I supervise a group of seven support staff in the customer service department of a large organization. I’ve told them that I didn’t care when they went to lunch, as long as at least two of them were in the office at all times, and to work it out among themselves. I’ve always believed that if I treated my employees like professionals, they would behave that way. Well, I guess I was wrong because twice last week there was only one staffer in the office during the lunch period, and once they just locked the office and forwarded the phones! I hate to treat them like children, but I don’t know what else to do besides enforcing a strict lunch schedule created by me.
A.Creating a work/break schedule isn’t treating them like children; it’s treating them like employees, and is the rule of thumb in most organizations. But I think your question has more to do with how to manage people who don’t handle freedom responsibly. If your employees are young or have only worked in more structured environments, they may never have learned how to balance the responsibilities that come with empowerment — and this is an excellent opportunity to teach them. Give them another chance to make it work on their own, but talk to them about what’s been happening. Remind them of your expectations, and be very clear about your parameters; i.e., that customer service is paramount, so the office must remain open, the phones be answered and at least two staff members be on duty at all times. Make sure they understand that they all share responsibility for making sure there is appropriate coverage, not just the last two to call “dibs” on any given day. Clarify whether or not certain individuals should get first choice based on seniority or job function. Then give them some process suggestions. Maybe they could have a sign-up calendar every month or they could alternate in the role of “lunch coordinator”. Just be sure you are very specific about what is a suggestion vs. what is non-negotiable. If you aren’t confident they can handle this level of independence, you could insist that they submit a proposed lunch schedule for your approval each month. And make sure they understand that if the office is left un- or under-covered again, you will be forced to create a lunch schedule without their input. Potential loss of freedom and control can be great motivators.