Thursday, January 31, 2013

So you're sick. Or want to go on vacation.

I cover taking time off for being ill (Making People Ill, Part 1: Being Ill Yourself) and managing time off for employees who are ill (Making People Ill, Part II: Management and Illness) in previous blog posts.

Today we're going to cover how to actually leave the office at the office and still be viewed as a professional who is both a) competent and b) allowed to leave the office again. We'll also discuss how these are ideas to pass on to folks you manage or work with that will also make them look sterling when they may not be feeling quite so well.

Redundancy Department of Redundancy: A lot of corporate theories abound that being the only person that knows X in the company means you have job security for life.

For example, when I was in my last year of middle school, I was an assistant in the office for one period per day.  There was a lady there, who was mean to everyone, including me. However, she taught me how to manage the attendance in the ancient computer systems and eventually warmed up to me. Then she went on vacation. Apparently, she would only ever show students how to do that and only students in their last year at middle school, shortly before her annual vacation. As a result of frozen funding for schools and this practice should she could literally never be fired. In order to get their funding the school had to use the automated system, and she had been present and attended the classes on how to use it; she could not be fired for insubordination or no one would be using the system, and the school would lose its grants. I had taken extensive notes on how to use the system, which she swore that I should keep to myself, but I may have left in the school president's inbox on my last day of classes. I didn't enjoy middle school (not sure who remembers it fondly) but I was pretty sure it would be much worse without those grants, and that could happen at any time if that lady got taken out by a bus.

And that's kind of the moral of the story: attempting to horde information usually ends poorly for someone, and you (or the person hording it) are gambling on who that will be.  The guy who knows the code base like the back of his hand, full of spaghetti code and trap doors who doesn't show the new kids how to play in his sand box may be quite overwhelmed when the company gets tired of it and brings in a completely new repository and coding language to turn everything over into. They may not know how it's coded now, but they know what they want, and their know they can build it themselves, outsource it, or purchase a ready-made system. When that happens, the guy whose been hording the knowledge can either get on board the train or get run over (and get laid off).

As a manager, and an employee, it behooves you to build redundancy into your role. You don't want another person doing the exact same job that you do, but you do want someone who knows what you're working on, kind of how you do it, and can do it--at least temporarily--if you want to go on vacation or take a day off. Sometimes a car requires you take a day off to take it to be fixed. Sometimes a basement floods. Your boss isn't going to be okay with you leaving for a day (or more) and there being no one available who knows the status of your work. There will always be emergency projects that spring up that you can't have spooled up someone on, and there will always be more complex items that are just too complex for someone to handle while you are out. But making a good faith effort to cover all your bases goes a long way towards the patience of your boss and others who may be waiting on the results of that work you're not doing because you're out.

This also applies to people that you manage. I generally manage developers, testers, designers, etc. I also manage under a Scrum/Agile process, so an Extreme Programming technique, called pair programming, is not that uncommon. This is where two developers work a problem together, usually with one typing and the other one reading along/discussing the issue. They work out problems as they go. Some companies think this is a waste, but studies have found that paired programmers move faster than one programmer alone, and produce more quality work. They also transfer knowledge; so, for example, if one half of the pair is out sick, the other half can keep going. Whatever work you do, having folks spend a half hour every couple of days with another person on your team to get abreast of what they're working on is not a bad idea; people can get an idea in a status meeting, but there's really nothing like sitting together and setting time aside to chat and ask questions.

This is, in general, a good idea for unexpected outages. If you know you're going to be out, specifically schedule time with the person who will be "covering" for you while you're out. Honeymooning, giving birth, visiting family, or just stay-cationing at home, how awesome will it be if not one calls you in a panic while you're out?

Access/No Access: when you are out, what is your available level of access (if any) to work? If you are out sick, can you work from home? Are you available in emergencies only, or are you at the ER throwing up your guts and totally not available at all? If you're on vacation, will you be checking work email occasionally (and charging for that time, because, well, none of us work for free)? Will you be available for an emergency phone call, or will you be out jet skiing?

When you contact work to let them know you are out because of an unexpected outage, you need to clearly communicate at that time what you're availability will be. If you need to sleep all day, you may just say you're unavailable. If you can work from home, you should let people know when you're there and when you're not (as noted in my post on Perception v. Reality).

Despite the fact that you are often very popular and/or vitally needed at the office, you are allowed to be sick if you are sick, and that can and does include the ability not to answer the phone or check email so you can recover. Likewise, if you are going on your honeymoon, its okay to ignore work email. But that also means you need to have set up someone to cover you in advance (as noted above) and, as also noted above, you need to have a clear communication plan in effect and working.

Clear Communication: People need to be able to contact you in an emergency. If you manage other humans, there should always be a way to reach you. Whether or not you pick that option up/check that option is where clear communication comes in.

Clear communication = communicating to others about what your availability is, in a format they are most likely to see/review. This means emailing the general office, calling people who are remote that talk to you regularly, and talking to people like your boss or direct employees in person. It means that people who need things know where to go to get what they need (or try to get what they need) if you are not available. It is also how you communicate what your availability will be (if any) while you are out, across whatever devices you feel comfortable being available on.

So, if someone drops off a baby at the office with your name safety pinned to it, they have some recourse for themselves, child protective services, and of course, finding you. It also means that you have some ability to check in, keep things from piling up, and/or decide not to take a phone call from work because you've told them you won't be available.

Clear communication does not equal (=!) getting people to accept things about your outages. Some people will call even if you say you're not available. Some people will forget that you're going. Use appropriate communication to let people know your availability, access, and who can help them while you're gone, and you've done as much as you can. Acceptance is really up to them at that point.

Even if they're your boss.

Especially if they are your boss.

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