how to cover for vacationing coworkers without doubling your own workload

With lots of people gearing up to take vacations in the summer months, chances are high that you might be asked to cover for a coworker who’s away – whether it’s just filling in for the person at a few meetings or handling all of their client calls. Here are six tips to help you prepare to cover for a coworker without doubling your workload.

1. Check in with your coworkers before they leave. You’re presumably not going to be doing all of their work while they’re gone, or you’d be doing two full-time jobs, which isn’t realistic. Instead, find out what the top things that mustbe kept moving while they’re away are, such as responding to urgent queries from clients or finishing a report. Also, make sure that they leave behind important contact info, walk you through any processes that you’re not familiar with, and fill you in on the context for things that you might need to deal with while they’re away. Don’t just listen and nod as they do this run-down; you want to think critically about what questions might arise and ask them now so that you’re not trying to chase them down with questions while they’re on vacation.

2. Find out if there’s anything they want to be contacted about while they’re away. Some people like to unplug completely when they take time off work. Others can more easily relax if they know that you’ll reach out in case of certain types of emergencies. Make a point of asking whether there’s anything they’d want to be contacted about while they’re away – and then respect that request. (Do not contact your coworker on the beach to ask about the location of a file or how to please an ornery client, unless specifically invited to.)

3. Find out what they’re telling others. If their email auto-reply is going to direct people to contact you for issues X, Y, and Z, you need to know that and be prepared for it. Similarly, if they’re directing clients your way, make sure you’re not surprised by it.

4. Plan your own workload accordingly.This is a big one: If you’re covering for a coworker for a week, that’s probably not the week to load yourself up with work of your own or have big deadlines or your own coming due. You could try just piling all their work on top of yours, but it would probably make for a very unpleasant week. Figure out what’s reasonable for you to achieve that week, focusing on your biggest priorities and pushing back most of the rest. And of course, make sure that your manager is in the loop and knows your plan.

5. Keep a daily to-do list.I’m a big believer that you should always do this, but it’s especially useful when you’re covering for someone else because their projects aren’t going to be second nature to you the way your own are. You might find it easy to keep track of all your own work and deadlines, but when you temporarily throw someone else’s in the mix, it’s pretty likely that simply tracking it all in your brain isn’t going to be a fail-safe method. Write it down.

6. Leave good notes for the person’s return.If you leave organized notes about what you covered while they were gone and where projects stand, you’ll minimize the chances of regular interruptions in the week or two after they return, as they seek to figure out the status of the work you were handling.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. OlympiasEpiriot

    Ha! My office is swamped right now. Has been for weeks, going on months. Back at the end of April, PM1 I was doing work for on one job got injured and has had a really difficult recovery. I’ve taken on 100% of that job. PM2 who I was helping on 1.5 tasks had to go out of the country on one job, so I’m now handling 100% of 2 jobs. Plus, because another person was swamped due to PM1’s injury, I — in a brief moment of madness generated by temporary lightness of work at my desk and extreme sympathy — took on one of her smaller jobs which is now mine 100%.

    Then there’s the jobs that are just mine. And the proposals that have to get pushed out the door after I get a call from a client I’m already working for. I can’t really fob those off on someone else, I mean, it’s my client and they’re expecting me. And the sudden requests to “just brief my guy on waterproofing/condition surveys/test pit sketches/” or “hey, that building from 2 years ago that you wrote a report for and the adjacent construction halted so no one has had it on the top of their list for a while…crack gauges, how many did we install and where?”

    Two weeks ago, I pulled an all-nighter and then two nights later I stayed until 1:50am. I’m pushing 50 with a broom. I never expected to do that again.

  2. JMegan

    While you’re asking #1, make sure you also ask the flip side, what is NOT a priority? Is there a particular type of call that can always go to voice mail; or a project that the vacationing coworker has arranged to wait until she gets back? Having that information can save you from N0-Boundaries Client who never has an actual question but who can easily tie you up on the phone for half an hour or more; or from running around looking for information on Project X when your coworker didn’t have it in her workplan until August.

  3. Collie

    For those of us going on vacations, what else can we do to make it easier on those covering? I’m in the process of updating instructions for various tasks and checking in with people who will be covering items or supervisors who need to know about it — are there other things I can do to make it as easy as possible on them? If I’m bringing something back from vacation for the office to enjoy, is it appropriate to also bring back something a little extra for the person who covered?

    1. CMT

      Something I do is tell the people who aren’t in my office, but who contact me regularly, that I will be gone. This way they know in advance that they won’t get a response from me immediately. Most of the time, these people can wait until I get back for the things they need, but I do let them know who to contact if something urgent pops up.

  4. EJ

    I work in higher education and know my work needs to be covered when I’m gone…

    So I’ve put everything on our shared drive–
    -I written up and “Out of Office To Do List” that lists my daily tasks and the things that need to get done vs. can wait until I get back.
    – Cheat sheets for all the the procedures I do on a daily basis. (Some of the apps we use are tricky!)
    -Templates for e-mails/letters that need to go out. (All they need to do is plug in the info and send.)
    -I’ve printed copies of everything that we don’t do paperless and keep it in an open office for easy accessibility. It’s also on the shared drive if they need more.
    -And so on….

    And I tell I’m not answering e-mails. But I will log on if I get downtime (vacations aren’t always 100% action) and I’ll forward anything important.

    Really, if I’m going on vacation I feel more at ease knowing I’ve done everything I can do to help out my co-workers. Plus it helps ease my self back into work mode once I’m back!

  5. Sparkly Librarian

    Timely! My close coworker is on bereavement leave this week and next, and while she did have the chance to put together a document of “This is what needs to happen” and show me where supplies were, the workload of two is pretty strenuous. Thankfully her department head is supportive and is sending over a backup for tomorrow’s event. Also, we have a new manager who started this week and our seasoned senior NCO type (normally handles stuff when manager is out) is gone today and tomorrow. Plus, at the end of the fiscal year there just aren’t enough backup staff with available hours to go around. It’s a leeeetle hectic around here. Working on reminding myself that temporary overload is not what a position as [coworker’s job] or manager would look like, so I shouldn’t start second-guessing that application I just put in (to move up to one of those positions). Instead, it’s… good training experience?

  6. Jennifer

    One of my coworkers is retiring and the other is going to be out having carpal tunnel surgery for a month, next week. I am going to be the only one and drowning. When they are out, I do all of their work. When I am out, they do the bare minimum anyway (sigh), pretty much only the urgent stuff.

    Today my boss laid the smackdown on both of them for totally neglecting part of our job duties (I am the only one that does this one task) and said she wanted totals of how many they did for the next few days. Hoo boy, all the complaining.

    As for these tips, I dunno–I pretty much have a list of everything because we all work on the same things. I just can’t count on them to do their 2/3rds of it. Gah. Oh well.

    1. CMT

      Does your boss pressure you to do all of their work while they’re out? Or is it okay if you just do the minimum and let them catch up when they return?

    2. LD

      It is a two way street. Maybe your co workers need to learn a lesson here and you should do the bare minimum for them. What are they going to do, pay you back by doing the bare minimum when you are out? You are already there.

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