The most requested amenity by leisure travelers at hotels is not a heated pool, free breakfast, or even a minibar. It’s free Wi-Fi, according to Hotels.com, and it could be a symptom related to Americans’ inability to unplug.
While vacations are supposed to be the time to get away from the office and relax, 68% of Americans are unable to do so, checking personal and work email at least once a day, according to a study by Intel Security. Less than half abstain from checking work emails while on vacation, even though 65% of people who do so say their vacation was more enjoyable.
Why do we have a hard time unplugging? Work culture, says Joe Staples, CMO of the project management software provider Workfront. "We live in a world where 40% of managers are working more than 40-hour weeks," he says. "What's more, 82% of office workers are logging into email outside of standard business hours. Bosses need to step in and play a role in setting the tone for a positive, healthy work environment that encourages time away from work."
Here's how to prepare yourself and your colleagues for disconnected vacations.
When employees at the communications technology firm Bandwidth go on vacation, their manager sends a message to coworkers letting them know the employee is on "vacation embargo." No calls. No email. And no special requests or quick questions.
"We tell folks not to contact them under any circumstance and to report back to their manager if he or she tries to contact them," says cofounder and CEO David Morken.
Personal experience taught Morken that working through a vacation leaves the employee and their loved ones feeling resentful, unmotivated, and uninspired. "We want folks to return from time off feeling refreshed and ready to do amazing things," he says. "Once they have achieved one successful vacation, they welcome the freedom the next time."
If you don’t have a boss that forbids coworkers from contacting you, it’s possible to take things into your own hands.
Returning from vacation to a full inbox is one reason employees check email while they’re away. Ron Webb, executive director of the nonprofit human resources research organization American Productivity and Quality Center, says it’s important to create a system before you leave to avoid this. The first thing he does is clean out his inbox.
"I also set up a detailed ‘out of office’ auto-response, telling people when I’ll be back and exactly what to do [in my absence,]" he says. "It also notes that I won’t be responding to messages until I return."
Alert coworkers, direct reports, clients, and managers that you’ll be away and unplugged, says Mindy Mackenzie, author of The Courage Solution: The Power of Truth Telling with Your Boss, Peers, and Team.
"While you are away, you will not be checking email, voicemail, or materials delivered by carrier pigeon," she says. "This is a great opportunity to walk your talk about your values and how important it is to be fully present with your family, your friends, or yourself, as it is essential to your overall well-being and is key to your effectiveness on the job."
"You must deputize someone credible in your absence to cover your area and make decisions in your stead," says Mackenzie. "The more senior you are, the more important this is to do."
Select a direct report with good judgment that your peers and boss respect, she suggests. Explain your rationale for your selection, and reinforce the expectation that they are to give the peer the same respect and responsiveness that they give to you.
"Communicate broadly that this person is your proxy—and you must mean it," says Mackenzie. "State that you will honor all decisions made by this person, and that this person should be treated as if he or she were you."
In the case of a true emergency, create a strategy, says Lars Sudmann, former CFO of Procter & Gamble Belgium and executive consultant. "I told my teams, ‘In case there is something really urgent, you can send me an SMS,’" he says. "Know that my email is out, but my SMS is on."
This step will assure your team that you can be reached in case of a true emergency, and gives you peace of mind without checking emails. "In 10 years, maybe two times somebody reached me and that was okay," says Sudmann.
If you’re finding it hard to refrain from email, set "unplugging goals," suggests Gabby Burlacu, human capital management researcher at the software company SAP SuccessFactors. "Learning to completely unplug from work takes time and focus," she says. "Finding hobbies or activities while you’re on vacation and making a commitment to solely focus on those while you are engaged in them can go a long way."
It can also be helpful if you sort email, says Webb. He takes 10 minutes a day, while he’s waiting at the airport or riding in a cab, to filter email into the folders he set up before he left: "Action Required," "File," and "Read Later."
"I don’t respond to messages while on vacation, unless I feel it’s imperative," he says. "I simply process the emails for action upon my return."
"Consider your off time something you’ve earned," says Burlacu. "Rewarding ourselves for hard work is not a new concept," she says. "We often do things like book vacations to reward ourselves for hard work, but then we spend that vacation thinking about work and answering emails. Your off time is your reward, and it cannot fully function that way unless it involves unplugging from work."