Before you go
Many things that pile up on our desks during our absence are actually the result of bad forward planning. If you know that something will happen, you need to instruct whoever is replacing you (or at the very least filling in for you) before you leave.
The best way to do this is to think of the most common things you do and that nobody else usually does. Prepare written instructions and have them ready and available for whoever takes over. This is something everyone should really do as a matter of fact, in case they are absent unexpectedly: sickness, accidents and the like do happen! Your replacement, and your employer, will thank you for it.
Ultimately, this is in your own best interest, as it increases the chances that whatever someone else is doing in your place will not require redoing completely once you return. If you know who will temporarily take over when you are absent, it also makes sense to train that person to do things that are too complicated to easily explain through the written word.
Of course, there are things that are difficult to explain or you wouldn’t trust just about everyone with. If you have colleagues with particular skills or you know of someone who could be of assistance, you could leave behind a list of these contacts with phone numbers and email addresses for your replacement. Obviously, this list must be easy to find and quick to access when an issue arises.
Besides the practical side of your work, there will be a certain level of communication to take care of. Paperwork should not be too difficult (if the right information is provided), but email and other messaging systems could be troublesome, especially if you are using a company phone to receive text messages pertaining to business. The best option would be to forward all incoming mail to that particular colleague to take care of it. Let them know you are doing this, and ask them to always include you in outgoing communications so you can follow up after you return.
If you have to give a colleague access to your emails (this is most certainly not recommended, but common practice in many companies), make sure to change your password before you leave AND after you come back, to ensure data security.
Other ways to communicate information
If you are manipulating materials in a particular way that defies description with words, why not try and make a video file or a step-by-step audio recording of it that can be made accessible for a time of disaster? It’s not unheard of and might actually be a good thing for training purposes as well.
While you are gone
The point of a vacation is to leave everything behind and disconnect yourself from work completely. It is, therefore, paramount that you follow these simple rules:
When you come back
Dealing with papers
While someone else may have taken care of day-to-day business, you will most likely be facing a serious amount of papers that have to be dealt with, but – more importantly – some filing related to the stuff someone else has done for you. My advice is: start with the filing! This is the best way to learn about what has happened during your absence and what has been taken care of. Doing the filing first will give you a head start to understanding the remaining papers on your desk: some of them might be irrelevant already (issue taken care of), or easier to understand with the knowledge of previous steps taken by someone else.
Make sure to take enough time to catch up on all the papers and activities during your absence before getting back to regular business. There is no point in doing anything without the proper knowledge of what has transpired before, and that should also be the stance to take when pushed to go into action mode straight away.
Dealing with emails
The best manner to deal with the bulk of your emails is to sort them by thread rather than by date. That way you can look at the large matters first (the ones with the biggest threads) and catch up on a single matter in one go rather than being distracted by all the different issues you come across while looking for the rest of the information on the one matter your try to figure out at that time. Once you have dealt with the bigger issues, it’s time to sort by date again and work your way through from the oldest to the newest … until you are up to date.
During this process, make it a point not to react to any new incoming mails. You may want to read those at intervals, but do not act on them until your backlog is cleared. Believe me: you’ll be able to concentrate better knowing that you have dealt with the pending things before you get going again.
Ask the ClutterMeister
Some pertinent ideas from the 'old office dog' who has seen it all, to help clear away the mess in your office.
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My name is Tilo Flache and it is my mission to help my clients organise and declutter their work spaces.