Commentary: Painful memories of being rostered for work during the holidays

LONDON: It has been hard to concentrate on Christmas this year.

The first work bash I went to came just as Theresa May decided to cancel a big parliamentary vote on her Brexit plan. The second was held the same night her party’s MPs voted on whether to ditch her as their leader.

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ONE ANGUISHED CONFESSION

The first time things began to feel Christmassy was at a Fleet Street women’s party, where I heard a senior editor make an anguished confession about one of the great festive season traditions: The holiday leave roster.

For the first time in years, she was taking off every day from Christmas to New Year, leaving a team of underlings behind to slog through without her. 

She had never done this before. She felt dreadful. But trying to arrange holidays with half a family in another continent had left her with no other choice.

Journalists, like nurses and bus drivers, work through all types of holidays, which makes us unusually practised roster wranglers.

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WORKING OVER THE HOLIDAY A PAIN

Yet as I listened to that editor talk, I had a disturbing thought. I have heard a lot of managers, inside and out of newspapers, fret about the duty they feel to share the pain of holiday working with their teams and every one of them has been a woman — including me in a former life. 

Maybe men feel the same guilty pangs about this stuff but don’t bother carrying on about it. Or is this yet another tedious example of the need women feel to prove themselves in the office?

Happily, I do not think it is. When I started asking around I soon uncovered a rich list of roster crimes committed by women and men alike.

ALONE ON CHRISTMAS

The worst tale came from a man who once had a female boss in London who religiously booked up all the best holidays for herself, then stuffed the roster with minions to make sure she could relax uninterrupted.

One year, her team included a newly married and carless junior who was supposed to spend Christmas Day with his new bride’s family hundreds of miles away.

She insisted he work on Christmas Eve, even though there were no trains the following day. He ended up spending Christmas Day alone in his flat in London.

No one had been through anything like last year’s mess at Ryanair, which suddenly announced it was cancelling hundreds of flights because of problems with its pilots’ rosters.

PAINFUL MEMORIES

Yet the stories I heard made me wonder why there is not more management research into holiday scheduling. It is hard to think of anything that exposes the divide between the conscientious and the cunning so deftly.

Everyone I spoke to had a painful memory of being dudded by craftier colleagues. There were the people who kept a lookout for new rosters like ravening hawks and pounced ahead of everyone else to book the best times off.

There were the workers with families in distant countries who insisted on taking every Christmas off but refused to make up for it by working more in Easter or summer.

There were the bosses who swiped the best days for themselves or left it so late to finalise plans that their fuming teams had trouble booking holidays, an offence I think I committed myself when last left in charge of a roster. 

On and on it went, yet the misery was not relentless. A few people reported working for bosses who diligently started planning team leave months ahead. The best managers first asked for willing volunteers to try to sort out a more agreeable division of spoils.

TRANSPARENCY

Some used apps such as Google Docs that keep a pleasingly transparent record of who has worked when throughout the year. One person told of a company where bosses planned leave two Christmases ahead, so anyone missing out in one year could be assured of victory the next. 

I cannot see this working at an office where staff turnover is high, but I admire the general sentiment.

There are doubtless many superior ploys and I would be glad to hear of them. Meanwhile, anyone who has come up with a truly fail-safe way of dealing with roster ruin is wasted. 

They should go immediately to Westminster. If they can figure out how to solve a plight as perennially baffling as the roster, fixing the farce of Brexit should be a pushover.

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. 

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