The Skeleton Crew: Managing Work When Your Coworkers Are Out of the Office

The Skeleton Crew: Managing Work When Your Coworkers Are Out of the Office

When the holidays and summer months roll around, the workplace can seem like a ghost town. But don't let the tumbleweeds fool you; there's usually no shortage of extra work. For the folks left behind, it's time to hold down the fort.

While coworkers are away, it’s important to keep things running smoothly, stay productive and get recognized for your work. “Managing work and staying productive when faced with competing priorities (and added workload) takes a lot of discipline and courage,” admits Paul Edward, managing advisor of Edward Professional Advisors in Los Angeles. This is especially true if you are working during the holidays.

Or maybe you’re in the opposite position. Work’s slowed to a crawl, so now what do you do? “This is an incredible time to have a two-week boot camp to get things done,” advises Kimberly Douglas, Atlanta-based author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results. “This is an opportunity to focus your attention on one project, rather than things that can be done during the busier, multitasking workweek. Or start thinking ahead to your future deadlines. It’s also a good time to make an impression on the boss by letting him know that you would love to lend a hand.”

Set Priorities When Working During the Holidays

Before the office empties out, learn about the role of the coworker(s) you'll be filling in for. List the activities you’re asked to handle, making sure you understand the assignments and any potential impact on customers or business operations. Next, review the extra work with your supervisor to set priorities. “This is important enough to schedule a 10-minute discussion to ensure absolute alignment,” says Karissa Thacker, a New York-based executive coach. Once there's agreement on priorities and process, check in with your manager periodically during your colleague's absence.

When you’re covering for a vacationing coworker, treat her priority items as if they were your own. Why? “Reciprocity,” Thacker notes. “Setting up a system in which people help each other out works during vacations and in general. Skeleton crews cannot be effective teams unless everyone pitches in at 110 percent at times. So always be willing to help others. It will be noticed and will come back to you.”

Spread the Extra Work

Chances are you’re not the only one working during these low-staff times, so it’s a good idea to pool resources with other people in your department or office. Get everyone together -- with your supervisor-approved priorities -- and divide up the extra work. Tasks may range from staffing the reception area to managing a project, planning meetings or working with vendors. “Distribute the workload, not based on job titles, but on the work each team member does best,” Douglas suggests.

Stay Focused

It’s easy to get distracted when you’ve got extra, possibly unfamiliar, work on your to-do list. Staying focused on the critical tasks will help you get results and recognition. “If you have three high-priority items and the resources to only do one of them at a time, you’ve got to choose which one goes first,” says Edward, author of Moving Forward: Turning Good Intentions into Great Results. “Finish it completely before moving on to the next high-priority item. Ignore your own inner voice and possibly other people’s voices telling you to work on everything at the same time.”

Take Breaks

This may seem counter-intuitive, but stepping away from your work can actually help you be more effective. “Working through our breaks and lunches increases distress levels, because you don’t give your body and mind a chance to return to a resting state,” Edward says. “We can only work at peak performance for limited periods of time. Taking scheduled breaks allows us to recharge, refresh and resume work without getting burned out.”

Plan Ahead

One small activity can make a big difference in managing work when shorthanded. “End every day with 'a plan for tomorrow,'" says Douglas. "Leave each day with a simple list of the top three things you must get done for the next day. Be realistic. Aim small -- score big.”

Report Results

Don't forget to report your accomplishments and results in an organized fashion. This will help your supervisor keep up with what you’ve done and see your value to the company.

It's not easy keeping a short-staffed workplace humming while working during the holidays. But it can be a great opportunity to showcase your talents and flexibility. “If you take control and take productive steps to address challenges, fix problems and seize opportunities, you will feel more engaged and energized,” Douglas notes. “You will have proven results for your efforts -- and possibly even greater job security.”