How to maintain employee productivity during summer

What do you do when boozy patio afternoons beckon, but there’s still work to be done?


(Photo: Frank and Helena/Corbis)

Summer in Canada is a sacred thing. For a few precious months following the Victoria Day ­kickoff weekend, our thoughts turn to planning cottage getaways, golf games or boozy afternoons on a patio. For employers, especially smaller companies, summer is a challenging time as management tries to rein in distracted staff and accommodate vacation requests while maintaining productivity.

“Employers must be realistic and appreciative of the fact that people want to be off,” says John Cardella, executive vice-president and chief people officer at Ceridian Canada, a human-resources consulting firm. “But they must also ensure first and foremost that the job is getting done.” During the silly days of summer, he says employers should “think in terms of results and not necessarily in terms of the time an employee has to put in,” he says.

To deal with antsy employees on notoriously unproductive Friday afternoons, some companies institute a compressed or flexible workweek policy during summer months. Staffers work extra hours Monday-Thursday and take Friday off rather than spending time coming up with creative ways to sneak out early. Similarly, if the tasks and technology allow it, Cardella suggests offering staff the option to work remotely one day a week.

The trick in keeping staff productive and happy in summer, he says, is to make the office a sunnier place. “As long as the work is getting done and the ­company is still getting [its] results, summer can be a great time for organizations to try something new, whether it’s team-building or taking employees outside to do some experiential learning.”

The golden rule for scheduling staff holidays, say workforce management experts, is prepare, prepare, prepare. “Ask for vacation schedules well ahead of time so you can determine the number of people that can be off in any given week,” Cardella says.

Getting organized early for vacations is especially important for small businesses whose day-to-day operations can be severely hampered if just one person takes off for the cottage for a few days. “If you’ve got a staff of five and one person leaves, that’s 20% of your workforce,” says Corinne Pohlmann, vice-president of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent ­Businesses. Pohlmann says a number of small companies that see business get sluggish in the summer will shut down completely for a couple of weeks — a good fix for staff holiday scheduling headaches.

While smaller companies typically forgo formal vacation policies, employees generally understand they can’t take off long stretches of time without affecting the business. If they do plan a big trip, the intimacy of a small shop allows a level of communication that is rare in big companies. “It all comes down to the relationship between an employer and [the] staffers,” Pohlmann says. “We just talk to each other.”

At McMillan, a mid-sized marketing and advertising firm in Ottawa, management asks staff to give four to five weeks’ notice before they make their formal vacation request, so it can be “reasonably assessed,” says David Moore, vice-president of client services. “We try to ensure we don’t have a significant number of people from any one team on vacation at one time because we never know what’s going to come in the door,” he says. “This is a reactive, client-driven business, and we just can’t be caught with our pants down.”

McMillan never completely shuts down during slow periods, but the company started offering an unpaid-leave option during quieter months. Moore says a quarter of the agency’s 50-plus employees took advantage of the option last year. He quickly adds that this summer will be unusually busy, so management has already sent out a note to employees requesting vacation plans and, for people without solid plans, to hold off until September. Freelancers and consultants are brought on to help fill some of the gaps during demanding projects, Moore says, but there have been rare occasions when management has denied or rescheduled a staffer’s holiday plans. “Generally, people get it, because they’ve experienced the peaks and valleys of agency work, and they know there will come a time when they’re not that busy and they’ll have more free time,” he says.

“At the end of the day, employees are certainly entitled to their vacation, but they’re entitled to their vacation at the convenience of the company. We’re a team. We work together to accommodate everybody. It makes future complications less complicated.”