NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As the end of the year approaches, employees nationwide are finalizing their requests for holiday time off. Although for many industries November and December are considered the "slow season," many small businesses are still running at full speed through the New Year, making it difficult to give workers the family time they deserve. Thankfully, remote technologies and creative scheduling have made it easier than ever to keep your company going strong throughout the holiday season. Take a look at the best ways to manage your employees' holiday schedules and improve end-of-year workflow. Encourage working from home "You can't ignore the holidays -- you have to embrace them," says Steven Raz, co-founder and managing partner at executive search firm Cornerstone Search Group. "Time off and work/life balance is a big deal, especially during the holidays." Companies that haven't already investigated work-from-home options would be wise to do so this holiday season, then carry that benefit through into next year if it's effective, Raz says. Some of the best work-from-home tools to keep your office connected include instant messaging, Skype and a frequent back-and-forth of emails and phone calls, he suggests. In the past five years, but especially in the past year, small businesses have been gravitating more toward the cloud, says Shelley Ng, a small business specialist at benefits provider Ceridian. "Today we call it the cloud, but we used to call them Web-based solutions," Ng says. "We're seeing an increasing level of adoption there, with small businesses doing everything from payroll to scheduling staff and tracking their time, and people can collaborate who aren't in the same office -- no one has to be in a specific location." Most employees can accomplish at least 75% of what they would do in the office while working from home, says Mike Pugh, small-business expert at workplace technology company j2 Global. Today, many companies are using Dropbox to store important documents remotely and GoToMeeting to share computer screens and collaborate online. "Every business is different, but now is a great time for companies to realize that they don't need to have their account manager drive an hour and a half to work each way, because he's actually more productive from home than he was from the office."
Encourage days off Although it may sound crazy, Raz says that taking an entire day to run holiday errands can actually be more effective than spreading them out over a couple of weeks and spending an hour or two each day knocking them out. "It's a crazy time of year to navigate and stay organized," he says. "We all have a lot to do, and most of the time it's better to just pick a day and get everything possible done at once. You'll find it's more effective than stringing these things out for weeks." Encourage teamwork "For people to be productive and successful, everyone needs to be on the same page about what needs to get done," Pugh says. "Your co-workers really want to help -- whether it's a vacation or just you getting out of the office for the day -- but they need to know exactly what they should do." Employees should be encouraged to hand off important projects to co-workers who can help while they're away, but specific instructions are key. "Your colleagues want you to be successful, but they also don't want to be left hanging. It's little things like leaving them the right contact information, the right passwords and all of your phone numbers so if they need to find you they can," he says. Managers would be wise to request that all employees leave their colleagues with an "out of office" note detailing all the key contacts on their accounts, the specifics on any expected project developments and other office essentials -- even details on who fixes the copier, Pugh says. Create holiday work incentives "It's good to create holiday guidelines for incentives that people know are available if they decide to stay around for the holidays and work to keep the business running," says Susan Inouye, an executive coach and author of Sawubona Leadership: The Bridge to Engaging a New Generation of Leaders. Incentives Inouye suggests include half-days on the day before the holiday, special holiday giveaways such as theater or sports tickets and company gatherings after work, such as dinner or musical events. A good party or the occasional cocktail hour can really motivate your staff to see the team through the holidays, she says. "When people are aware that there is a community of support during the holidays, it makes work more fun and enticing rather than a letdown, especially for those who are spending time away from their families," she says.
Offer a vacation exchange, and stagger schedules "Family comes first, and we don't want our people missing out on time with their loved ones and friends," Raz says. "If it were absolutely impossible for me to offer an employee the time they needed at the holidays, I would look to another point in the year when we're not as busy and give them some additional time off as an added benefit." Another way Raz suggests structuring time off is to have employees stagger their schedules. "If I have two assistants that answer phones, I can have them take different shifts so they can both have some time off. You have to try and rotate where you can," he says. Stress the "end goal" is people take advantage Even though your employees may perceive the holiday months as "slow," Raz says it's important to stress how important their work during this time really is. "I tell my people that everything we do today will have an impact on our business -- not just next week, but also next month. What they do now is helping us set up the next year, and it can impact so much." Raz says he often tells his employees that they are "setting things up" to be busy and profitable in January, February and March, and that what they do during the holiday months is integral to making that happen. He also encourages "festive fun" at the office to keep things light. "We switch up the overhead music to holiday music, dress up the office and encourage that atmosphere all season," he says.