In November 2013, Ooshma Garg, CEO of Gobble, a company that ships ready-to-cook dinners throughout California, had a really bad day, though hers wasn't as bad as the general manager's: His appendix burst. The GM left work immediately and was out for three months. There would be no training of a replacement, transition period, or even any communication between him and the company--he was that sick. Unfortunately for Garg, her GM was also head of warehouse operations and one of just five employees. "It was a cataclysmic event," Garg says.
Whether absences come as a surprise or are planned, they can hit hard, assuming your business is not top-heavy with employees who can easily plug the hole left by an absentee. Including both direct and indirect costs, the financial burden of employee absences averages 8.7 percent of payroll annually, according to a Mercer survey of almost 300 companies of all sizes in every major industry segment. The good news: While a leave will inevitably stretch a startup, it may strengthen it in the long run. There are several steps that your small business--even a solo venture--can take now to make such events less dire.
Making a record of business processes and passwords is essential, says Joey Price, CEO of small-business consulting firm Jumpstart:HR. Garg learned this lesson the hard way. Immediately after her GM's departure, she set up a war room with the GM's second-in-command and documented all necessary steps for keeping hundreds of deliveries rolling every day. Happily, the GM eventually recovered and returned to work. Garg is proud of what was accomplished during his absence, but says "it's never enough. We've since been much more strict about checklists and playbooks."
Michele Tsucalas of Michele's Granola once struggled with employee absences; more work had to be absorbed by each member of her small team. But her own maternity leave last year led her to hire a part-time business manager and to promote several employees to manager's roles overseeing ingredient and supply ordering, employee scheduling, and kitchen operations, jobs Tsucalas had handled previously. "My leave accelerated this very positive change," she says. "It forced me to get out of the way."
"You want to make sure at least two people are trained on every single function," says Price. Today at Gobble, warehouse employees are learning marketing and customer service reps help with inventory. Garg learned "how to handle every emergency that could occur on our website" when the sole in-house engineer went on a honeymoon.
No matter how well you prepare, expect to adjust on the fly. When the Israel-based CTO of OwnerListens, a customer feedback company based in Palo Alto, California, was called away unexpectedly for two weeks of reserve duty for the Israeli military, the firm had excellent documentation. The CTO volunteered to work nights by hiking from his field position to his car so he could call in, says Adi Bittan, company co-founder and CEO. Still, progress on product development slowed dramatically over the two weeks; no one else on the team had the CTO's level of knowledge. In response, the company created documentation covering every role and identified backup engineers who could fill in when needed. Today, says Bittan, "even someone brand new can come in and take over fairly quickly."