, a focused business trip, or compassionate leave without added stress, your first priority is to set the rules around contact with work.

The Rules of Engagement

You have three broad options for rules of engagement for contact from your project team.

Option 1: No Contact

This will clearly be the best for you and your family. If you possibly can, this is the option to go for.

Option 2: Limited Contact

This will take the form of some combination of:

  • scheduled check-ins
  • allowed contact in the case of specific scenarios
  • emergency contact

It’s also likely you would be checking emails or other comms channels on an infrequent basis.

Option 3: Free Contact

This would allow either your proxy – or possibly a wider group – to contact you when they choose. You may also be monitoring emails, slack, or other project messaging. Indeed, some Project Managers may choose to join in on some meetings by phone or video conferencing. Not much of an absence really!

Set Your Out-of-Office Notifications Accordingly

Set up notifications on all of your communications channels:

  • Email
  • Voice Mail
  • Slack or other messaging apps (Set up a custom status and manage notifications – here’s how, on Slack)
  • PM tools

Top Tip:
Don’t Set Yourself up for More Work than Necessary

Here’s the sort of comment that is typical at the end of an out of office notification:

If it’s not urgent, feel free to email me and I’ll respond to your message on my return.

Can you see what’s wrong with this?

Yup. You’ll get back to a load of stuff you need to do. Instead, try something like this:

I am not checking messages, so please contact xxx, who will deal with the matter on my behalf. This message will not be read.

Clearly, if they need your attention, they will come back to you.

Here’s something I learned from a seasoned manager. After returning from his first vacation while at a new employer, he found loads on notes and memos on his desk. He waited until all his team were in the office and then conspicuously threw them all in the bin and announced;

I assume these are all out of date and you have taken care of them. If you have any current issues, please raise them at our next meeting, or make an appointment if they are urgent.

The next year, when he returned from vacation, there were many fewer notes on his desk. He did the same thing.

On his return the third time… There were no messages.

Set Yourself up for an Easy Return from Leave

While things are fresh in your mind, as you wrap up to go on leave, set up a to do list of reminders for what you want to be sure to do on your return. On that list, include:

  • Turn off out-of-office message
  • Re-enable notifications from your PM system
  • Meet with your proxy
  • Check-in with key people:
    • Sponsor
    • Workstream leads
    • Primary contractors, suppliers, project partners
    • Key stakeholders
  • Review project reports that came out while you were away

Keep Your First Day Clear

Avoid having too much scheduled for your first day back. I would suggest you allow only essential meetings in Week 1 – and none on Day 1.

Top Tip:
Day in Hand

If you are planning your first day back to be on 8 August, tell everyone that it will be 9 August. That way, you can return to work with absolutely no obligations. So, this means you’ll be able to focus on what you want to focus on – like getting caught up on reading and admin- with minimal distractions.

Better still – take that day as a day to work from home if you can. That way, you can ease in, and only speak with the people you choose to speak with.

What are Your Thoughts about How to Prepare Your Project before You Take Leave?

Please comment below with your thoughts and questions. As always, I’ll respond to everyone.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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