Managing vacations for a global team

It’s no longer unusual for teams within organizations to span different countries and cultures. While there are many benefits to this, one of the challenges for leaders of these global teams is navigating everyone’s vacation schedules.

Employees within a single team may have completely different holiday calendars, laws and customs. Most people are familiar with their own country’s vacation patterns, but few are fluent in the intricacies of everyone else’s. Managers who are used to vacation occurring in August or over Christmas may find themselves caught off-guard when their team members are suddenly absent in September. When this happens, they may not have the power to permit or deny time off — but they will be left scrambling to keep everything on track.

Most global managers cognitively grasp that each country has its own time-off practices. But even so, it can be logistically challenging to coherently incorporate divergent rhythms and practices in a way that respects differences while still making sure that the work gets done.

Fortunately, there is a series of productive steps global leaders can take to get projects completed while still respecting other cultures’ practices.

First, create a master team schedule. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact days people will take vacation, note the period when they willprobably be out. Map out the relevant major holidays for each culture you’re interacting with, so you will be better prepared to predict the ebb and flow of work cycles for your diverse team, even if they don’t share their time off in advance.

Next, create a work coverage plan. Get your team involved in this process. For example, a project manager we know who was leading a team with members from three global regions felt increasingly helpless as revolving vacations continually disrupted the workflow. After discussing it with a senior colleague, she put the problem back on the team and invited them to offer suggestions for how they could meet their shared obligations despite being out at various times. The team produced ideas that worked in their own cultures and which the manager may never have come up with on her own. Even better, once they were implemented, they were viewed as legitimate, had broad support and were easier to uphold.

In some cases, the team may not be receptive to co-creating rules for itself. If this happens, put simple processes in place so those who are out can easily catch up and make up missed time.

Last, adjust as necessary. Once you have the process and protocols in place, ensure that expectations are followed consistently. Then, if you find yourself with too much work and too few people to do it, you will already have a starting point for addressing the issue. In some cases, vacation times may be flexible; in others, it may be necessary to adjust the timeline of the project.

As a team leader, it’s in your best interest to work with your colleagues in a way that produces positive results. But that can be tough when differing cultural expectations on time away interfere with a project’s timeline. Rather than being caught off-guard by cultural differences, managers should proactively find out about their team members’ holiday patterns, and then put a plan in place that keeps the team on track without sacrificing the manager’s sanity.

(Melissa Hahn is the author of the intercultural children’s book “Luminarias Light the Way.” Andy Molinsky is a professor of international management and organizational behavior at the Brandeis International Business School.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate