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Covering absent team members. The easy version!

June 1, 2018

When talking to business owners about their teams, there is a common theme around staff absence. No one is concerned about their team members taking leave, calling in sick or attending external training, but most are perplexed with what the most efficient way is to cover this, an approach that removes friction for all parties involved, including the client. Let’s have a look at the dynamics, from within the business, of a team member being absent and who is affected.



I have been fielding conversations for years around the friction of having team members absent from their roles and it not just from business owners. Team members are often reluctant to take time off for leave, training or to stay at home when they are unwell, because of the backlog of work that piles up while they are away. In most business team members work in either portfolios or departmental type roles and when absent from work another team member steps in to help out with covering the position. However, they generally only attend to urgent matters and park most things until the team member returns to the office. Thus creating a pile of emails and phone messages to attend to on their return. I’m confident this isn’t news to anyone.


Many businesses have tried the buddy system, where two team members nominate each other as cover buddies in the event one is absent. Others run a rooster system, where if you are on the roster and some calls in unwell, you are responsible for covering them. Some have assistants, but they have their separate tasks to do. While all these are great ideas, they are fraught with problems and provide minimal comfort to the team member absent, or to clients expecting a returned call.


Friction is created because each task performed on behalf of a team member on leave takes much longer to do than the person initially responsible for it. For example, if a tenant phones in asking where a repairs request is up to, the covering team member needs to spend time familiarising themselves with the task before the can provide feedback to the tenant. They may even need to ring the tradesperson or owner to find out. The extra time that is taken to do each task then robs them of time with their clients or doing their responsibilities. It also restricts the number of functions they can comfortably cover, in effect, creating a shortfall, or backlog of work, both for themselves and for the team member absent. You now have two roles in the business suffering from one team member being missing.


There are two methods that I would endorse to provide adequate cover for team members on leave. One is a quick fix, and one is more in depth. Firstly, you have a team in play. When a team member is absent from the business, the entire team should step up to cover the workload. If a team member is gone, those remaining should split up the tasks. One should look after phone calls and emails and would draft work off to others in the team. This maintains a single person coordinating the jobs to keep everyone cohesive and clients informed but also spits up the tasks to reduce the impact on the team.


The second method, a more robust approach, would be my long-term recommendation. As you would all know, I’m a big promoter of the squad structure. The squad structure is a team of three people of various skill levels, working cohesively together on a group of tasks. The key to this structure is that an individual task flows through each person in the squad, meaning all three of them know at all times where that task is up to. When you remove one person from the team, the team loses minimum momentum because there are two other members of the squad that can quickly and efficiently deal with the task.


Consider how your team handles staff leave and the effects it has on your business. It can be stressful for the team member taking it, but likely just as stressful for the team member covering it and the clients of your firm.


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