If you're like most Creative departments, you run a lean machine. Which means you may cringe when team members need to take time away from work on an extended basis for maternity, honeymoon, bereavement or other leaves of absence. It's not that you don't support the staff member's decision (often it's something to celebrate), but it can be difficult to cover the workload when you're one man down. Ideally you'd be able to hire a temporary employee to cover during the leave of absence, but often this is not the case (though in the case of maternity leave, sometimes you can budget for this in the prior year depending on timing). As an effective leader you need to proactively, respectfully and fairly prepare for these leaves of absence.
If you have a known time frame for a leave, take action right away. Being proactive is key to a smooth transition into, and out of, the leave. Remember, it's not just the on-leave team member who will be affected, but her teammates as well. Here are a few examples:
Pregnancy is a loaded topic because of the potential discrimination towards one gender. You can skip right past this and win kudos from the team by preparing an effective and fair coverage system. First, don't forget to congratulate the team member! She will soon have regular doctor appointments and later, physical discomfort. As possible, be flexible with her schedule and offer her the occasional opportunity to work from home--of course, this flexibility needs to be reasonable and the same you would offer another employee, regardless of medical status. But the point is to be supportive and ensure the team member knows what options or flexibilities are available to her--she might not need it now, but come month 9 this could change.
Once the direct report enters in the third trimester, it's appropriate to start planning for her out-of-office coverage. Work with your pregnant direct report to define who will cover for her during maternity leave--it may be appropriate, and easier on the team, if her workload can be spread across more than one team member. The covering team member(s) may be delighted if he or she is being presented with a true opportunity to broaden his or her skill set or span of influence. Or, the covering team member(s) may be frustrated to take on the additional work. Either way, acknowledge their contribution and ensure the covering person is aware that this is temporary and is respectful of this with the pregnant associate, as well as her clients. Also make sure this team member feels comfortable coming to you if or when they have experience a challenge with the additional workload.
Sometimes these extended leaves occur across your slower months and your team can manage the increased workload without a hiccup, but most of us are staffed so leanly that even during our "slower times," losing a team member for 2-3 months can be a burden on the team. If budget permits, consider bringing a temporary employee onboard--even if you can only afford 20 hours/week. This will ease your team's concern and stress over the increased workload, and hopefully avoid burnout. It may not work out for the temp to "own" the on-leave team member's workload, but that temp can be assigned to the full-time team members who are responsible for that workload.
Once the plan for coverage is set, don't forget to be transparent with your full team and your clients so everyone feels comfortable and knows whom to reach out to. Begin proper training and transferring of the pregnant employee's responsibilities a few weeks before the due date. This has two significant benefits: (1) she is still available to answer questions of the covering employee(s) and (2) you aren't unprepared if the baby comes early or if she needs to go on bed rest in advance of her due date.
As the end of maternity leave approaches, gently guide the covering person and team through this transition. If there's going to be a change in the organizational structure, discuss this with her and the team prior to her return. Avoid surprising people; it's not good for anyone.
While, leave for weddings and honeymoons is significantly shorter than maternity leaves, these often occur across the summer months when you may already be slim on staff due to normal summer vacations. Also, weddings tend to evoke emotional responses ranging from utter joy to envy to sadness. Some people revel in hearing every detail before, during and after, while others want to scream if they hear another word. So it's important to be sensitive to your team member's reactions and guide them to be respectful to each other. This sensitivity applies to the person getting married as well as to the listeners.
With these shorter leaves, it's often not worth bringing in a temp, unless there is someone who has worked with your organization before and no onboarding/training will be necessary. You may need to just ask the team to mentally prepare for a few busy weeks--this is an important step, it shows you acknowledge the challenge of more work and appreciate their support in pushing through. And sometimes with these shorter periods of leave, clients are able to hold off submitting some projects until the team member returns. So don't forget to collaborate with your clients on the coverage plan.
The fear and sadness associated with most unanticipated leave is normal and is best dealt with honestly. This type of leave is often related to an illness or death of a colleague or of a close relative of the colleague.
Death and sickness are scary for most people. They highlight our mortality and can make us uncomfortable. Depending on the situation it may be appropriate to bring the team together to share the news in an honest and transparent way. In addition, it may be prudent to share any information related to counseling services, should your company offer such services. Of course, allow your HR team to lead them way in the case of a staff member's illness due to confidentiality and other considerations.
Unanticipated leave often results in a hobbled-together coverage approach. Start by reaching out to the client to inform them of the situation (details are not necessary, just that the staff member will be out) and that once you have a coverage plan identified that you will reach back out to them. Next, assess the workload that needs be picked up. This will be more challenging than with a planned absence because you may be unaware of everything the team member was working on--you may even need the assistance of the clients to determine this. You also may need access to the staff member's inbox or, at the very least, IT's help in setting an out-of-office message with coverage details. In addition, you may need to access the staff member's desktop for which you would need an admin password.
Once the work is assessed, you can either assign it to teammates or you can ask teammates to volunteer to cover all or part of the work--generally team members are pretty generous with their bandwidth when unexpected leave occurs. When (if) the associate returns to work, have an honest discussion with the associate and then with the team so you can lead by example and guide in a way that helps everyone feel comfortable.
Don't forget the personal side of this unanticipated leave. Decide how to reach out to your colleague or the family...there is no right way to do this. Most people suffering from the loss of a loved one appreciate some sort of acknowledgement. Consider sending a department condolence note, flowers, or whatever feels most appropriate.
Another potential unanticipated leave is a wonderful and joyous occasion! Years ago, a direct report of mine was waiting to hear about adoption and got a phone call one day and was out for three months within the hour. Surprise! We jumped into action and followed the basic steps outlined above and it worked out for all.
Yet another form of unanticipated leave occurs when a team member resigns. There is a need to cover for the absence until someone new replaces the associate and is fully trained and up to speed. There will probably be at least four weeks between the team member's last day and the start date of a replacement. But while this leave is unexpected, you do generally have two weeks to set up a coverage plan. And while there is no team member in seat, you are accruing salary, benefits, and overhead funds, which hopefully your organization will allow you to put against the costs of a temp resource.
Regardless of whether the leave is planned or not, it will still be a pain point for your team. Look to minimize that pain through communication and distribution of the workload. And when it's appropriate (and possible) bring in a temp--but that's not a slam-dunk solution: you need your team's support...and they need your guidance, gratitude and reassurance that the "pain" is temporary.