How to Help During a Co-Worker’s Unexpected Absence

March 2020
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A team member is diagnosed with whooping cough. A colleague learns by text that her good friend passed away suddenly. You find out that your child’s babysitter had an allergic reaction — and you call 911 as you grab your car keys to drive home and manage the situation. You step out of a client meeting to take a frantic call from your son who tells you that one of his guinea pigs is dead — at the hands of the family dog, no less — and the other guinea pig is missing. 

Life happens unexpectedly. Over the years, our agency has experienced our share of absences — planned and unplanned. All of the scenarios at the beginning of this column are true tales from my firm — and due to fate, or Murphy’s law, it often seems to happen during a particularly packed workday. As a result, we’ve learned how to creatively navigate workflow and manage communication and expectations.

Whether a team member is gone for a half a day, a week or three months — we have a member of our leadership team on maternity leave as I write this — absences can take a toll on the employees left behind. 

Agency life has trained us to switch gears quickly, manage many tasks at once and problem-solve — especially when it escalates to a crisis level. But when it’s a personal crisis, it often involves an abrupt departure from the office, leaving work and looming client deadlines behind.

Here are six ways you can help your team manage effectively through a co-worker’s absence.

1. Create — and update — a manual for every client.

Just as we counsel clients to prepare for the unexpected, we practice what we preach. Every agency client of ours has a detailed overview manual with contact info, passwords and all of the critical account info, including specific nuances and insights. This document serves a dual purpose: It’s also a handy tool for onboarding new team members. Because we reference it frequently, we make a point to keep it updated.

2. Do the same for your firm.

We maintain a manual on the agency as well. A key element in this document is passwords for access to a myriad of agency services. We keep all of our agency’s passwords under one designated email that’s not assigned to a single employee. 

If you do the same, then make sure that the recovery text or email goes to a partner or your office manager. This makes it easy when someone has to jump into Hootsuite, for example, to post for a colleague, and it triggers the need for a security code.

3. Plan for the inevitable.

While all of our clients follow detailed plans run by capable team members, we’ve learned to have an agency partner have contact with every client. They can help ensure continuity for clients and team members during short-term and long-term transitions. Even if a partner experiences a personal crisis, another agency partner can step in and support the team during the transition.

4. Communicate schedule changes.

Each personal situation is different — some people need a little time to deal with the crisis and others may need to work part-time or even remotely as the situation plays out. Communicate the schedule as you know it, while acknowledging to clients and the team that it can change. Reflect the schedule on the employee’s out-of-office email and voicemail, directing them to another agency contact if needed. 

5. Plan early and plan often.

For planned time off (maternity and medical leave), you often have the luxury of time, so we start the transition process in advance. The  people who will be filling in for the colleague work side by side for several weeks and attend client meetings. The person going on leave prepares a detailed overview of the work to be accomplished in his or her absence. 

6. Check in and review lessons learned.

During the absence, we check in with the team to make sure the plan is working and that they feel supported. Of course, we’ll make adjustments as needed. After the employee returns to a normal schedule and resumes client responsibilities, take a moment to ask the team (and clients, if appropriate) how the transition worked and what everyone could do differently to prepare for the next time someone takes a leave. 

What have you learned through your staffing absences? Drop me a line at:

photo credit: digital vision

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