IT Policies

How do you handle help desk staffing during the holidays?


I recently heard from a friend of mine who does tech support at another university. He’s burnt out. In fact, he says in his email: “Work: I [expletive deleted] hate it.”

The things putting my pal under strain will sound familiar to many of you: an understaffed department, capricious managers and high-maintenance end users. The final straw came this holiday season, when my friend’s manager allowed everyone else in the department to take vacation during Christmas week, leaving him as the only person manning the support line phones. My friend’s the last tech standing on a campus of over twenty thousand students and faculty.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know the full details of my friend’s situation. I’m not going to use this space to pillory his manager. His complaints got me thinking, though, about how help desk managers manage their human resources and maintain morale in their departments, particularly around the holidays.

Customer service jobs are stressful. (Just ask anyone working a retail job during the Christmas shopping season!) Let’s face it, customers are not always polite, and even when they are, the very nature of support work is draining because of the empathy and attention required when catering to others. It’s important for employees to have a chance to rebuild their morale by getting a break from their taxing duties.

The winter holidays provide that break for many workers here in the U.S. Lots of industries see a slowdown during this period, and many employees have a chance to take a break from their office work. The help desk doesn’t always have the luxury of shutting down, though. Sometimes techs will be required to stay on call, even when most of the other people in the organization are at home or on vacation, relaxing.

My office doesn’t need full-time help desk services during the holidays, so there’s nothing preventing us from having a vacation. Most of our organization’s staff won’t be in the office either, and most things that might come up can be handled remotely. I’m curious, though, about how managers whose help desks see more traffic handle their holiday staffing.

How do you IT managers out there determine who works the support lines during the holidays? Having to work when everyone else gets the time off can be difficult. How do you maintain those employees’ morale? Bonuses? Comp time? I’d like to hear how you address these issues.

Let’s leverage the group-mind. Weigh in with your experience in the comments.

5 comments
NickNielsen
NickNielsen

As I'm on call 24/7/364 (Christmas off!) AND have education support experience, I'll weigh in on this one. On that campus of over 20.000 people, how many are actually there over the holidays? Most public school districts shut down completely over the holidays. For the two colleges I attended/worked at, only the business office, mailroom, and facilities maintenance office were open over Christmas/New Year, reducing normal campus populations of 3,000 or more to, at most, 25-30 people. Call volume dropped just as drastically. Is the problem the workload or the ???last man standing??? issue? No supervisor will ever make all his people happy with the holiday schedule. You want to make sure as many people as possible get vacation if they want it, but you also have to make sure the work is covered . In this case, it sound's like your friend's manager just took vacation applications until he [almost] ran out of people, without thinking of the consequences; I would probable have scheduled at least two people and made sure they at least got some comp time after the holidays. As far as vacation requests, first-come, first-served is the only way to go. If the newest person in the shop has the time and is the first to request it, he should get it, rather than be denied because everybody senior to him has also asked for time off. In my current retail support job, I don't take vacation during heavy retail periods: three-day weekends, Thanksgiving week, Christmas through New Year's, etc. Maybe it's just me, but I believe my customers deserve my full attention during those periods, not a part-time fill-in. (It's also cheaper to travel outside the ???normal??? vacation periods. :) ) Aside: My military schedule for the holidays was usually week-on/week-off. The single people worked over Christmas week, allowing the people with families to have Christmas off. The married people worked over New Year's, allowing the singles to party down on New Year's Eve. While such scheduling is not usually possible outside the military, I believe supervisors should take family status into consideration when making out holiday schedules.

duckboxxer
duckboxxer

My department has to provide 7AM - 5:30PM on site support. We have a primary and then a backup from our staff of four. On site in DC sucks too. The were kind enough to let us have our backup be remote during the holiday, but this person had to be able to get there within 30 minutes if the primary could not be there. I don't know of anyone whose commute is less than 30 minutes on a normal day.

williamjones
williamjones

It occurs to me that there are a lot of ways that managers can choose to handle this in an equitable fashion. Here are some of my ideas, but I'd like to hear yours. * Managers could set up a holiday staffing rotation. This could be a day-by-day rotation, so everyone gets a couple days off, or a year-by-year rotation, where the employees that worked last holiday season will have the next with their families. * Some organizations handle the reservation of vacation time on a first come, first served basis. Whoever ends up having to cover the desk while everyone else is off could be rewarded with a day or two of comp time when their colleagues are back, or by a slight wage bump for their holiday on-call period. If your company is one that gives senior employees preference when it comes to taking time off, I'd think that there's a real risk for damaging the morale of the employees at the bottom of the totem pole. How do you make sure that things stay equitable?

jlnewmark
jlnewmark

We have about 65 people handling over 160,000 calls a year. Big desk, big volume and only growing. But yes, during the holidays, things slack off a bit. So we use a mixture of strategies. First, people can take off -- but, they can only take off one of the Big Three: day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve. We are officially closed, with on-call for emergencies, on the three "days" themselves. We were asked to work Thanksgiving (we service Canada and Puerto Rico as well as the U.S.) until we showed by metrics that it simply wasn't worth staffing the desk for the 5 or 6 calls that did come in. Second: first come, first served with two caveats -- if your performance is below expectations, you go to the back of the line. And if two people ask for the same slot at the same time, seniority wins. Third: shift work. The people that remain on the desk on those really slow days (this year, we've actually had several due to real doldrums between Xmas and New Year's) may be allowed to go home early or work half-shifts if the call volume permits. This may be scheduled (the "eves" and "day after" usually are), or it may just be the manager or team lead looking at the call volume and shaving an hour or two here and there off peoples' shifts. Note to Nick: Better to keep family status assumptions out of the mix. It's dreadfully close to making a prejudicial judgment based on marital status. The singles may be traveling to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving with distant family. The families may be hosting the dinner or the New Year's eve party. Shoot, the SINGLES may be hosting the dinner for the family to join them.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I understand the caveat perfectly and agree wholeheartedly. Even after 8 years, I'm still getting used to some of the things I can't do or say without creating an "unhealthy" work environment. I apologize a lot and learn from it. The military is a special case. First, even when there's no war, you have to be ready for one, so no more than one or two people are allowed to take vacation over the holidays. Leave scheduling was first come, first served, no questions, unless you were on restriction for some reason. Second, people are usually much further from their homes, making it difficult and expensive to travel for the holidays. For example, the closest I was ever stationed to my family home in upstate New York was Valdosta, GA, a long two-day drive away. Travel from overseas is even more difficult around the American holidays. You had not only the crowds in the airports and the fight with Hertz for your guaranteed car, you also had US Customs. (By far the worst in my experience, and that was [b]before[/b] 9/11.) The only time I was ever home for holidays was if I was traveling between assignments. The accepted procedure was to ask people which week they preferred to work. Almost without exception, those with families preferred to work New Year's week and the singles in the barracks preferred to work over Christmas; asking eventually became nothing more than a formality, but we did ask. We always made sure there was a home open for the singles that wanted it, and more than one married member spent New Year's Eve at the barracks party. Edit: missing punctuation changed meaning

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