Strategy Clinic: The cure for the annual holiday headache

My IT team of 15 is unable to meet its workload without using contractors. Most of the staff take holiday during the school...

My IT team of 15 is unable to meet its workload without using contractors. Most of the staff take holiday during the school break. We cannot afford to lose staff by refusing reasonable leave requests, but management does not see the need for extra resources. How can I avoid this in future?

Identify essential activities needed by the business

You need to take stock of your workload if your IT team cannot meet current arrangements, regardless of the summer holidays. Break down the activities to identify your "steady state" requirements, one-off activities, and the rationale for using contractors and whether activities are better undertaken by a managed service.

Identify the key activities that support the business, talk to your end-users to see what services they most value and need. Are there activities that you should not be doing? Are the costs of your services fully understood and justified?

Working with senior management and departmental users, you need to produce a list of core activities that the organisation needs and can be justified. Identify a suitable resource to deliver this service and present it to your management. If you have "lumpy" activities such as technology refresh roll-outs, then use contractors or a managed service. If you have services that are difficult to deliver, consider outsourcing these as there may be benefits from economies of scale that the supplier community can provide.

Your task is to help your senior management to understand their responsibilities in terms of the governance of IT - your situation is not sustainable and represents a risk to the business. Qualitative benchmarking and the use of external advice would be very useful to help to pinpoint your issues.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Group

Convince your board of the value of contractors

A consistent challenge is to do more - and to do it faster - with fewer people. Whether you have 15 staff or 150, or even 1,500 contractors in India, your business will have more opportunities than its IT team can service.

Senior management should prioritise IT initiatives, after receiving your input, and the timing of its delivery. Factors to consider include cash available, the timing of related business initiatives, external events and your resource profile. With these priorities agreed, fixing your holiday resource needs and requirement for consultants will be easier.

Resource profiles must match your industry and strategy. People need holidays, they work better if they are anticipating rest, and they may work harder if you demonstrate respect for their work/life balance.

In return, your staff need to be responsible for making sure they have colleagues who can deputise for them, that documentation is prepared and that the handover is comprehensive. They also need to be flexible. Not everyone can take the same weeks as holiday. Rotate the favourite weeks and look for other ways to compensate and provide incentives if employees' holiday expectations cannot be satisfied. Contractors may help.

Do your directors understand that resourcing with contractors is a common practice in IT? Provide them with the primary arguments:

  • Contractors keep permanent headcount low
  • They are flexible additions only when needed
  • They offer temporary, deep-technical skill
  • They are used in more than half of IT organisations
  • They are a key strategy for the delivery of business priorities.

As a final thought, I strive to set a good example by taking my own holidays, sometimes without the children.

Antony Smyth, partner, Ernst & Young

A question of balancing demand and capacity

It is tempting to say that this is just a capacity planning problem and that you should prioritise activities according to available workload. If we aim to be more creative, what are your opportunities to bring in additional temporary staff? Are there opportunities to extend your workforce at peak times?

You may be able to use staff who have retired only recently or college students who can be trained prior to the summer holidays and then provide cover during this period.

You might find that higher management is more sympathetic to your problem if you demonstrate that you are planning ahead, given that summer holidays are predictable. Perhaps you can also persuade your management team to spend some time on the IT shopfloor, manning the helpdesk. This may help them to understand your predicament.

In the short term, you may have few alternatives to reducing the workload or taking on additional contractors depending on the skills mix of your current group.

Essentially you can only manage two parameters, demand and capacity. Associated with these are risk and quality. Based on your current feedback, you will need to present your case in these business terms and then it becomes a management decision.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

Time off should be built into budgeting plans

Did you plan for holiday and an estimate for sickness when you compiled your budgeting and project timescale plans? If your organisation gives six weeks' holiday a year, a team of 15 can take 1.7 man years, which is more than 11% of your workforce availability. You also have to add sick leave and other possible time-off situations, such as compassionate leave. Basic project and manpower planning should incorporate these sorts of things in, so I am at a loss to know how you have reached this situation.

One assumes from your question that the majority of your team have children at school. Was it ever discussed at interview stage that there might have to be some sacrifices of the coveted holiday periods? If not, how did you envisage you would manage the situation?

Is this problem significantly greater in your IT department than in others? If not, then the general management team has a wider issue to deal with.

Only you can judge whether you will lose people by refusing their holiday requests. But is it reasonable for all of them to want two or three weeks in the same six-week period? Of course, a similar situation may exist at the offices of your employees' partners. And you do not want to be perceived to be tacitly encouraging members of your team to take their children out of school during term time, since this results in quite a severe reaction by the education authorities.

It is a good employee's responsibility to try to minimise the impact of these issues on his place of employment just as it is the employer's responsibility to try to be as flexible and understanding about the needs of employees.

There are four solutions to this problem:

  • You have built this in, so project and other work timescales should not be affected
  • You bring in contractors (who you say you already use, so there should not be a culture problem) to maintain work output levels
  • You have to tell your senior managers that this, quite large, out-take of time availability was not planned for, and they will want to know why
  • You have to tell some of your team that they cannot take the leave they want.

Robin Laidlaw, president, CW500 Club

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