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Time Off Requests – A Complete Guide for Small Businesses and Startups

Time off is one of the most complex topics you’ll find at the heart of HR, and that’s why you should think about it carefully when running or working at a small business or startup.

As an HR advisor, I’m often asked questions about time off policies and regulations, how much leave employees can take and how employers can manage these requests – it’s not often easy to deal with when you’ve got no HR knowledge after all.

That’s why, in this guide, I’ll take you through the basics of time off management, from what a time off request is to how to handle them at your business, and make sure you do it fairly.

Read on to find out more about it – including a free time off request template.

What is a time off request?

A time off request is a formal request sent to a line manager by their team member to ask for time off – generally speaking,, that time off is annual leave, but it can also be sick leave or maternity leave, although this is not subject to approval.

One important aspect to remember is that all time off should be recorded – whether you’re a team member or an employer. That can take different forms: email, paper, PDF, or you can store it on a specially designed platform.

It doesn’t matter, as long as time off requests is stored securely and you can access them anytime.

Smoothly managing time off requests at your small business or startup

There are four elements you should think about when putting together a process for time off requests for your small business or startup, and that’s mainly to make sure it’s streamlined and followed by your team members.

1. Setting basic rules around time off

All team members should be aware of policies when it comes to time off, and even though some are pretty obvious, it’s better to set clear expectations that will leave no room for doubt or interpretation.

Here’s what you should outline before someone puts in a request:

  • Ask your team to request annual leave in advance – generally, businesses ask for at least two weeks’ notice but depending on the amount of time off requested, you can also make it longer to manage annual leave and the rest properly.
  • Set a restriction on how long a team member can be off – it can be difficult for a business to deal with someone being off for three weeks or more, so perhaps you want to think about setting limits.
  • Make sure you remain flexible for team members who have unexpected leave to take due to obligations – it all depends on why they need the time off. Take it case by case when it's under exceptional circumstances. It will also help you avoid unauthorised absences along the way.
  • Record all your time off – including sick leave, long-term sick leave, compassionate leave, unpaid leave, etc, so you can keep track of it all and build reports to make decisions and iterate on your policies if needed.

2. Building a time off policy

In my experience, a couple of rules are not enough. In fact, I spend a lot of time reviewing employee handbooks for customers, and I know that a time off policy makes it official.

Here are the main reasons why you should think about building your policy:

  • Create a fair environment to work in where the same rules apply to everyone
  • Be covered in case a conflict arises with a team member
  • Encourage team members to take the time off they’re entitled to with clear rules around it

Once the policy is built, it will sit in your company handbook and you can always amend it if needed.

Maybe have a look at our guide on managing absences from work for more details as well.

3. Making information and templates easily accessible

Having a clear set of rules is key to running a successful business, that’s why you should make information about time off requests available to everyone without them having to ask.

It’s also likely that with no information available, no one will remember what the process is. That’s why my first advice would be to save all your relevant documents on a platform that everyone can access.

That can easily be a drive, but if you’d like to make even more of an impact, you can also choose to host your handbook directly in an HR software like Charlie.

That way, all team members have access to the same information at any time and can refer to it whenever they have questions, without you being the blocker for these answers.

Another thing you can think of doing is creating a time-off request form for your team members to have access to, so you don’t have to collect and chase information every time a request comes in.

Time is the most precious thing when you’re working at a small business or startup, and that’s where having templates on hand will save you some.
To help, the HR advice team has put together a time off request template for you to use. Just click below to download it and feel free to use it.

Click here to download our time off request template

Another way to avoid having to find each request from your emails one by one is to:

By getting HR software, for example, your team members are able to self-serve and send requests via one platform where you can approve or deny them in one click.

Screenshot of overlapping time off being flagged by CharlieHR software

4. Carefully managing your team’s time off

The rules and information you need to make available to your team and that I highlighted above all have one goal: to run a smooth time off management process.

One other thing you’d want to avoid when putting together this process, however, is to have all your team members off at the same time and not be able to run your business as usual.

With a small workforce, challenges can arise – especially because it’s not as easy to cover for one another when each team member is responsible for their specific area.

But that shouldn’t be a reason for not allowing your team members to take paid time off work – it’s your responsibility to find the right system to ensure the business still runs smoothly in their absence.

So, on top of creating a clear HR policy, you want to double-check the calendar and spreadsheets before approving time off, and evaluate how many people are going to be away at the same time.

Better, you could even invest in a system that does it for you. With HR software, time off is directly saved in the team’s annual leave calendar and every request flags any overlapping time off.

That way you never have to think about it again.

Time off request and overlapping time off in CharlieHR

What’s the best system to handle time off requests?

Let’s recap how that can be concretely done.

Manually handling time off requests

It’s possible to manage your time off requests manually. In fact, I hear a lot of small companies I talk to start off with manual time off processes. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Create a folder on your drive with all the time off requests you receive – just make sure you save them every time you receive them via email
  2. Review the request, ask for more information if needed and accept or deny
  3. Record in your calendar the dates the team member is going to be off – you can, for example, add your annual leave on an Outlook calendar
  4. Add the dates on a spreadsheet where you can perhaps have their allowance recorded and updated at the same time

If this process can appear quite simple, it’s important to note that it can be very time-consuming and prone to human error, so perhaps you can look for better ways to do it.

Automate your time off requests

Automating your time off requests can be a good way to streamline admin tasks that are essential to your business, but that doesn't keep you from focusing on more impactful areas.

The process can take different forms, but for small businesses and startups, one of the most common ways to automate time off is to invest in HR software.

At Charlie, for example, we’ve built a feature with small businesses and startups in mind – no need to get involved with the time off requests at all: team members get to self-serve through the app by having access to a full company calendar and sending in their requests.

Screenshot of time off request allowance being set back in CharlieHR software

Everything is done automatically – including annual leave allowance calculation – and you can move on to another task on your busy list.

Final time off request tips for your small business or startups

Once you’ve followed all of these steps, you should be ready to handle time off requests at your small business or startup.

But before we finish off, here’s some of the advice I’ve given to my customers over the years, and they usually work wonders:

  • Don’t just build a business-wide process, encourage managers to set a time off process within their teams with a clear plan and ready-made handover when someone goes on leave.
  • Ask team members to activate out-of-office notifications when it comes to email so no business is missed and emails can be transferred to someone else when they’re away – it also gives them the opportunity to switch off properly and not look at their phones.
  • Be flexible when it comes to requests. Try to accept the odd day off that’s unplanned and that your team member really needs, and if it’s not possible, make sure there’s a good enough reason and give a detailed explanation if you have to deny a leave request. This will help in dealing with unauthorised absences.
  • If your team works on a shift basis, encourage team members to work it out between themselves and try to swap shifts before the request comes in if it’s a last-minute one.
  • Finally, make sure team members take enough time off within a year. The last thing you’d want is for someone to end up burnt out. You can even think about putting together an unlimited holiday policy to help with this.

Hopefully, this guide will have helped you deal with time off requests, but if you’re still unsure about how to go about it, maybe go a step further with our guide on managing annual leave for small businesses and startups or start a free trial to have a go at time off requests yourself.

Click here to sign up for a 14 day free trial with CharlieHR

And if you'd like to go further in your research, perhaps have a look on our complete guide to choose the best leave management software for your business.