A job handoff document is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a record you create for someone who is taking over your job, either temporarily or permanently, to help them get up to speed. A handoff document cannot transfer in-depth expertise from years in a position, but it is a quick-and-dirty way to pass on the basics: daily activities, critical projects underway, where to go for information, and tips and tricks to get things done.
To help you better understand job handoff documents, let’s walk through the who, what, when, and why of this tool.
Who: The Right People to Fill Out a Job Handoff Document
A simple job handoff document is a good idea for almost every employee. Managers, process owners, and subject matter experts are obvious candidates since work would grind to a halt without their knowledge. But if you focus only on senior staff, you may miss some critical opportunities.
For example, receptionists and executive assistants are fonts of hidden knowledge. They know the best ways to communicate with and support senior staff, the inside scoop on interpersonal and team dynamics, the preferred local vendors, and how to troubleshoot an assortment of weird problems. The knowledge is often highly contextual, and they are often the only staff member with those insights. For someone taking over that type of role, advice about what to expect and how to cope can be a lifesaver.
What: The Right Information to Capture
The exact information to include in a job handoff document may vary based on the job in question, but here are some common components.
- Job overview—A basic job description, including objectives and key activities.
- Job details—A “how to” breakdown of each key job activity, including what it is, relevant methods and procedures, advice for managing the activity, frequently encountered challenges and how to deal with them, and any current projects/tasks/deadlines a successor should be aware of.
- Key contacts—Internal and external people that someone might need to reach out to when performing this job, along with when and why to contact each. Examples include subject matter experts, consultants, and supplier and customer contacts.
- Filing system—Where key information related to the position and work is stored, including personal documents and folders, team/project sites and systems, business or strategic plans, budgets, and other logistics.
- Routine activities—standard events related to the role, such as standing meetings, site visits, reviews, audits, or conferences.
- Content and learning—presentations, reference material, courses, or other resources that would be most useful in getting up to speed in the role.
- Ideas and vision—any long-term plans associated with the role, as well as improvements or recommended steps to take if circumstances allow.
These categories are all covered in APQC’s job handoff document template, which you can tweak and add to based on what’s important to your organization.
When: The Cadence for Completing Job Handoff Documents
In an ideal world, handoff documents would be completed once an employee reaches competency and then continuously kept up to date—but we know that’s not realistic. At the same time, a document listing “current projects” from 4 years ago is unlikely to yield a lot of insight.
Most organizations gravitate toward an annual review and update cycle for job handoff documents, either as part of performance management or a separate campaign. That said, managers should encourage employees to make updates any time their job changes significantly. Managers can also encourage real-time updates if, for example, an employee builds a fruitful new partnership with a vendor, or files get migrated into a new system.
Why: How Job Handoff Documents Benefit Individuals and the Organization
Overstretched employees may see job handoff documents as an extra piece of busywork they don’t have time for. After all, if I already know how to do my job, what’s the point in writing it all down? Some may even think the organization is asking them to document their knowledge so it’s easier to fire them or lay them off.
It’s never easy to add paperwork to someone’s pile—and trust must be earned—but it helps to position handoff documents as an insurance policy to avoid chaotic transitions. You never know when you might need to take medical or family leave for a few months. Similarly, a teammate might have an unplanned absence or take a new job, and you suddenly need to take up the reigns. In short, life is unpredictable, and it’s best to be prepared.
Once job handoff documents are consistently in place, they tend to create a virtuous circle. People who have useful guidance waiting for them when they assume a new role are more likely to value the tool and keep their own up to date. And when approached with the right mindset, filling out a handoff document can be a useful exercise for experienced folks to reflect on what knowledge is most important for their role and how they prioritize their own work.
From an organizational perspective, handoff documents can improve employee onboarding, reduce time to competency, and free tenured team members from re-explaining the basics. They also prevent critical operational knowledge from being lost every time an employee leaves. According to APQC’s latest research, the pandemic highlighted to leaders the risk of knowledge gaps and siloes, and more executives are recognizing knowledge as a strategic asset. Asking employees to document their key work activities, contacts, and sources of knowledge is a great place to start and a gateway to more comprehensive knowledge transfer.