columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

What is a reasonable policy for approving last-minute schedule changes or days off? I'm new to management and have a team of six. So far, I've approved last-minute schedule changes because I understand that life happens. However, I think that I've been too relaxed.

I had about 14 last-minute requests over the last four weeks, ranging from finishing the day from home to working the entire day from home to taking the day off. The frequent changes result in multiple project shifts and sometimes delays. We haven't had any major catastrophes, but I don't want it to get that far.

Each person on my team is unique and many have family situations that play into this, from serious family illness to being a single parent, and I don't want to be unreasonable. For example, one person has a parent who is seriously ill and will leave early or ask to work from home to drive them to their appointments. This person has a scheduled work-from-home day to allow for flexibility due to this, but appointments often come up on other days. Other team members have children and will ask to leave early to get them from the bus and finish the day from home. Multiple doctor appointments, a few family emergencies, sick days, and funerals have also come up over the last few weeks.

I want to say yes, no questions asked, on funerals and sick time...and family emergencies...and all of it! Life is messy and I want to be as supportive as possible. However, the volume and resulting disruption in project work is becoming a problem, and not all of our work can be completed from home. It also seems unfair to the people who never have last-minute schedule requests. What's a fair policy that supports my team while still maintaining the work we need?

(As a side note, scheduled work-from-home days and days off are much less of a problem. If we know when someone is unavailable ahead of time, we can schedule assignments accordingly. This also allows me to make sure that there are enough people present to keep things moving smoothly.)

Green responds:

The question to ask should always be, "What's the impact of this on our ability to get work done at a high level over the long-term?" If you can give people flexibility without causing serious disruption, you should--because, as you point out, life is messy. And being flexible and accommodating is how you attract and retain good employees.

That said, some jobs do require working in the office during certain hours, and it can legitimately cause disruption when you have a bunch of last-minute schedule alterations to work around. The thing I'd want to know is: How disruptive is it? If it's pretty minor, I'd try to err on the side of continuing to be flexible. After all, illnesses and child care emergencies and so forth will always cause some degree of disruption; that's just how it goes when you employ humans. But if the disruption is more than minor, then yes, you probably need to look at changing something.

In your case, one reasonable approach would be to say that last-minute requests to work from home or to take a partial day off should be saved for emergencies or illness. That would allow people to continue doing it for illness, doctor's appointments (which fall under health stuff and are just part of the deal when you employ people), funerals, or personal emergencies, but would discourage people from the more optional things, like leaving early to pick up a kid from the bus stop and finish the day from home.

With your employee who wants to leave early or work from home to drive her sick parent to appointments: If it's truly impacting the work, it would be reasonable to say something like, "I want to be as accommodating to you as possible, but I also need to balance it against the needs of the team as a whole. I know you can't always schedule appointments for your work-from-home days, but are there other things we can do to minimize the time you're away from the office?" Simply having a conversation about this might help solve it; the person may not be aware that what she's currently doing is a problem. (It might also make sense for her to take intermittent FMLA for the time she needs.) But also, if this would be solved by you having more advance notice of her schedule changes, ask for that! That would probably be far easier for her to do.

As for whether giving flexibility to people who ask for it is unfair to the people who never request it, I'd argue no. It's to their benefit, too, to work for an employer that allows this kind of flexibility, even if they don't need it right now, because they could need it in the future. Most people will appreciate knowing that it's there, as long as they don't routinely end up picking up other people's slack. That last part is important, though; if they are having to bear the brunt of their co-workers being away without notice so frequently, then you need to take another look at the question of impact (because that very much counts as impact).

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