'Tis the Season to Stay Focused

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Prevent end-of-year madness and festive distractions from eating into your team's productivity with these tips. By Jessica Stillman (Freelance Writer, Inc)

This post originally appeared on Inc.com

Ready. Set. Fest.

With Thanksgiving just gone and Christmas fast approaching, the starting gun is about to be fired on what--for many people--is the craziest time of the year. While everyone is swamped with social events, holiday shopping, and general end-of-the-year lunacy, small business owners often face a double whammy.

Like other people they have to wrap presents, attend parties, and roast large birds, but they're also often facing a crazy crunch period at their businesses (and even, ideally, looking to get a little forward planning in). So how can you help your team – and yourself – juggle these competing priorities to keep the season more joyful than stressful? Expert tips abound. Here are seven ideas.

1. Review and Plan Ahead

The holidays can be madness for businesses, but the key to keeping the worst of the craziness at bay is to think ahead and be proactive, according to HR consultant Peggy Isaacson. If you want your team to be happy and productive, it's your responsibility to plan and smooth out potential roadblocks in advance.

Before your busiest period review what happened in previous years and ask yourself: "What were the hassles last year? Was too much time spent on party planning? Were you short-handed because too many people took time off? What did your customers complain about?" she suggests. Armed with that information, you'll be better prepared to head off potential problems before things get out of hand.

2. Be Flexible, but Beware Working from Home

You think it's easy to get distracted at the office this time of year? Then imagine just how tempting it is for your employee to squeeze in a few holiday-related tasks when working from home. To avoid that last bit of holiday shopping or preparations for the kids' school party getting in the way of your team member's productivity, be cautious about work-from-home requests this time of year.

"You may seem like a Scrooge if you deny this option, but it's worth a little grumbling from team members to keep your customers happy," Bplans' Kayla Matthews reassures business owners.

But don't go too far. While working from home regularly over the holidays may be like trying to diet with a giant chocolate bar sitting on your desk, there are genuine reasons your team may need some flexibility in their schedule this time of year. If an employee has a good productivity track record and a legitimate need, there's no reason to take a stand on principle. Don't be rigid. Just realistic.

3. Break Down Goals

Tis the season for feeling overwhelmed, so help your team fight calendar panic by putting in place systems that help turn big to-do items or challenging targets into more easily accomplished interim goals. "Acknowledge to your staff that the holidays are a busy time, and offer to sit down with each person to develop a priority list," suggests Morgan Sims on SmallBizClub, for example.

Or follow the suggestion of Lior Arussy, founder of Strativity Group, and "establish rituals, like a weekly team meeting focusing on goals and positive reinforcement, or a quick daily rundown to serve as a real-time reminder that what your employees are doing is making an impact." Whatever way you go about it, just make sure that you don't leave your team swamped in a sea of tasks and struggling to stay afloat without assistance.

4. Clear What You Can From their Plates

While breaking down tasks can go a long way towards protecting your team from to-do list overload, sometimes time management isn't enough. If you anticipate a spike in routine work (and know your team, like everyone else, is going to be managing a lot of personal tasks as well) then do what you can to eliminate any long-term projects that can safely be put off for the new year.

"The end of the year can be a bad time to launch any new initiatives unless they are related to the holiday season. Most employees can only focus with half their brains because of all their other familial and personal commitments; this means your initiative will be difficult to get off the ground," warns Matthews, who also suggests that you "never promise – or allow your team members to promise--services or products that absolutely cannot be delivered due to the craziness of November and December."

5. Coordinate Calendars

The holidays, like the summer months, are a peak period for taking time off as people travel to visit family and take care of festive responsibilities. Openness about when people will need to be out of the office at the start can save a lot of headaches later on. "Before the holiday season gets into full swing, make it clear that you expect a certain number of team members to be present each day that your office is open," advises Matthews. "This sets up expectations upfront and alerts everyone to more efficiently make decisions on how and when they can use vacation or personal days."

A shared calendar can be a great way to manage this, suggests Sims. "Send an email and ask your staff to mark on a shared calendar the hours and days they'll be gone during the holiday season," she writes.

6. Don't Obsess about Hours

Once you've communicated your expectations and got a plan in place to make sure staffing is there to meet them, back off and don't be too obsessed about exact hours worked. Does it really matter if an employee comes in a little later one day or takes a long lunch if she's getting her work done? "If you're not getting it done it's going to be apparent," insists TxMQ CEO Chuck Fried on the Glassdoor blog. "As long as they are getting it done it doesn't matter what they are doing."

7. Relax!

You need to please your customers and hit your targets, but you can't make the season all work and no play. You'll pay for cracking the whip (or simply allowing your dedicated team to work themselves silly) with resentment now and a burnt out staff in the new year. So make sure you offer them plenty of opportunities to celebrate and unwind.

"If you have some workaholics on your team, you may notice that they are getting a little overwrought during the holidays. Chances are good that they are burning the candle at both ends, plus the middle. This can lead to illness or serious mental fatigue," warns Matthews. "Encourage them to take breaks." Like what? "Organize an office-wide coffee break on Friday afternoons featuring staff-favorite seasonal blends, or provide an afternoon off to make a dent in holiday shopping," suggests Bob Marsh, CEO of LevelEleven.

Check out more from Inc.com:

7 Things Warren Buffett Can Teach You About Leadership 5 Reasons CEOs Should Offer Unlimited Vacation in 2015 Why You Should Take a Half-Day Every Week Photo credit: Africa Studio via Shutterstock.


Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for Forbes, CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.