How to ensure a smooth handover to and from your cover

Before you leave

1 When to inform your employers that you intend to take maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave

Parents remain entitled to take maternity, paternity and adoption leave. Mothers and adopters can choose to reduce their maternity/adoption leave and opt into shared parent leave (SPL), passing entitlement to their spouse/civil partner/joint adopter/child's other parent or partner (if living with her/him and the child).

A pregnant employee must tell her employer about her pregnancy at least 15 weeks before her baby is due. Usually, the earliest you can start your leave is 11 weeks before the expected week of childbirth - so there's usually at least a three-month window to recruit temporary cover and do a handover. If you intend to take Statutory Paternity Leave, you must tell your employer at least 15 weeks before your baby is due and also when you would like your leave to start and how much time you would like (up to two weeks).

If you would like to take Statutory Adoption Leave (SAL), you must tell your employer within seven days of being matched with a child for adoption and also when you expect the child to be placed with you and when you would like your SAL to start. If you would like to change the start date of your SAL, you need to give your employer at least 28 days notice.

If you would like to take shared parental leave, you must tell your employer of your entitlement at least eight weeks before you wish to start your leave.

2 Anticipate your departure and return

Demonstrating your commitment to a smooth handover before you leave creates good feeling all round (clients included) and paves the way for you to leave on a high.

"Start early. Keep notes on files bang up to date as soon as you know you are going to be needing cover for your files. That way, if something does happen, anyone can pick them up and see what has been done, immediately." (Associate, private practice)

"There needs to be an agreed point from which you stop taking new work and your work starts to be doing the handover and winding down on the work you are doing. Detailed notes are not enough – there has to be an opportunity for your cover to read them in advance of meeting to discuss them with you." (Associate, private practice)

3 Make the case for, and be involved in, recruiting cover

"The team need to understand that you are not going on a holiday. The partner should understand that it is a big ask to expect the team simply to absorb the work of one person for up to one year." (Legal counsel, in-house private practice)

4 In the absence of formal cover

If the decision is not to recruit cover, be proactive in suggesting who takes on which projects and when. "It would be prudent prior to going on maternity leave for your role and workload to be discussed and confirmation as to who would be doing what and arrangements made for temporary cover should this be necessary. In my experience, it was just assumed that my workload would be handled by existing personnel without fully knowing what my role involved. This led to us almost losing a big client and me having to come in during my maternity leave to get my work back on track." (Associate, private practice)

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger
"Spend time with the person covering your files - both before your leave, and after you return. This will help the person covering your files to know your clients and their situations, rather than having to rely solely on your notes. Try to introduce the person covering your files to your clients - the client needs to feel that the person covering your work cares for them and the issues that their file involves as much as you do."

Sue Arrowsmith Rodger, partner, Pagan Osborne

5 See your departure as a project

A smooth handover needs planning and time allocated to it. Agreeing a timetable for what steps you will take and by when helps everyone feel prepared - see the example handover plan template below. Creating a plan of action also serves to manage your line manager’s and other colleagues' expectations about your contribution and availability in the time leading up to your departure.

"Ideally the cover should be somebody who you are working with for the clients or project that are being handed over. Preferably, the cover should be introduced to the client at an early stage. There needs to be recognition by management that this is valuable investment time even if it is not chargeable." (Solicitor, in-house public sector)

"It is best to start the handover process three to four weeks ahead of your anticipated finish date as your finish date can sometimes come a little earlier than you expected. Frequent meetings with your line manager and colleagues who will be taking over your files will help. It is impossible to tidy up every single piece of work and at some point you just have to let others take over."

Claire Anderson, solicitor, Scottish Government

6 Follow face-to-face handover meetings with a written summary

You might find it useful to use the handover plan as a basis for discussions with the people you're handing work over to. It might be appropriate to use it as a working document and circulate it before and after meetings.

Sample Handover Plan (Download)

ProjectStepsTimeWhoDue dateSuccessful outcome
4 weeks plus before leave
eg.Description of significant project/account 1 in hereDetailed steps in here60 minsJBMid MayXXXXXX
Project 2     
Project 3     
Project 4     
3 weeks before leave
eg.Description of significant project/account 1 in here (replicated from above)Detailed steps in here1.5 hoursJB7/6XXXXXX
Project 2     
Project 3     
Project 4     
2 weeks before leave
eg.Description of significant project/account 1 in here (replicated from above)   14/6 
Project 2     
Project 3     
Project 4     
1 weeks before leave
eg.Description of significant project/account 1 in here (replicated from above)   21/6 
Project 2     
Project 3     
Project 4     
Katherine Allan
"No matter how hard you try, you will never finish everything on your work to-do list before you go on an extended period of leave. Accept this and try not to get stressed about it. Your colleagues will understand and will be able to tie up any little loose ends that you don't get round to."

Katherine Allan, solicitor, RBS

7 Organise a performance review

Completing your handover actions with a formal performance review allows you to go on leave knowing where you stand. This may be relevant for decisions about bonuses and pay rises whilst you're on leave. If you don't have a formal review process, liaise with your human resources team to identify your performance in a structured way.

8 Share your Keep In Touch preferences

Employees who have stayed in contact with their employer whilst on a break generally report having a smoother return than those who don't. Agreeing before you go the type and level of contact you'd like to have whilst you're away helps your line manager feel confident he or she is getting it right. No two colleagues are likely to feel the same way about the level and type of contact they would like. One person's preference may be occasional  'hello, how are you?' text messages or phone calls from close colleagues, compared with another who would like regular email updates from their line managers. Equally, your preferences might change once you are on leave (compared with what you had indicated beforehand) and you can update your colleagues accordingly. Also see the How to ask for and make the most of Keep In Touch days guide.

Fiona Scott
"If you can, have an open discussion with your boss about your intentions for returning to work after leave - this allows them to plan for your return and (hopefully) make sure they have work lined up for you. Keep in touch while you're off - this shows you are interested and also reminds the firm that you fully intend to return to work and should be kept in mind for work in the pipeline."

Fiona Scott, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna