Handling an annual leave backlog with the phased end of the SDLT holiday

As conveyancer’s breathe a sigh of relief that the 30 June SDLT frantic deadline has passed, thoughts of a well-deserved break over the summer will no doubt be at the forefront of their minds. And the opportunity is real now that lockdown restrictions are being lifted across the nation – with travel abroad now more accessible.

For employees, there’s no doubt that time off is well deserved following such a prolonged and torrid period of working extra hours; but with continuing backlogs in the conveyancing ecosystem – and the £250,000 SDLT nil rate band expiry at the end of September – it’s a perilous time for managers to agree to an influx of holiday requests.

For employers facing or likely to face a situation of being short-staffed, declining some requests may be the only option as the workload and pressure for people in property shows no signs of diminishing. Nevertheless, mishandling staff holiday requests could cause real upset in the workplace – creating disengaged employees, or at worst, losing a valuable member of the team who feels aggrieved enough to put forward a discrimination claim.  It’s vital to find ways to mitigate the risks of employees feeling hurt due to the holiday system, whilst keeping staffing levels at an acceptable level to maintain client satisfaction.

Two key reasons for this annual leave pressure pot

  1. Freedom Day whilst Covid numbers rising

The lockdown easing milestone, termed ‘Freedom Day’ in England, of 19 July, meant that  Covid restrictions such as mask wearing, the 2-meter rule were lifted and theatres, cinemas and night clubs have reopened, amidst confusion and apprehension from many.

In addition, the change that will contribute most to employees checking their passports are still in date, is that anyone vaccinated with two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine can now travel to over 130 countries on the ‘amber list’, and importantly, not have to isolate for 10 days on return. This list includes many Brit favoured destinations – France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy which has encouraged a flurry of people booking their next escape from the UK.

Managers will not only be faced with the period of annual leave being requested to take a holiday, but a real need to factor in the risk of additional time for an employee to quarantine – should one of those amber countries move to the ‘red list’ while away.

Additionally, it’s clear that the relaxing of restrictions will also exacerbate the spread of Covid, particularly as some people are unaware that being double vaccinated will not stop them from catching the virus; they can still become ill and require time off work – there’s simply a reduced chance that they will be hospitalised.

  1. Abundance of annual leave days for many conveyancers

Many conveyancing teams have taken advantage of the temporary change in the Working Time Regulations brought in during the coronavirus pandemic, where they were allowed to carry four weeks of holiday into the next two holiday years.  This was welcomed by many conveyancing practices to continue to service the sheer volume of transactions during the SDLT holiday.

However, with respite in sight, and guidance accompanying the amended regulations stating that “employers should do everything reasonably practicable to ensure that the worker is able to take as much of their leave as possible in the year to which it relates…” – it’s clear that the abundance of unused annual leave may very soon be cashed in.

What do conveyancing team managers need to consider to resource their teams effectively and keep clients happy?

Holiday policy

It can be a challenge at the best of times to manage multiple holiday requests, e.g. in the summer period, but being aware of your minimum staffing levels and having a well drafted holiday policy will help to create fairness in decision making.

Prevention is always better than cure and a good policy will set critical boundaries. It goes without saying that your holiday policy should be clear, fair and widely communicated through managers, on noticeboards and online, especially if you have an online booking system. If it’s too relaxed you may be left short-staffed; whilst if it airs on the side of being more vigorous, it can provide a robust framework to follow.

Holiday policy best practice:

  • Allocate holidays on a first-come-first-served basis
  • Limit the number of people in the team who can be off at the same time
  • Limit the number of senior people in the organisation who can be off at the same time
  • Specify any times when leave cannot be taken and the reasons (for example could be the period in the run up to the September 30 SDLT deadline)
  • Communicate clearly any maximum number of consecutive annual leave days
  • Set expectations around special leave and unpaid leave
  • Reserve the right to say no to individual requests
  • State the request period the employee needs to provide e.g. 30 days’ notice for peak times or for quieter times one day for every day they want to take.

Clashing dates

Clashing dates – where two people in the same team are adamant they need the same time off – is frequently a problem in periods such as school holidays, where parents are juggling childcare and wanting to spend time with their families.

It’s only fair to listen to both employees who want the time off. You’ll need to ask questions to obtain all the facts and get to the bottom of why they need to go at that particular time. At the very least, if they are listened to and their request has been genuinely considered, they will feel less aggrieved and may even be able to change their plans.

Ideally, your holiday policy should explain clearly how leave clashes will be dealt with, for example by stating ‘peak periods’ where a maximum number of people can be off or asking employees to give two potential time-off options if there is a clash.

Alternative ways to incentivise annual leave allocation

In addition to first-come first-served, another way to choose ‘fairly’ who gets to take the dates off is to look at who has completed the most overtime or unpaid hours, if the data is clearly available to all relevant parties.

Or, how about offering some sort of extra sweeteners for whoever gets the short straw? First dibs on holiday time next year, extra time off or some ‘early dart’ allowances for later in the year. Getting to leave early on another less busy day is a great way to say thank you for their commitment.

You may need to bring Christmas and New Year holidays into the equation, would some of the team opt for a longer Christmas break to cover for others over the summer period?

If you are only short-staffed during certain recurring ‘peak’ periods, you may want to consider a rotating priority leave schedule for those peak times to ensure ‘fairness’ for all.

What’s important, is that whatever mechanism you choose to allocate annual leave, that it is fair and transparent e.g. outlined in your holiday policy, which your staff have read and agreed to.

Temporary staffing solutions

For short periods of pressure, ‘temp’ staff’ can provide you with the ideal flexibility without the long-term commitment of adding another salary to the team. However, in the current climate you may find few available, and even if you do find what you need – each time you bring in a ‘temp worker’ you will need to train them on your systems and procedures.

Alternative options could be to second an employee from another part of the business who is currently under-utilised; arrange for a legal trainee or apprentice to spend time in the conveyancing department; or if you are confident that you can forecast the duration you will be short-staffed – employ a conveyancer on a fixed-term basis.

Flexible working / homeworking

If some employees need to take annual leave e.g. for childcare reasons, allowing them to work at home and flexibly may help or even remove the need to take long periods of annual leave.

Managers aren’t always the best problem solvers

In some cases, a ‘sort it out between yourselves’ option might be best, where team members are given the opportunity to talk between themselves to find a solution. They may be more persuasive at getting someone else to cover the time or go the extra mile to voluntarily move their holiday to another date.

How to decline a holiday request

Employers have the right to decline any holiday request but it’s important to do it fairly and to give a legitimate reason. It might be particularly difficult though if the employee has stuck their neck out or showed outstanding performance.

If you can’t genuinely accommodate a staff shortage due to a holiday, your policy should be suitably drafted so that the ‘reason’ can be justified using some of the policy statements e.g. leave requests will be refused if:

  • It’s during peak times
  • They cannot be accommodated for operational reasons
  • The worker has not made the request in good time as stated in the policy

If it’s got to be a ‘no’, telling the employee as soon as possible is best, there’s nothing worse than making plans for a relaxing break to have the option taken away with the added pressure and disappointment from family members adding to the frustration.

You will need to make it clear that it is a business focussed decision, not in anyway personal. It’s only courteous to provide the reasoning for your refusal, which will go some way to easing the employee’s frustration.

Cancelling an already approved request

Cancelling a request is not a situation that any employers want; however, you can legally cancel someone’s holiday request if the reason is stated clearly in your employee handbook.

If the employee seems put out, frustrated or angered by your decision, it’s important to address it straight away and try to promote discussion in a constructive way as resentment will impact not only the individual, but those around them.

If you can ward off the spread of negativity, by finding ways to compromise, a denied request could be an opportunity for improved transparency and collaboration with employees, or even a development or learning opportunity for them.

Managing Client Expectations

As the pressure builds again towards the final SDLT deadline in September, it is important to be realistic and accept that lower staffing levels due to summer holidays, longer searches and potential for Covid in a chain may tip the balance so that some transactions will fail to complete before the deadline.

All your staff need to be briefed on managing client expectations. Encourage clients that may not achieve the 30 September deadline to seek tax advice and find out the amount they will need to pay after the deadline. Their estate agents should also make enquiries through the whole chain to find out if the others are still willing and able to proceed if the stamp duty concession is not available.

The importance of a break for all staff

Even if some of your employees are happy to work through the year and would prefer to trade their holidays for cash, many psychologists recommend that holidays are taken for the purpose for which they were intended, enabling staff to detach themselves for a period and switch off physically, emotionally and mentally.

Stress dangers

Working in a busy environment affects people in many different ways and people usually develop their own coping strategies to deal with the effects, but when it’s clear that an employee is not coping, an employer has a duty to assess if stress or burnout might be a cause.

Even if signs are not so obvious, presenteeism occurs when an employee is physically present, but isn’t fully functioning effectively in the work that they are doing, which occurs more frequently in prolonged periods of sustained work.

It’s well documented that having breaks from the work environment is very important for people’s wellbeing and will increase an employee’s effectiveness at their job. Human beings need a chance to restore and refresh to prevent lapses in concentration.

Proactively encourage holiday – at the right time

If holiday allocations have been mounting up, it’s time to undertake a pro-active review of holiday bookings. Think ahead – no employer would want a situation where some employees are carrying up to eight weeks of holidays from 2020 and 2021 into 2022, as workflow will be severely disrupted.

The law requires employers to actively encourage workers to take their holiday.  Under the Working Time Regulations, employers have a right to give employees’ notice to take their holidays, just as employees have to give notice to book holiday, so as soon as the SDLT deadline passes it may be wise to give employees notice to take their holidays.

In the same breath, as circumstances mean that some may have a glut of holidays saved up and available to take in 2022, offering to trade some ‘holidays for cash’ may be the best option for some employees and organisations in these unprecedented times; however, be sure to insist on a reasonable amount of annual leave days to be used as holidays.

Automate to create capacity

Whilst manual processes are prone to human errors, automated processes help your team work smarter, faster, and be more connected. You could save 5-10 hours per week by automating administrative tasks, which could be as simple as sending messages and push notifications through a mobile app to remind clients who haven’t completed their forms. This will not only free up time sending emails and making phone calls, it reduces the time spend reacting to clients chasing for updates.

The inCase mobile app is one tool designed for solicitors to drive efficiencies in client engagement.  The app can be easily integrated with firms’ in-house systems to facilitate ID checking, client communication and automated messaging to update clients. The result, in addition to saving time and increasing profitability, is improved client satisfaction – where you are more likely to receive 5-star reviews and recommendations to gain future business.

Help to Grow Digital

In June 2021, the UK Government launched their ‘Help to Grow’ initiative, enabling small businesses to get free impartial advice on how technology can boost their performance through an online platform. This can be used to fund technology that will enable your legal practice to operate more efficiently, like with the inCase mobile app.

Some businesses will also be eligible to gain a discount of up to 50% on the costs of approved software, worth up to £5,000. The software should help businesses to build customer relationships and increase sales, manage their accounts and finances digitally and make the most of selling online.

Eligible businesses must have between 5 and 249 employees and have been trading for more than 12 months and be registered at Companies House. They must be purchasing the software for the first time. The Government is due to announce further details in Summer 2021.

Summary

For most conveyancing teams right now, there is a pressure point to balance employees’ wellbeing and right to a well-deserved holiday, with ensuring you have appropriate resource to service client demands. It’s important to figure out your priorities, have a solid grasp of options and a clear holiday policy to help you to navigate through each issue as it arises.

Managing the expectations of your staff and clients will go some way to preventing a situation escalating towards an emotional outburst, so the key is to communicate early if problems are foreseen. If staff feel disappointed that they are not permitted holidays, think seriously about ways to mitigate their disappointment.

Many have undoubtedly shown dedication through the last year of turmoil, so thank them sincerely for their commitment and perhaps do something out of the ordinary as a thoughtful gesture e.g. closing the office for a free day off for all.

And last but not least, consider the long-term returns available from investing in new technology, which also shows your team that you are invested in their future and care about their wellbeing, reducing the chances of losing good staff.

 

This article was submitted to be published by InCase as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Conveyancer. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Conveyancer.

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