YOU'RE OFF

YOU'RE OFF - It's been a tough year so far and you're good and ready for a fortnight under a foreign sky. But before you go, how can you make sure your work ticks over nicely in your absence, your turf is protected and you still have a job on your return?

by STEFAN STERN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's been a tough year so far and you're good and ready for a fortnight under a foreign sky. But before you go, how can you make sure your work ticks over nicely in your absence, your turf is protected and you still have a job on your return?

It is a wicked combination: a sluggish market, intensifying competition, and profound fatigue. More than anything else right now you need, and deserve, a holiday. But, wait a minute, is it safe? Can you afford to leave the office, now of all times, when the forecasts are not looking too good, when there have been mutterings of discontent upstairs, and when some of your colleagues, frankly, are about as trustworthy as a kleptomaniac in a charity shop. Can you really just check in, get on, and drop out? Or is it time to cancel that fortnight's island-hopping and stay put?

The pressures of work today mean that even something as simple as going on holiday can be charged with complications. Office politics won't stop just because you are on a beach in the Maldives. And the extra work required to stay in control, both before your trip and when you return, could destroy many of the benefits of going away in the first place.

The cruellest cuts of all for returning holiday-makers are those that are terminal, professionally speaking. One major American employer on the south coast was well known for trimming its workforce every November in response to market conditions.

But in the most recent recession, the firm decided that the figures were so grim that it brought its annual cull forward to August.

In a scene out of a Hollywood thriller - or maybe a black comedy - managers trying to return to work found that their security passes for the car park no longer worked. Sacked staff could not even get in to pick up their belongings, which, of course, had been piled up in an undignified manner in black bin-liners all round the building.

This is the sort of nightmare scenario that could haunt your holiday. The psychological impact of coming back to work to such scenes as these cannot be overestimated. It's not exactly a PR coup for the company involved either.

But business is tough and unforgiving - especially at the top. It can also get personal. Early in September 1996, Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas was enjoying a few precious days' holiday with husband - historian and MT contributor Niall Fergusson - and children on a far-flung Scottish island, hundreds of miles away from the tensions of the office. But back in London, Douglas was about to lose a battle she had been fighting for several weeks - to preserve the separate identity of her newspaper.

Lord Hollick, at that time the effective proprietor of the Express titles, was pushing to establish a seven-day operation for the papers, with a view to cutting costs. Richard Addis, editor of the daily, was eager to take the helm of the seven-day Express. While Douglas and her family relaxed, life and career-changing decisions were being taken in her absence.

'It was on the cards,' says one observer who was close to the management action at the time. 'It didn't come out of the blue. But on the crucial weekend when everything was being decided, Sue was incommunicado in Scotland. Addis was there, pushing for the top job.' Summoned back to London at the beginning of the week, Douglas resigned on the Tuesday. Her job, her paper, had gone. There hadn't even been time to get the holiday snaps developed.

What can you do to avoid potential disasters and make your holiday anxiety-free? 'You have got to be practical, not paranoid,' says Jane Clarke, a director at consultants Nicholson McBride and author of the recently published Office Politics.

'But it's not just a question of clearing your desk before you leave, or working through a to-do list,' she adds. 'You need to think about what else could happen while you're away, beyond what is obvious - meetings you are going to miss, input you need to make. The unexpected can always happen, whether by chance or through bad faith.

Linda Holbeche, director of research at the Roffey Park Management Institute, agrees. 'In very competitive situations, there's no doubt you can find very bad behaviour. You might find, for example, that the minute you're gone there will be an unbridled, immoral picking-off of your client contacts.'

Here's how it works. You are away on holiday when a key client rings in, unaware that you won't be there to deal with them. Your charming, friendly colleague immediately seizes the opportunity, and muscles in on your contact. This is not 'keeping the seat warm', or 'looking out for you while you are away'. This is theft.

'Watch out for that helpful colleague who is really a shark in disguise,' says Holbeche. 'You won't get the credit for all the legwork that has gone into managing an account.' If you get rewarded for winning business only on a deal-by-deal basis, you may miss out on what is rightfully yours.

To some extent, your fate while you are away is in your own hands. 'You mustn't disappear without a trace - although some people do,' says Clarke. 'You don't have to ring in every day, but you may need to say: 'In certain situations you can contact me and I will respond.''

There are steps you can take to try and eliminate unpleasant surprises on your return to work. 'Think like a project manager,' says Roffey Park's Holbeche. 'Ask yourself what clients or colleagues will need when you're away. Delegate, or establish control over what happens to prevent people muscling in. Lack of planning will make you look thoughtless.'

This might involve nothing more complicated than setting up your e-mail and voice-mail so that any attempt to contact you is dealt with promptly. It might mean delegating responsibilities formally to trusted colleagues.

What it does not mean is taking mobile phones and laptops away with you on holiday. That way, you're neither working nor getting a holiday. Maybe you should consider one of those antenna-free islands in the Bahamas where your mobile is guaranteed not to work.

'So many people think: 'I'm not going to be there, and that's that,'' says Nicholson McBride's Clarke. But that's not the whole story. You must make sure your absence isn't drastic for the business. Have someone who will cover for you and your department.

'The more measures you put in place before you leave, the less likely it is that there will be shocks when you get back,' he adds. 'And it is very important to take your holidays.'

Planning is the key. 'My husband books our holidays at the start of the year,' says Holbeche. 'That way you can work as hard as you like with a mental map of the year ahead, knowing that the safety net of those holidays is already in place. It's all about organisation really. OK?' And with that she is off, away for a long weekend in Stockholm.

Office Politics by Jane Clarke is published by the Industrial Society, www.indsoc.co.uk

< BEFORE YOU GO, TRY THESE TACTICS ... While you're away, keep your team busy with a three-week research project. Project manage all your work-in-progress - let clients and colleagues know what you will do on your return. Give a trusted colleague all your contact details (you mean you'd rather not know what is going on?) Commit to several major new initiatives in the weeks before your holiday. Make sure your deputy is incompetent YOU'LL KNOW IF YOU FAILED IF ... No-one looks you in they eye on your return. Your parking place has been taken by that keen young blade in sales. You find out that some of your best contacts have been stolen by a 'helpful' colleague. The boss calls you in for a 7.30 meeting on your first morning back. You only have three e-mails in your inbox - one confirming the 7.30 meeting, one from a concerned friend asking if the rumours are true, and another from a third-rate headhunting company you've never heard of

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