The classic hair dresser question “have you got any holidays booked?”, probably as most people have a holiday and most people like to talk about their next planned adventure. Not only that, it is a legal entitlement. However, too often the annual leave process can be “clunky”, an all-round problem, administrative heavy and unfair.
Without exception, each year I will be asked by a number of organisations “what is the best way to manage annual leave?”, or “do you have any ideas to help improve the annual leave process?”. Both good questions, but no “silver-bullet” answer. Fortunately, I’ve seen some really good approaches as well as some awful approaches, combining to create a good list of guiding principles and “do and don’t do!”
Firstly, it worthwhile considering what annual leave actual is. Annual leave is an employee’s legal entitlement for time-off for rest, recuperation and relaxation. It’s an opportunity to re-charge the batteries, switch-off from the pressures of work and rest the mind, body and soul. Legally, employees are entitled to 5.6 weeks paid holiday per year (this may include bank holidays), it is possible to accrue more leave.
According to the Glassdoor Annual Leave Survey, based on 2,000 respondents, the average UK employee only uses 77% of their annual leave, while 44% say they undertake some work on holiday. These aren’t numbers which can be used for planning, we can’t assume that people won’t take their leave, or that some work will be completed during annual leave. It is the responsibility of the company to their upmost to help and support all annual leave to be taken.
Classic mistakes to avoid
Don’t flat-lining shrinkage across the year: Too often I see organisations apply between 10% and 15% across the year without any consideration for popular or unpopular days. The worst examples are when this is done at a monthly level, annual leave needs to be planned at least at weekly level, in some instances it may be appropriate to take this this daily level.
Not tracking annual leave: How is the annual leave allowance balanced to ensure you have enough to offer everyone? All shrinkage categories need to be tracked, especially annual leave. If not enough is taken, you run the risk that your people will have to much left and not enough time-off available. Track annual leave at an individual person level, check for amount taken and frequency of time-off and support/advise those who take too much too soon, and those who don’t book anything.
Don’t give people their Birthday off: Please don’t give everyone their birthday off as a special day. Firstly, not everyone works their birthday and not everyone wants their birthday off. This appears like a lovely gesture, focused on people, however it is a one-size fits all rule. If you want people to have a “special-day” free annual leave pass then do it, don’t add limits around birthdays or nearest working day. The only rule you need to consider is the notice period, e.g. 2-months’ notice to guarantee your special day off.
Not having a rule (or process) for booking leave: booking annual leave shouldn’t be a free-for-all, with people allowed to just book time off if available, and likewise not book time off if not available. This can be a major problem if there is a self-service system, which means people can book whatever whenever. This can lead to odd days, or odd part days being booked up preventing others from booking longer periods, e.g. 2 people book Monday, and Tuesday off, no one can now book a full week off. This results in more administration for the Planning team, or senior managers needing to get involved to authorise above allocated allowance.
Not having a rule (or process) for cancelling leave: there needs to be a process for the cancelling of annual leave, especially at short-notice. Cancelling leave, may mean that no one is off during this period requiring more annual leave shrinkage in another day. Yes, there will be times when leave needs to be moved, just consider the impact.
Not deciding Christmas opening hours, until Autumn: again, too often I see organisations waiting until the Autumn to confirm the opening hours over the Christmas period, which in turn means people are waiting for their annual leave and shift. This should be an easy decision which can be made 12-months in advance. Ask yourself what the worst that’s going to happen versus the benefit of certainty of knowing your operating hours?
Once we’ve stopped doing the “dumb” things, we can start to create an annual leave strategy, which can be part of the broader wellness strategy supporting work-life-integration.
The Annual Leave Strategy
Purpose: Like all good strategies, start with “why” and the purpose, e.g. “give everyone their preferred time off to support their health and wellbeing”. The annual leave process needs to feel like a benefit, not something that the company has to do. This also provides you with an opportunity to create a process which supports “if you do this, we can do this for you”.
Plan: Quite simply plan the year ahead and help to encourage your people to also plan ahead. Provide a view of the next 12 months, or longer, with key dates and opening times (e.g. school holidays, bank holidays and sporting events) highlighted; some people want these, others want to avoid, so always good to recognise. Suggest ways for spreading out the annual leave throughout the year, so that people have at least one extended break and then some shorter periods off; don’t force this just suggest.
Understand your people, the more you know the more you can help them to plan their time-off. Parents of school aged children will need flexibility for parents evening, nativity plays and sports days. Students will need time off for revision and completing coursework, in addition to 2 or 3 semester timetable changes. These can be frustrating to manage for a business, as well as create anxiety for the employee who needs flexibility but don’t want to ask for too many changes. By being upfront with people to understand their needs you can create a set of options for them, in return they will appreciate the support and provide a “trade-off”. By creating different categories, or choices for people, who don’t have to apply “one-size fits-all” rules and ultimately be unfair for everyone. I’m not suggesting you create individual rules for everyone.
Lockdown: Create “lockdown” periods to support your planning processes and communication of annual leave, whilst encouraging people to plan and book their holidays. The best example of this, I’ve seen, is where annual leave is guaranteed when 6-months’ notice is given. This offers a great incentive for people to plan in advance and in turn give you the time to plan around any challenging days/weeks. After the first lockdown annual leave can be self-served based on allocation remaining, maybe up to 2-weeks out. Then within 2-weeks, there can be another rule, with maybe a final consideration for same-day leave.
Automation & Self-serve (with rules!): Having the technology available to self-serve holidays is a great idea. From an employee’s perspective sitting at home discussing holidays and then having the ability to check available time off should be a given. However, it is important to not let booking annual leave and more importantly cancelling annual leave becoming too easy. By using “lockdown” periods people know when leave can be cancelled and when it can’t. The key aspect to remember is that if leave is accepted by one, this may mean that someone else can’t have it.
Paul books his 2-week holiday 10 months in advance. 6 months prior to Paul’s holiday, Peter requests the same time off with his request declined. 1-month prior Paul decides he no longer wants the 2-week holiday, as he didn’t book any flights anyway, and Peter has now boked another 2 weeks off. Unfortunately, no one else wants to 2-weeks off that Paul had booked. This means unused annual leave allowance and a shortage of annual leave for later in the year.
Escalation Process: Create a formal escalation process for annual leave questions and challenges, not just “manager approved”. Provide structure and guiding principles to base decisions. This may involve a panel of representatives, e.g. Planning, HR and Operations, taking into consideration impact on the business, customer and colleagues in addition to the positive, or negative impact on the person. Again, this works well when formal lockdown periods are in place.
Supply & Demand: Understand what makes a popular day and consider what makes other days less desirable. Summer holidays (July/August), school holidays, Easter, Christmas and Bank Holidays are typically popular. Mid-January is less popular, especially from those who have spent up over Christmas and don’t want a day off with little sun light! Create an annual leave allocation that matches demand, e.g. more time off during the Summer months, Christmas and Bank Holidays, likewise don’t expect 12% to be taken every day.
Sporting Occasions, Events & Local Events: Typically, these events are known in advance, so publicise this and let people know that you know these events are taking place and provide suggestions to help people book this time off (if they want it) or work it so they can have another day off.
Review: To capture learning and promote continuous improvement regularly review the annual leave process using a mixture of focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, interviews etc. It is important to gather feedback from different people and perspectives to generate new ideas and make it easier to book annual leave.
The awareness and importance of wellbeing is now better understood and hopefully here to stay, so having an annual leave strategy as part of the broader Wellness strategy is critical. There will be a cost to implementing an effective process, however this will reduce and avoid other costs, e.g. better staff retention and sickness, improved employee satisfaction which typically also improves customer satisfaction too.
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Date Published: 29/08/2019