Work takes no break, but people do

Businesses checking holiday staffing lists more than twice

December 26, 2007|By Barbara Rose | Barbara Rose,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- There are only four business days left in the year, in case you were counting, but not many people will work all of them.

We've entered the season when the working world divides into two camps.

In many offices, any attempt at strenuous effort gives way to a pleasant drift toward the new year because there are too few people working to get anything accomplished. People who go into the offices can count on taking relaxing reading breaks at their desks. Or if they are Type A's, they can clean up their Outlook files.

In other offices, the crush of year-end demands falls on fewer and fewer people, usually the least senior employees who lacked the influence to negotiate time off.

A MASH-unit camaraderie prevails. People bring in food for one another, commiserate, and try to get out as quickly as possible.

Citibank Vice President Jonathan Thrasher began preparing for both situations months ago. He manages Citibank's Small Business Administration lending in greater Chicago, and he knows that if a loan closing slips into the treacherous final days of December, "it's going to be harsh" because many businesses will be closed Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. And those that stay open will be thinly staffed.

In October, he started compiling staffing spreadsheets. The spreadsheets indicate that on a given day - say, today - a particular title company or appraisal firm will be 63 percent staffed. They show who will be working and who will not. There are backup contacts for the people who will be out and contacts for the backups' backups.

When he finished, he loaded the spreadsheets into his BlackBerry. "I have it in my hip pocket," he says. "I'm never caught short."

Not that he will be working between Christmas and New Year's, at least not officially.

Even so, the lure of Citibank's ghost town of a corporate office that holiday week may prove irresistible.

In years past, he's gone in for a few hours.

`It's peaceful'

"It's quiet, it's peaceful. The verbal hum isn't there, and you can really focus," Thrasher says.

The week ranks high on John Bremen's charts, as well.

"It's one of my favorite times of the year in Chicago. You can actually find a parking spot," says Bremen, who leads Watson Wyatt Worldwide's compensation practice.

As for working, he's ambivalent.

"You can always get more done when the phone isn't ringing, but the same principle applies when you're trying to call people - you can't find them."

For Edmund Galvin, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the season is a test of his diplomatic skills. The accounting firm is closed nationwide through Jan. 1, giving most employees 11 consecutive days off. Of course, not all of the firms' clients shut down, and, inevitably, some staff will be called to work.

Much negotiating

"What I do starting somewhere around Thanksgiving is a lot of negotiating," Galvin says. "If I need to ask somebody to show up at a client on Dec. 27, I apologize for asking, I explain the situation, I try to be persuasive. I try to make everything work. Does that mean I'm sometimes on the phone at 10 p.m. [with another partner], trying to negotiate a [team member's] swap? That's part of it."

Isn't that a lot of work?

"I used to think of it like that, and when I stopped thinking of it like that it got easier. Now, I think of it as planning, negotiating and teamwork."

He plans to be off, but he never knows. Last year, he ended up in a four-hour client meeting Dec. 28.

This year, he expects to drop by his downtown office some night on his way to visit family.

"Eleven days, in my mind, is a lot of time off. I get restless. I need a break in the lull."

Barbara Rose writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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