26-Jun-2023 by Allison McMillan

Read Time: Approx. 5 minutes

Beating the Heat of Summer PTO: An Engineering Leader's Guide to Staying Cool

Here in the Northern hemisphere, summertime is just starting. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, it's beautiful. But it also signals something else... for many, it signals a change in routine. For those with school-aged kids, the rhythm of life shifts dramatically from the school year schedule, and everyone seems to have vacation on their minds. If you're an engineering leader, this period often means revisiting estimates or roadmaps, accommodating various vacation schedules, and managing the constant revolving door of who's in the office and who's out this week.

1. Simplify Tracking of Team Availability

During the summer, the challenge of tracking who's available or out can mount as vacations accumulate. It's not uncommon for team members to be reachable only via email or Slack on certain days. Having a clear overview of everyone's availability can be beneficial for both managers and teammates. It's essential that your team has a concise checklist to follow when preparing to be out, which should typically include steps such as submitting time-off requests to the official HR system, updating adjacent and relevant calendars like their individual calendar and a team calendar (including noting "email/slack only" time), and setting Slack statuses. I also highly recommend a vacation or stop emoji. Several HR systems and Slack PTO integrations can automate this process and help in maintaining transparency.

2. Implement an Easy Out-of-Office (OOO) Template

If a team member is headed out for longer than a week, it's helpful to have an easy template for them to fill out before being OOO. A document (or GitHub issue) containing all of the critical information about various projects in flight also helps prevent being pinged or having to ping someone when they're out. Don't forget to do this when you're going on PTO as well! Here are a few items to put on the template:
  • Project in progress: create one entry for each project in progress including the information below. What is the project/ticket/initiative being worked on? If possible, provide a direct link to where the information lives in case anyone needs to access the work in progress while the main point person is out.
  • Who's taking it over (if anyone): If this work is being handed off to someone, or even just "babysat" but someone during PTO time, explicitly say who that person is and how to contact them.
  • Any important notes or things to know: This doesn't have to be a full project write-up, but mostly just important things to note. For example "waiting on x" or "should start with a spike answering at least x, y, and z". Especially if the work is expected to continue while you're out, think of this as transition notes, or even reminder notes for when you or your teammate is back.
  • Level of urgency: Clearly state what the level of urgency is for a certain project/ticket/initiative. This can be anything from very critical and work will be fully passed off so that it can continue while away to intending for the item to be put down or paused until you (or the point person) returns. Even if something is expected to be fully paused until returning, it's good to list it as a project so that if there is a question about it, it's clear who they can go to and that it won't be picked up again until the person returns.

3. Set Clear Expectations for Transitioning Out for PTO

How many times have you been pinged on your first day of PTO or felt the need to ping someone because you had a question almost immediately after they left? Or maybe you accidentally pinged someone because you didn't see that they were, indeed, out on PTO.

Setting clear expectations for someone going on vacation limits this from happening. Folks know who to go to for questions, they know what work is continuing and what is paused, they can clearly see in a slack channel, slack status, or on a calendar that a person is out. The items above shouldn't take someone more than 30 minutes to complete and it helps so many people do their jobs effectively while one (or many) individual(s) is out.

4. Have a plan for transitioning folks back in from PTO

The day folks dread... that first day back from vacation. Emails have piled up, there are notifications galore, you need to find all the information and company happenings that you missed while you were out, and even home routines are brand new again.

Allow the returnees a day or two to catch up, and if you're a manager, provide them with a summary of what they missed. Encourage them to ask questions and take time to settle back into the workflow (especially if someone was out for 2 weeks or longer!). For leaders, it's ok for you to take this time and space too! Give yourself permission to do so. Finally, if someone handed off all of their tickets or work before they left, make sure they know what they're coming back to and what work to pick up.

As a manager, you've got some particular follow-ups and to-dos as you recognize how many people will be out of the office (or even if there is only 1 person out at a time but they're back to back on the same team or project). First, in the past, I've created a document titled something like "so you're going to be out of the office" that provides everyone with an easy checklist and an example or two of what these things look like. Second, don't be afraid to adjust timelines and expectations as a result of PTO and be vocal about it. Because PTO is often requested closer to the time off, it's harder to predict the impact at the start of the quarter. Regular weekly updates or communications are a great time to call out projects that are at risk or that need an updated timeline as a result of factoring in PTO. This should not prevent _anyone_ from taking PTO or feeling bad about doing it, but to not raise the impact on work in progress frequently can lead to overworked engineers towards the anticipated ship date or bringing up concerns too late. In the future, you'll also be more aware of times when there are a lot of folks taking PTO and adjust timelines in advance to take that into consideration. Finally, make sure to ask people when they're back how it was! This goes a long way in encouraging people to take time off and transitioning back to work afterwards.

Embrace the summer season and have a fantastic vacation!

people in an office with an ideallic setting outside, some working and some not

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