Be kind, unwind – How IT pros can truly enjoy that much needed vacation

Rod Masney believes it’s a key part of his management role to encourage his employees to really disengage from their in high-pressure IT jobs — to take a week or two at the beach or that long-awaited European tour.
Only problem, the global director of IT infrastructure at Owens-Illinois doesn’t follow his own advice much.

“I believe people should strive for work/life balance, but I’m not very balanced,” admits Masney, who is also the immediate past chairperson of the Americas’ SAP User Group . “My PC bag is like my purse; it goes everywhere I go, and so does my BlackBerry. They’re my safety blankets.”

He’s not alone. IT employees rank high among professionals most likely to contact the office when they’re on vacation, second only to salespeople. According to the 2008 Vacation Survey conducted by, of nearly 7,000 U.S. workers polled, 37% of those identified as IT employees plan to contact the office while on vacation, compared with 50% of sales professionals and just 15% of retail workers.

And some 19% of IT workers said their employer expects them to work or check voice mail and e-mail during their time off. (See Guilty pleasure for more statistics.)

Other tech professionals never even make it that far. Data from NFI Research in Madbury, N.H., found that 75% of IT workers have four weeks or more of vacation coming to them, but that only 39% of that group takes their allotted time.

Tips for taking off

Clearly, when the goal is to take time off without checking into the office, tech employees have the deck stacked against them (see Why IT stays home). Nevertheless, according to IT pros and human resource experts, it is possible to stay in the loop and recharge during your precious time off. Just follow this formula:

Do the prep work before you leave — let people know in advance the dates you’ll be away and finish up key deliverables before you go.

Surround yourself with good people who can reliably step up to the plate and solve problems when they occur. Encourage your staff to “backstop” one another so expertise is interchangeable and the department doesn’t rely solely on one individual to get any one task done.

Establish escalation and problem-solving policies and document them well so there’s clarity on what to do and who to call in the event of an emergency — say, a network outage or any other type of system crash.

IT management needs to address vacation planning just as they would cover the departure of a key employee, says Eric Presley, chief technology officer at “You expect that you can absorb some turnover without projects being delayed — it should be a similar thing when people go on vacation. There shouldn’t be significant issues and have everything held up because a single person is out.”

To that end, he himself has identified a backup leader in his absence and put formal escalation policies in place so staffers are clear on what to do and who to contact when a hot issue arises.

Schedule vacations carefully — yours and those of your co-workers and direct reports — to avoid big project deliverables and ensure there’s ample backup for day-to-day activities and routine ongoing projects.

In general, plan vacation time when work volume is not at its peak. “Scheduling vacations when people’s mind-sets are different – around the Christmas holiday, for instance – is a good idea because people are not getting high volumes of work done and there are fewer expectations,” says NFI Research CEO Chuck Martin, co-author of Smarts: Are We Hardwired for Success?.

Cut a deal with a peer to cover some of your work while you’re out in exchange for doing the same during his vacation. That way, there won’t be a huge pileup of must-do tasks waiting for you upon your return.

Stay as lightly in touch as possible and encourage your vacationing employees to do likewise.

Stay lightly in touch? How is that last point possible? Easy, says NFI’s Martin.

By using voice mail and e-mail to screen out all but the most genuine of emergencies, managers who can’t let go completely can monitor what’s going on back at the office without actually taking action or initiating a response. Reading e-mails without replying or checking only certain e-mails are good ways to set boundaries, as is resisting the urge to call in.

Martin also suggests drastic action on the voice-mail front. Leaving an outgoing message saying you’re out won’t deter callers from rambling on anyhow in the hopes you’ll check in and solve their problem from afar, he reasons. The only sure-fire solution: Fill up your voice-mail in-box before you depart so people can’t leave a message and won’t expect action.

Another key Martin tip: If there’s an ongoing issue that you know is a potential trouble spot, force yourself to skip over related e-mails. Most often, the problem will resolve itself — or more precisely, your brilliant team will solve it — without your having to follow all the ins and outs along the way.

“Don’t respond. Be passive,” Martin says. “If you’re not interactive, no one knows you’re connected.” By keeping yourself in the loop, but inconspicuously so, you’ll be apprised of what went on in your absence without having to actually intervene. In the worst case, this strategy does allow you to jump in from your vacation if a true four-star emergency blows up.

No BlackBerry? No way.

For years, Robert Rosen was one of those CIOs who believed everything would come to a screeching halt if he or any of his key people were out of touch with the shop. Then this past winter, he came down with a flu so severe it kept him out of the office and even off e-mail for an entire week.
Lo and behold, nothing fell apart. “I was so sick, I didn’t look at my BlackBerry,” recounts Rosen, CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, in Bethesda, Md., and immediate past president of Share, the IBM user group. “It took me 20 years to learn this lesson that no one is irreplaceable.”

So does that mean Rosen now feels free to vacation with zero contact with the office? Not quite. Rosen did schedule a totally out-of-contact cruise to the west coast of Mexico, where he couldn’t get cell phone or Internet access for nearly a week, but he did break down and peek quickly at his e-mail when the ship made a port of call.

CareerBuilder’s Presley isn’t having any of that. Every summer, he takes a camping trip for a week with his family in the Smoky Mountains. “There’s no phone, no BlackBerry access. There isn’t even a shower,” says Presley. “For me, it’s great because I totally get away.”

Presley feels strongly that CIOs and IT managers can’t effectively do their jobs over the long term if they don’t create a strategy for prioritizing time away — completely away.

“If you can’t take off for a week, you haven’t structured the responsibilities and day-to-day interaction of the team properly,” Presley asserts. “People are all too happy to take their BlackBerries with them and act like a hero checking in at 5 a.m. [But] it’s up to the leader to put a proper backup plan in place and encourage them not to do that.”

John Halamka’s not on board with that plan. Halamka, CIO of the CareGroup Healthcare System, a group of leading Boston-based hospitals, doesn’t see any point in completely checking out while on vacation. His in-box would be too cluttered, he maintains, and there would be far too much stress and worry during the vacation over how he would possibly catch up.

Therefore, Halamka, who is also CIO and dean for technology at Harvard Medical School, has come up with his own strategy to strike a balance between work and play. He schedules time off only in August when a lot of his IT constituents are not around and there aren’t new projects scheduled. He’s also built a first-responder team and put escalation procedures in place that aren’t dependent on any one person. And he’s designated a second-in-command who covers for him when he’s gone.

Then, when he’s on vacation, Halamka sets aside time in the early morning and then again at night to answer e-mails and take care of pressing work matters. “If you don’t bring your laptop or your BlackBerry, the definition of vacation doesn’t work,” he maintains. “All it does it defer work.”

Yet even though he’s never fully out of touch, Halamka feels strongly that IT professionals at all levels absolutely need to get away.

“In this crazy, Internet-connected world we live in and the accelerating pace of projects and stress, it’s important to have people separate,” he says. “People say they can’t possibly let go, but I get 700 e-mails a day and am responsible for keeping 40,000 people up and running, and I still take two weeks off every August. It’s about striking that right balance.”

Stackpole has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

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