What to Do When You’re Covering for Colleagues — and Can’t Keep Up
The summer vacation season may be behind us, but the holidays are right around the corner. And soon enough your colleagues may be asking you to cover for them while they’re away. All of a sudden, you’re juggling not only your normal work but also someone else’s. That’s potentially more email, more tasks, more meetings, and more searching for answers to questions about items outside of your normal day-to-day.
You want to help where you can and act like a team player. But sometimes it feels overwhelming. You can’t keep up on everything the way that you usually do. You don’t want to let your colleague down, and you don’t want to fall behind on your own work.
This sense of overload can compound when you have multiple individuals out of the office or longer absences such as sick leave, sabbaticals, or maternity leave. What do you do when you have to carry the load of two or more people? Do you work crazy hours trying to do everything for everyone? Do you just give up and hope the fallout isn’t too bad when everyone gets back? Or is there an answer in between?
As a time management coach, I believe the best option is the final one — finding an in-between solution where you keep up on the essentials but avoid putting the full weight of multiple jobs on your shoulders. These six strategies can help you strike that delicate balance.
Accept reality. When someone asks you to cover their projects while they’re out, be aware of what you can reasonably do. You can’t do everything — and that’s OK. If you also have some time out of the office at the same time (for example, a business trip), you may not have the capacity to take on extra tasks. The same holds true if you have large important deadlines that correspond with the request to cover for a coworker. In cases like these, you may need to encourage them to find someone else. But if you do take on the extra workload, starting from the place of acceptance puts you in a position to not freak out when your responsibilities rise while colleagues are out. Your coworkers’ work will not get done to the same level as if they were in the office, and some of your work may also need to happen at a slower pace. Again, that’s OK. This natural and normal consequence of vacation time needs acknowledgment. And if your office tends to have consistently heavy vacation times during certain times of the year, factor that variance into planning milestones, before someone asks for your help.
Ask for a plan. Your colleagues need to take the onus to do a clear handoff to you of responsibilities while they’re away. That may mean an email where they detail the status of projects, next steps, deadlines, and any key contacts, or you may have a meeting to communicate this information. Either way, it’s essential that you have clarity on what needs to be done, so you don’t have to figure out what to do while you’re handling the extra work. If appropriate, have them put your email on their out-of-office message so that others will proactively contact you about items you need to accomplish for others.
Focus on deadlines. When you need to do multiple jobs at once, revert to survival mode. That means a radical focus on deadlines and what’s critical to accomplish that day or that week. If possible, have one consolidated list of your deadlines and those you need to meet for others. When you look over the week, think through how you will meet them. Because you have to juggle multiple people’s tasks, that may mean working further ahead than usual because there’s more of a chance of the unexpected happening or having multiple deadlines clustered together. On a daily basis, focus on the deadline items first. Other, less-urgent items likely will need to wait.
Pause the nonurgent. If you have a massive increase in urgent work, you may need to suspend nonurgent work entirely, such as a project with no deadline, process improvement items, or networking meetings. You can focus on these items when your colleagues return to the office. But in the interim, it’s likely a good idea to delegate them, shelve them, or even suspend any meetings about them until more time opens up in your calendar.
Limit extra work time. You may be tempted to spend some extra time in the office while your coworkers are out, but try not to overdo it. If you must work additional hours, pick a few times when you’ll come in early, stay late, or complete some work on the weekends. But don’t turn this time into working late every night and working all weekend long. Not only will you feel burned out and resentful but you will also lessen your productivity. Working too much and never taking a break decreases motivation and focus.
Ask for help. Sometimes when you’re giving help, you also need to ask for it. See if a boss can cover a few responsibilities, if a coworker can take notes for you at meetings so that you don’t need to attend, if direct reports can take on more of the day-to-day tasks, or if you can get some contract or temp help. The temporary help can be of particular value for long absences, such as a medical leave. When you have colleagues out of the office for a month or more, it’s better to be up front with your boss about what you can or can’t do than to allow your or another’s work to significantly suffer.
Helping colleagues while they’re out of the office will increase the workload. But with the right strategies, you can keep up on the basics of your work while also making sure their most critical tasks get done.