Help! My boss has gone on holiday and left me with a pile of work!

Poor you, that’s not a great position to find yourself in. First of all though, how on earth did you get here? Did your boss just wave, say ‘see ya later’ and disappear off to some beach? Or did you have an actual handover discussion before their holiday, where things were explained and you were able to ask questions, given people to contact if you got stuck – and now you’re feeling out of your depth? I’m willing to bet the truth is probably somewhere in between.

What can you do? Try these suggestions:

Check you’ve got the right priorities
First, identify what you think are the most urgent priorities and draw up a list. Consider who else needs to be involved (and when) to keep tasks on track. Ask a colleague – a peer or team-mate – to take a look and make suggestions about who you can ask for help should you need it.

Connect with colleagues
Unless you’re a team of one, chances are your manager has allocated work to others in your team as well as to you. Gather together and meet – probably as you normally do on a regular basis when the boss is around – to ensure you all know who’s doing what during this holiday. Share tips and ask for them.

Ask the experts
It’s unlikely you’re the only person who can do this stuff, whatever it is. I think it’s perfectly OK to as an expert for advice. Note: asking for an expert’s ‘advice’ sounds a whole different idea to asking for their ‘help’. You’re not helpless: you have people around you who know the stuff you need to know. You just need to craft questions to get them ready to give advice, such as ‘what are the options?’ ‘If x happens, what would your advice be?’ ‘How else can we …?’

Decide what to carry and what to drop (for now)
Once you’ve established priorities, realised you’re not alone and asked for expert input you should be all set. But what if you still just have too many tasks and not enough time? It might come down to a hard reality check; after all, your team is a person short for as long as your manager is on holiday. At your team huddle, take soundings about what you need to drop, at least in the short term. Could someone else take on some or all of this task? Or is it a case of deciding with your team-mates that something will simply have to wait, and how you’ll explain that to stakeholders.

Ask the boss
This option is really a last resort: OK if there’s an emergency, but drip, drip-emailing your vacationing boss about the routine stuff won’t be appreciated. Again I’d recommend discussing with team-mates before hitting send. They may also have some questions that only the manager can answer, in which case you can compile a single team email that the holiday maker can answer in one reply. What if there’s a genuine emergency? Hopefully you’ve already agreed the procedure if that should happen. Ideally there’s another senior manager you can turn to, who will step in. But if there isn’t? You’ll need to get in touch: a  text? A simple subject line in an email? Ideally there’s an agreed ‘bat signal’ that your manager will recognise as serious and know they need to get in touch. If the technology / wi-fi permits, schedule a video call so you can talk in real time.

Review on their return
When your boss gets back from holiday – laden with delicious treats to thank you all for covering in their absence – it’s time to review progress, share ideas, and hand back the tasks that are normally their responsibility. Be sure the discussion covers ‘what worked well?’ ‘what didn’t work so well?’ and ‘what can we learn for the future?’ specifically in terms of holiday cover and workload.

You may find this post useful: ‘Help! My boss expects me to work late all the time!’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’.


Image credits:
SOS Rubber Stamp @chrisdorney – Deposit Photos
Business Risk @mangsaab – Deposit Photos
Businessman in risk @beachboyx10 – Deposit Photos

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