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Prepare a holiday handover at work

We’re approaching the holidays again – yes, really! – and if your projects have run like mine this year, your carefully planned deadlines no longer coincide with the dates that you are going to be out of the office.

Note: I’ve written this from the perspective of being out of the office on holiday, but the principles are the same if you are out of the office for other reasons like maternity leave, planned medical absence etc. Just switch up what you have to prepare to get ready for your time away from your desk.

I don’t like going away and leaving my work
in someone else’s hands. Not because I am a control freak (although I suspect
it is partly that) but because something always happens when I am not

However carefully I plan it, I always seem
to end up putting someone else through a stressful time as they have to act on
or resolve an issue while I’m out of the office.

A vacation handover helps you both. It
means you have to think about what might happen and plan for it. It helps your
colleagues deal with stuff while you are away.

So how can you do a smooth holiday handover to your colleagues?

Here are 10 simple ways to leave for your vacation and not worry about what’s going on back at base.

1. Use your email signature to notify of upcoming leave

I’ve seen more and more people using their
email signature as a way to alert people to upcoming out of the office time. It
reads a bit like this:

Email signature, contact details, etc
Advance notice: I’ll be out of the office from Tuesday 14 July until Friday 24 July.

The text is normally in red or bolded (or
both) so it stands out.

I’ve done this and I can report it’s quite effective, although you may get a ton of emails on the day before you are due to leave!

It seems like a sensible thing to do in an environment where you have a lot of messages and people need to know where you are.

2. Plan your handover to a colleague

This might sound obvious but you need to
plan to handover your work. Ideally, you should handover to one colleague. Look
at the resource
plan for the team
and consider who that might be.

Your handoveree (that’s not really a word,
I know) doesn’t need to know everything about the project. They simply need to
be briefed on:

  • Main deliverables during this time, if any
  • Main risks or issues that are currently on the table and might need watching (take them through your RAID log )
  • Main stakeholders and the project sponsor ’s contact details so if anything urgent does come up they know who to talk to
  • Where they can find information about the project
  • Major decisions that should be taken during this time, if any, and what your recommendation would be and/or criteria for making that decision.

Get a free decision log template here

You may have other things to add to that list depending on your project.

Tip: Long before you go, make sure your team has people in it capable of delegating while you are away. This book has some tips to help support your team and manage your own workload.

Elizabeth on the phone

3. Meet your colleague to handover

Set up a meeting with the person who will
be covering for you while you are away. I find that it helps to create a
document with all the key points. They can then use this as a reference while
you are away and update it with anything that changes.

Make sure you are clear on what the
priorities are (or should be) so they only have to focus on the really
important stuff. Remember they have their own job to do too!

If you have an automated approvals process
or a project management workflow, such as the change management process, set up
a delegate for your time away so that you don’t inadvertently stop changes or
processes moving forward while you are away.

For tips on how to talk to someone about
picking up your work, read my guide
to delegating tasks

4. Remind your manager and/or project sponsor

You should tell the key stakeholders on
your project that you are going away. Give them lots of notice.

Let them know who they should talk to when
they can’t talk to you. If it’s that sort of project, let them know how they
can contact you during your vacation, if you are prepared to take their calls.

5. Tell your clients/other stakeholders

It’s a courtesy to let customers, suppliers or key project stakeholders that you won’t be available during your vacation time.

I think it’s better to let them know on the phone or at a regular meeting, but it’s always useful to remind them in an email. They won’t remember, and having it in writing gives them something to refer back to.

Holiday handover email template to use with clients

Hello [name]
I thought I’d remind you that I’m out of the office from [date] to [date]. I can assure that I’ve handed off the important topics to [colleague] who is available to help you during this time. You can reach him/her on [contact details] if you need to get in touch while I’m away.
If it’s not urgent, feel free to email me and I’ll respond to your message on my return.
Kind regards
[your name]

If you want, you can include a statement about the latest progress, what next steps are, what they can be doing while you are off, or something like that.

Personalise as much as you can, especially if you are out of the office for more than a week.

Giving a last-minute-before-you-leave
update is going to reduce the emails you get on your return because they
(hopefully) won’t be chasing for routine status

Elizabeth Harrin working together

6. Set your out of office autoresponder message

Set up an out of office email response
message letting people know that you are away from your desk. You can automate
it to go to internal recipients and then set a different one for external
senders as well, if you’d like to tailor your responses.

Here’s an example of a bad out of office

on annual leave until Friday. I’ll pick up your email on my return.

This doesn’t give the recipient any useful information because they cannot be sure which Friday you are talking about.

And if they have an urgent query, they’ve now drawn a blank as you’ve given them no alternative contacts.

Autoresponder email template

This is a better email template:

I’m on annual leave until Friday 24 July. I won’t be accessing my email during this time. If your question is urgent, please contact:Project Alpha: John Smith (telephone number xxx, email
Queries about invoices: Accounts Payable team (call xxx and choose option 3)
Other enquiries: Emma Jones (telephone number xxx, email

I’ll respond on my return.

List the contacts for each of your projects or major areas of responsibility if you have them (if you don’t, just stick your deputy on the list).

Check with each person that you name that they are happy to cover for you while you are away.

These are likely to be the people that are in your project workbook’s Contacts tab .

Think about whether you want this list of
internal contacts to go to external senders. The amount of spam emails I get, I
wouldn’t want my colleagues’ names to end up on sales people’s mailing lists.
So consider having  a different message
for external senders.

It’s tricky responding to queries when someone you have never heard of before calls you up with a question about a project you know nothing about (that has happened to me).

If in doubt, put your manager as your out of office contact as he or she should be able to direct enquirers to the right person on your behalf. screenshot

7. Update your voicemail message

Remember to update your voicemail message
as well.

If you are out of the office for a day or
so then it probably isn’t worth it unless you get a lot of calls a day. If you
are away for a week then it’s polite to let callers know that you won’t be
returning their calls for a while.

8. Tie up loose ends

Don’t leave your colleagues with admin to
finish off. The point of a handover is not to get someone else to do your boring

Spend a bit of time sorting out your inbox,
delivering on your promises and tidying up your workload so you aren’t leaving
(or coming back to) a massive mess.

Write a to do list of things that are
essential for when you come back, so you don’t spend your first day back in the
office wondering what on earth you were working on before you left.

having tea

9. Plan for a handover back when you return

Schedule time in your diary for your return
so that you can pick the project up from the person who was looking after it
for you. Don’t assume nothing has happened. You never know what they might have
dealt with or done while you were away.


  • Turn off
    your autoresponder email
  • Update
    your voicemail to your standard message
  • Book time
    with your team members so you can catch up on their work progress.

Personally I’m not particularly good at switching off on holiday so I would have checked all my emails anyway and kept up to date in a passive way through that.

But I don’t advocate that: I think holiday time should be for holidays and when you come back you’ll normally have a huge pile of messages to go through.

Make sure that you talk to your cover
person as soon as you can so that you get the context for any of those messages
that relate to the project.

elizabeth at desk

10. Go on holiday and don’t look back


You’ll be more refreshed. Things are in
good hands. And even if they aren’t, I promise
you can sort it all out when you get back. The world will not end.

If you want to think about work people, do
it in the context of buying holiday treats for the team and bring back some
local sweets or something. It’s always nice to thank the people that helped you
while you were off.


These steps
should help you feel more confident about leaving your projects for any length
of time.

And if you are staying back while others are off, here are 7 ways to stay motivated and productive at work during the holidays.

A shorter version of this article first appeared on the PMO Perspectives blog.

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10 simple ways to prepare for vacation at work

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