How short-staffed companies are saving vacation this summer

July 21, 2011: 11:08 AM ET

With thin staffs and a slowly improving job market, employers can't just let employees take vacation whenever they want, but they also can't risk damaging morale. This summer, a few firms are getting creative.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- This summer, most of the outdoorsy employees at ski manufacturer Epic Planks will be getting their hands dirty in the shop, where they compress fiberglass and plastic into custom-made skis, with nary a vacation day.

But rather than cursing the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company for their dearth of long-weekend camping trips, they're gleefully anticipating taking extra time off in the winter.

That's because founder Bill Wanrooy and his partner will double up to two weeks of vacation time that workers decide not to take in the summer, which is Epic Planks' busy time for building skis and snowboards to be sold in the fall.

Those who accepted the offer will instead enjoy up to four weeks of vacation in the winter. The idea stemmed from last summer's experience, when last-minute vacation requests left the small business so short-staffed that Wanrooy and his co-founder had to work 12-hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, to keep up with production demand.

"For all of our employees, skiing and snowboarding is their passion, so that allows them to maybe sacrifice a little bit now, but the rewards pay off later," says Wanrooy. "This is our first summer of doing it, but the reception has been great. Everybody loves it."

Epic Planks isn't the only company getting creative with summer staffing. Companies are asking employees to plan their own vacation coverage, requesting that vacationers send out memos to avoid any unwanted surprises, says Michael Erwin, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder.com. They're also cross-training employees to cover for their colleagues during time off, and bringing in temporary staff when needed.

These companies' efforts point to the fact that while many companies are not staffed as heavily as they have been in previous years, they nevertheless recognize the importance of vacation time.

"It comes back to productivity," Erwin says. "If your people are burned out, you're going to have less productive, less creative people. It's the responsibility of employers to say, 'You need to take time out of the office.'"

That's exactly what owner Darcey Ohlin-Lacy does with her employees at Watermark Design, a web design and ad agency in Charlottesville, Va. She regularly asks staffers they've scheduled their vacations until she gets a commitment from them for at least a long weekend.

"I ask that they take vacations," says Ohlin-Lacy. "In our business, if you don't take vacations, you do burn out."

She even hired a junior designer in May to cover an anticipated uptick in workload for the summer. "For us to train a freelancer on each project is way more time-consuming than to just have someone who knows the brands we're working with," she explains.

Indeed, a CareerBuilder.com survey found that one in five employers plan to hire this summer, and 57% of those open positions will be permanent.

The hiring plans are recognition that that staff members who have weathered the recession have themselves grown weathered and that it's time to beef up the ranks, says CareerBuilder's Erwin. "Companies are starting to hire more and bring on people who can support the people who have been doing the work for the last two years," he says.

Companies that want to take on temporary staff to cover for employees on vacation ought to take a second look at the pool of job candidates they've previously rejected, argues Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, an associate professor at London Business School. Often, those individuals are qualified but lost the position to someone even more skilled.

Another likely source is a staffing firm that specializes in employees with the skills you need, since good agencies will have long-term relationships with employees and can ensure they have the necessary technical skills and knowledge.

It's often tempting to think that you can just get anyone for a position that's temporary, says Fernandez-Mateo. But it's best to think twice before taking that approach. "If you're hiring them for only a few weeks, they need to hit the ground running. You cannot train them."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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