Time to leave

Throughout this year and as part of our ongoing work to bring more structure and clarity to our company we have been implementing policies for some of the basic day-to-day tasks and arrangements.

This would seem straightforward enough, but even with the best intentions, things don’t always go to plan.

The background

Members of our team are currently spread across three geographical regions: Ireland, Scotland and England. Legally Scotland and England fall under UK law so we maintain two different contracts managed via an external HR company that we use. This also includes access to a leave management tool for requesting and approving days off.

Both contracts have the same statutory leave allowance of 4 working weeks, so 20 days, plus public holidays. That’s where things differ slightly as both Ireland and Scotland have 9 public holidays per year and England have 8.

As a small business we have the luxury of being able to adjust policies relatively easily if needed. In one particular case, we noticed in the early part of the year that some members of the team preferred to work on public holidays and take a day off in lieu. That wasn’t an issue for us, particularly as the exact holiday days differed between regions. Part of our commitment to remote working is allowing folks to be flexible with how and when they choose to work.

At the same time we weren’t happy with the standard 20 days leave. Both Paul and I suffered from burnout in the earlier days of Tito and want to promote a calmer working environment with plenty of time off.

Based on these two factors we decided to bump the standard leave allocation to 35 days, so 6 weeks rather than 4, and also allow folks to take their public holiday days when they wanted to. So in total, 44 days (giving everyone 9 days of public holidays felt fair).

It’s been shown that “unlimited” leave can be problematic. As we stated in our company playbook, 35 days is “an attempt to be generous, but not reckless”.

The mistakes

So far so good you might think. Well, yes, but we made a few mistakes…

The first problem was that by removing public holidays from the HR system the assumption was that you’d be working unless you explicitly booked the days off. For most however, this went against an ingrained understanding that nothing needs to be done—if it’s a public holiday you’re just off. So inevitably many of us, including yours truly, would take the day off and forget to log it in the system.

We made these leave decisions part-way through the year and didn’t clearly communicate the changes to everyone. I think this was another case of a Slack message getting lost into the ether. Under-communicating rather than over-communicating.

I was tacitly in charge of the HR leave system with which we had a number of frustrations. I looked into other options and tried a few out but ultimately other priorities came up and it was pushed down the to-do list. The HR system that we were all still using was never updated with the extra days until a few months later.

And finally, and most importantly, Paul and I simply weren’t keeping tabs on how much leave folks had left.

The fallout

I think you can figure out what happened next. We reached the middle of November and we started thinking about the Christmas holiday period. We then realised that pretty much everyone had a large amount of days left to take.

As it stood, most of the company would be off from the end of November until January. Certainly not ideal.

The first question we were asked by the team was whether we would allow days to be rolled over until the following year. Given we wanted to encourage regular breaks and we were allocating sufficient days to do that, giving folks the opportunity to defer their leave didn’t make sense.

It was then a case of managing the remaining days over the weeks left in the year. Paul spoke to a couple of people and they agreed to take 4 or 5-day weekends until the holiday period began. Others had too much time to take for that to work and so were asked to finish for an extended holiday break. 

I was then contacted privately by a couple of people asking that they just took a few days here and there but not all of their remaining leave. They had projects they wanted to finish and were happy to lose some days.

Great, I said! No, said Paul.

Paul wasn’t into that idea at all. He thought it would set a dangerous precedent that not taking the full leave allocation was okay.

We discussed a few other options between ourselves, including paying for leave that was worked instead of taken. That felt unfair to me as some people had been asked to take their holidays already.

We had reached a bit of an impasse.

The solution

At our next weekly management coaching session with Kim we ran her through the situation. Her argument was that we were dealing with adults and they should be treated as such. Finally we came to the conclusion that if some people were happy to lose their leave, then we’d make an exception this year. Paul disagreed but committed, something that both Paul and I are getting better at doing to avoid management deadlocks.

So we went into December with a couple of people off but coverage for support, marketing and engineering. This week we have a skeleton crew but enough to make sure the lights are kept on.

The learning

So what’s the point of recounting this tale of what basically boils down to administrative incompetence?

Well, for one I think it’s important to recognise and talk about mistakes. Particularly with a small company, the prospect of losing more than half of your staff for over a month is going to put the breaks on anything getting done.

But I think that this is a really good example of wanting to do the right thing but ending up inadvertently causing harm. By giving everyone plenty of time off during the year and not monitoring it we had ended up in a situation that would lead to unnecessary stress being put on the folks that were still in the office. A fairly big backfire for what was supposed to be a well-intentioned policy.

Over the last couple of months Paul has been working through Traction about which I’m sure he’ll be writing in the future. It includes various practical methods for “getting a grip on your business”. One thing that has proven very useful has been creating an accountability chart. This is similar to an organisational chart but focuses on who is responsible for aspects of the business rather than just who reports to who.

One of the key things that we’ve taken from creating this chart is that we have no one who wholly owns many of the more administrative tasks, such as… yes, reviewing leave taken. It’s been something that either Paul or I do depending on who has some bandwidth at the time. Having a clear owner would have made the holiday situation much less likely to have occurred. Going forward we’ll be fixing that.

The future

2020 is going to be a big year for us at Tito. Not only will we be releasing our new platforms into the wild, we’ll also be putting into place a lot of the company-based changes we’ve been working on with Kim.

It’s exciting times and we wish all our readers a happy and calm holiday season from everyone here at Tito.