Smartphones and email may seem like they’ve been around forever, but it wasn’t long ago that these productivity tools didn’t exist. Work still got done, businesses still grew, and employees on vacation were truly unreachable (OK, a coworker could conceivably call the hotel and ask to leave a message for you, but given the sheer energy required, that would be for emergencies only). Fast forward to today, and a coworker on vacation is generally just a quick ping away.
Taking time off is something every leader and employee should do regularly. It recharges the batteries, reminds your body and mind what it’s like to relax, and allows bonding time with loved ones. But it can’t do any of those things if work gets in the way. And work can easily get in the way of vacation time because of smartphones.
Lane Fenner, SVP of Operations for XMI, says he’s old enough to remember a time before smartphones and even email.
“It was a lot easier to disconnect from the office back in the day,” he says. “If you’re not truly disconnecting from work and connecting with your family or whoever you’re with, it’s going to have negative personal repercussions. And it’s a vicious cycle that can also impact your work performance.”
That’s one of the reasons Fenner likes to take cruises with his family. He’s generally out of reach, and the WiFi is too expensive to be worth connecting.
“A place with free WiFi is basically an invitation to keep working,” he says. “Look for vacations that make it virtually impossible to stay connected.”
Better yet, he says, create a culture that encourages truly getting away while on vacation. Here are five ways:
1. Set them up for success
“Enjoy your time off!” is just lip service if there’s not a process in place that enables client service to continue in the employee’s absence. Be proactive and let clients know about upcoming vacations. Assign and introduce a “cover buddy,” an employee who will handle the work instead.
In many cases, Fenner covers for the four directors who report to him. “When someone is out, I make their clients my priority and take care of whatever comes up. The more I do that, the more my team knows I’m serious about wanting them to truly get away.”
Also use email forwarding or out of office auto-responses to alert everyone else that the employee is away. This auto response should also include contact information for someone else who can handle requests during this time.
2. Set clear expectations
Reiterate with staff that time off should truly be time off. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘I want you to disconnect,’” Fenner says.
Encouraging coworkers to unplug from work also means modeling the behavior you want to see. In other words, practice what you preach. When you’re on vacation, don’t respond to emails, don’t forward emails and don’t call or text coworkers.
“You can set all the policies you want, but they won’t work unless you also walk the walk,” he says.
3. Make the vacation known
You don’t have to scream it from the rooftops that Peggy in payroll is on vacation but do make sure team members know that she’s away. Whether through a shared calendar or a weekly memo with a list of all vacations, this information can go a long way in making sure coworkers aren’t being a bother.
“People tend to look at things as more urgent than they are and don’t look for workarounds when they should,” he says.
4. Don’t deny vacation requests
Fenner says employees are in the best position to decide when their time off should happen. “People have personal priorities that supersede work ones,” he says. “I don’t tell my team where to go on vacation, and I’m not going to tell them when, either.”
When you distinguish between good times versus bad times to be away from the office it sends mixed messages and might encourage employees to work while on vacation.
“Work is like a family,” Fenner says. “And you want to cover your family member whenever you need to, not just when it’s convenient.”
5. Address bad vacation manners on the spot
If you receive emails, calls or texts from employees when they’re supposedly on vacation, don’t just sit by and watch it happen—take action.
“If I know someone is on vacation and I’m copied on an email from them, I write back to remind them, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be on vacation, this stuff can wait, please switch off,’” Fenner says.
In some cases, the ping from the vacationing employee could be a cry for help. Fenner suggests offering to step in or finding someone to help on a matter that pops up unexpectedly.
Fenner is guilty of working while away, as well, and always appreciates the same reminder when it comes in.
It’s so tempting, Fenner says, especially with the “electronic leash,” the smartphone that can pull up a map, a restaurant review or allow you to capture that moment in a photo. Maybe use your spouse’s phone for vacation.
“Try not to touch the leash as much as possible,” he says. “If you have the trust and empowerment of your team, you should know that you don’t have to.”