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How to handle the holiday handover

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Be it a glamorous getaway or simple staycation, holidays are a chance to relax and recharge. Which you'll probably need after the frantic fortnight of frenzied preparation that all too often comes first. So how do you take a stress-free break without simply cramming it all in beforehand? And what if you're left holding things together on the home front?

In this month’s guest article, freelance writer and HR specialist Nicola Greenbrook has advice on pre-holiday planning to help you head away with everything in hand, keep calm with your carry-on, and be raring to go on your return.


Holiday season is well and truly upon us. Oh, the anticipation of what’s to come! An opportunity to get stuck into the book gathering dust on the bedside table or to broaden your horizons at a bucket list-worthy destination. A chance to recharge and refuel. According to Dr Christian Jarrett, holidays can make us happier, healthier and even prolong our lives.

Sometimes though, the pace and pressure in the weeks leading up to the holiday almost negate the benefits of the break itself. Here are some tips to help you deliver a successful handover - keeping your credibility, peace of mind and work relationships intact.

Before you go...

(Excited! Full of anticipation! But a bit stressed!)

American polymath Benjamin Franklin quite wisely said “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. He was spot on. Nailing a holiday handover is all in the preparation; giving yourself sufficient time to organise everything weeks in advance. 

Forewarn your absence

Make sure your holiday dates are in your team and key stakeholders’ diaries as soon as your leave has been authorised; even if you sort the finer, exciting details later.

If you’re client or supporter-facing or manage multiple projects, consider adding an extra line to your email signature a few weeks in advance that clearly outlines the period of your absence.

Rather than appearing smug (‘I'M GOING ON HOLIDAY FOR TWO WEEKS AND YOU'RE NOT’) it instead ensures your contacts are notified well in advance and can plan accordingly at their end. It also prevents any nasty surprises on your last day.

The art of the handover note

It’s always a good idea to start your Holiday Handover Notes (HHN) a good few weeks before, even if you jot down headers or topics in the first instance, rather than frantically wracking your tired brain the night before you fly.

Consider always having the document open in the week before you go, for ease of brain-dump, rather than scribbling a note on a Post-it that gets lost in a yellow sea of more Post-its or overloading your already full head.​


CJ Sinclair, founder of Go Travel and Talk, a network that provides detailed travel guides to worldwide destinations with solo travellers in mind, is always on the move; and therefore well-practised in the art of the perfect handover.

She breaks her HHN down into critical priorities, current and upcoming projects and ‘things to watch’ and ‘worry or pain points’. CJ also cleverly adds screen shots and media, to break up the words and highlights important text for an easy at-a-glance view.

Aim to strike the balance with a comprehensive but concise approach to your HHN. HR News suggests that ‘…there’s no need to cause an unreasonable amount of stress on the employee/s covering you whilst you’re away, so highlighting all the ‘need-to-know’ points will help them keep on top of things’. Order tasks by priority and include key delivery dates or deadlines, with the most recent first.

Schedule in a face-to-face meeting with your colleague who’s taking the reins. You can talk through the HHN before you go, so they can ask questions and jot down their own points. Avoid being patronising; your team are knowledgeable enough to know what ‘pass invoice to Finance' means in practice. There's no need to go into intricate detail about the ‘third cupboard on the left with the squeaky drawer’ if everybody knows perfectly well all about the squeaky drawer.


Be a clever planner

In the weeks before, keep your diary as clear as possible and stay focused.

It may feel a wrench missing Steve from Events’ birthday lunch, but avoiding social engagements or non-urgent appointments wins you back a few hours of uninterrupted work time. At 7.00pm on your last day when you’re panicked and finishing with all your holiday toiletries still to buy, you’ll be grateful for that hour. You can catch up with Steve and the gang on your return.

If you’re a freelancer or consultant in the not-for-profit sector with no-one to actually hand over to, it's even more crucial to plan ahead.

CJ finds that scheduling everything in advance with calendar reminders or apps like Later and Tailwind, can be helpful. Although "it does mean a lot of work beforehand to get it all done”, she also notes “it’s amazing how much technology can help to give you a little respite!”

Avoid dumping-disguised-as-a-handover-task

Be reasonable and conscientious, and tie up as many loose ends as you possibly can before you go.

Don't be tempted to use your absence from the office as an opportunity to slip in a few projects that have been on the back burner, or to dump tricky tasks you’ve been putting off on to an unsuspecting colleague. This may cause resentment in your absence, confusion or delays to a project.

Don't use OOO to get a LOL

It’s tempting to set a comedy out of office message, but the best advice is to save it for the comedians.

As funny as they might be to read, there's a fine line between light-hearted and inappropriate, and it's not necessarily in the same place for everyone. Getting it wrong and causing offence can reflect badly on the charity, its purpose and mission.

A simple message that clearly states your return date and who to contact in your absence will do the trick, although it can be a nice touch to highlight a particular campaign your charity is running. Oh, and don’t forget your voicemail too if you receive direct calls.

Set boundaries

Depending on what works for you, let your direct reports and manager know how and when you can be contactable if a genuine emergency arises while you’re on the beach.

Otherwise, you should trust your team and colleagues to adequately manage things in your absence, especially if you’ve put all of the above into place. Prioritise your wellbeing, family and friends during that precious break, and where possible, learn to switch off.

If it's your turn to hold the fort...

It can be tough being the stand-in. You’re managing your own workload as well as bearing the responsibility of doing a good house-sitting job.

Be assertive. Even if your colleague is looking rather up to their eyes in it, ask all the questions you need before they go so you’re well informed and can maintain the proper functioning of tasks in their absence - it’s for both of your benefits.

CJ Sinclair especially looks after her colleagues by cc’ing them into emails in the weeks leading up to her holiday and keeping them 100% in the picture. If the work is project-facing, she also arranges calls with clients to introduce them to the person holding the fort - so why not consider asking for the same treatment?

Be proactive and schedule a meeting with the hander-over on their penultimate day to avoid a last minute panic on the final one. Politely ask that their handover notes are in good shape so that you can go through the entire document together, check your understanding and fill in any gaps. Then schedule one in the early afternoon of their first day back.

Consider using Google Docs so that you can update the document with your own notes as you go along. It will save you time and allow your colleague to read through and extract the key points and actions before their return if they fancy, making their first day back easier (and yours; you’ve now just the one workload to juggle. Hurrah!).

It can be hard bearing the weight of managing tasks in someone else’s absence and the risk of being overwhelmed is high.

Accept that you can’t do everything and be aware of what you can reasonably do. Focus on the deadlines and priorities, and don’t fret if you didn’t even get a peek at the ‘non-urgent’ section of the HHN. These can be picked up when your colleague returns. If you’re struggling, talk to your manager and shout for help. This Harvard Business Review article has some great tips on what to do when you’re covering for colleagues - and can't keep up.

When you get back...

(Jet lagged! With post-holiday blues! Slightly full of dread!)

It's tough coming back from a holiday. Even worse when you’ve had to come straight from airport to office, you’re desperately missing the pool/beach/mountain/all-inclusive buffet and were not at all prepared for a painful reunion with the tube. Here’s some final tips on how to restore some of that holiday-energy.

• Keep your diary as clear as you can. Prioritise the meeting with your colleague who managed your work (who hopefully would have scheduled it for early afternoon) and use the morning to clear/organise your emails and get your task list up to date. The responsibility is back with you, and the chances are your colleague will be relieved to relinquish the extra load.

• Be gracious and thankful for the support you received from your colleagues. If time hasn’t allowed them to complete all tasks, keep your cool and try not to be angry or concerned that things haven't been done ‘your way’.

• Avoid a post-holiday grumble. You fully deserved your break and it’s always hard to come crashing back to reality when you’ve had the time of your life. However, be mindful that while you’ve been travelling they’ve been sweating it in your absence. Don’t moan about being back or repeatedly say ‘this time last week I was *add fabulous holiday thing*' and sigh, loudly. Be grateful for both a super break and a supportive team of colleagues.

• Come bearing gifts. Like a bottle of that funny-coloured liquor from the local supermarket, unpronounceable sweets or some local delicacies. It doesn’t have to be expensive or purchased from somewhere impressive; a box of fudge can go a long way to say thank you.

So, there you go. You’ve notified people way in advance that you're jetting off. You’ve planned, scheduled, created perfect handover notes with no nasty surprises, and your team know how to track you down in an emergency (unlikely as they’re so well-informed).

Now, swap sandwiches at your desk for something delicious al fresco and lose yourself in a good book rather than a report, safe in the knowledge that everything's in hand. You deserve it.

Nicola Greenbrook - HR Specialist & Freelance Writer 



More from Nicola Greenbrook:

 How to manage stress at work

► How to switch off

 Charity Careers 4: meet James Harris of Rethink Mental Illness



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