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.
In this guide to how to prepare your project before you go away and leave it, you’ll learn:
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?
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.
Choose the person who is best-able to carry out the rle by virtue of experience, expertise, or seniority.
Choose the person who can best benefit from the role as a part of their career development.
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:
It will often be helpful to both of you, if you can create a document with key information and instructions.
Your project handover briefing is the way you ensure that your deputy knows:
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:
Finally, you will both need to schedule a mirror meeting as your Return-to-Work Handover.
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.
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:
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.
I recommend you make yourself a list of people to inform, prioritize that list, and work through it. For each eperson, think about:
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.
Here’s a checklist of people you may need to inform:
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.
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.
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!
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.
You have three broad options for rules of engagement for contact from your project team.
This will clearly be the best for you and your family. If you possibly can, this is the option to go for.
This will take the form of some combination of:
It’s also likely you would be checking emails or other comms channels on an infrequent basis.
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 up notifications on all of your communications channels:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Please comment below with your thoughts and questions. As always, I’ll respond to everyone.
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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