On a brisk February day in Oshawa, Ont., a courtroom is packed with 200 people waiting to appear before the judge. Not that they’ve been charged with any criminal offense—rather, they are members of a jury selection panel for an upcoming trial.
The tension is palpable as potential jurors are called forward to the bench to state their occupation, attest to their impartiality and use their one chance to explain why they cannot serve. Most candidates—tradesmen, factory workers, office managers and executives among them—try to get off. Some succeed.
Others fail—and they’ll spend the next two weeks in the jury box. Their employers can’t do a thing about it.
Jury duty is just one of many causes of extended employee absence, which include parental and compassionate leave, illness, accident and, yes, death. People quit, too. In each instance, employers must fill the void. Regrettably, most companies aren’t ready for such eventualities.
The problem isn’t that you don’t know the absences and departures are coming, but that you can’t predict when and where these gaps will materialize. These vacancies can sap sales, impede customer service and arrest product development. Maybe worse, they can frustrate and demoralize remaining team members who struggle to work without the benefit of their absent colleague’s labour, knowledge or contacts.
Compensating for every gap is impossible, but well-managed companies identify key roles and ensure they have the processes and people in place to cover off absences.
Here are three simple ways to prepare your business for the inevitable:
Document and Distribute: Some employees have such specialized or focused roles that they become the sole holders of key information and relationships. Those crucial assets leave the building every time the employee does—unless they’ve been documented and stored for easy access by others. Ask your employees to record how they perform any hard-to-replicate tasks that are important to your business, and to keep that information where others can find it—in a public folder on a shared computer drive, for instance, or posted to an internal blog or wiki. Apply the same process to every employee’s key external and even internal contacts, so that your substitute staff will know who to call in any urgent or important situation.
Implement a Job Shadowing Program: Traditionally, job shadowing describes when a seasoned employee trains a new employee on-the-job. But it can apply to preparing for extended absences and employee succession planning, too. By pairing up staff in related positions and requiring them periodically to educate each other in unique aspects of their jobs, you’ll develop much-needed bench strength. Better yet, the employees might bring new perspectives and suggestions to each other’s work, resulting in more innovation or higher productivity.
Institute Job Sharing: It’s said that two heads are better than one—and four hands are better than two. When employees split their time between two positions, they can develop all the capabilities required for either job. This allows them to move seamlessly between roles not only when their other half is absent, but also when workloads spike in one role and additional resources are needed to get the job done well and on time.
Business momentum can take a long time to generate. Losing it for any reason hurts—and it hurts even more when the trouble could have been avoided. Adopt any of these methods of sharing knowledge and building skills, and you’ll relieve the pain of employee absences—and improve your business, too.
Ian Portsmouth is the Publisher and Editor of PROFIT Magazine, and the host of the BMO Business Coach Podcast.