There was a time when the physical transportation of information was the limit for the speed of business. A message between companies had to leave a worker’s desk, go through their company’s mail room, the post office, another post office, the recipient’s mailroom, and may even be filtered by a secretary before it reached the intended recipient. In those days, when you went on vacation, you could give your colleagues a phone number for your hotel if you wanted to, but other than that, they could expect to be out of luck if they needed you.
Since the introduction of email and even more rapidly since the rise of mobile, this hasn’t been the case. Information travels instantly, and replies are expected within hours. This means that when you’re on vacation, you can count on something in a project coming to a halt because you’re gone. You can put a vacation response on your email; but anyone who’s taken a vacation knows it has the potential to only make your anxiety worse.
This points to a fundamental flaw in email, and why its days as the default tool for team collaboration will (and should) come to an end in the near future. Email is a silo for information that is relevant to an entire team, but it’s often only available to one direct recipient. If a client emails me a question, I need to manually forward it to the member of the team who can help out. And if I’m out of the office for a while—say, hiking in Yosemite—I’m sweating for all the wrong reasons: wondering what’s come into my inbox, and how my absence is slowing the project down for others.
At Wrike, we wanted to understand how this affects Americans’ vacation plans. We recently conducted a study of work habits for vacationers and found that 34% of Americans intend to be available to work on vacation this year. Of those, there was a tie for leading reason: 32% of respondents said they enjoy work, and don’t mind checking in. 32% said they can enjoy vacation better knowing things are going okay at the office.
People work on vacation to reduce stress
Seeing vacation and stress together is counterintuitive, I know. But these findings resonated throughout the survey on other questions that we asked. For example, 25% of women said they are stressed about returning to work following vacation, and 35% of respondents said they experience high stress before vacation, because they put extra effort into ensuring their teams are prepared for their absence.
Maybe it’s the workaholic nature of American professionals, or the increased demands of business, but it seems that workers are willing to work on their vacation (which is meant to help us destress) if working helps us mitigate the stress of not working. It’s an ironic and vicious cycle that is detrimental to workers, and ultimately unhealthy to their wellbeing. According to a HBR study with Project: Time Off, well-planned and disconnected vacations have positive ROI in terms of energy and outlook, meaning that disconnecting doesn’t just help you enjoy vacation more—it ideally helps you sustain in the long term.
By looking a bit deeper into how people work on vacation, we can see that email plays a big role in making people reach for their phones.
Most vacation work is about team visibility
According to our research, very few people (about 22%) said their vacation work habits are the result of a daily commitment to working. Rather, the vast majority is in the form of short, digital interactions like forwarding emails or responding to time sensitive messages— all of which are about getting information out of your email inbox and into the hands of people who need it.
Believe it or not, only 10% of our survey respondents said that they keep their work data stored in the cloud. Those that do are 15% more likely to take vacations longer than 6 consecutive days, and 61% said they feel ready to return to work when vacation is over (which is 13% higher than the total respondent pool).
That means that if businesses can commit to housing vital data someplace with greater visibility than email, teams can keep work moving forward, even while a key member is relaxing on the beach. This can help everyone find better balance on vacation and enjoy their time off without stress. They’ll also have an easier time playing “Catch up” when they get back to work, without an inbox of internal requests to return to.
Management should support worker balance
I must confess that personally, I’m guilty of working on vacation with similar habits described by our survey data: I’ll send short decisions out in response to direct questions, because I’d rather spend 5 minutes working here and there than slow a project down for a week because as a CEO, the stakes of delays are sometime high. What’s more important for me than disconnecting completely on vacation is practicing mindfulness and segmenting my time cleanly, so that my kid’s memories of our trips are of fun shared experiences, and not of dad looking at his phone all day.
As I mentioned above, one of the most popular reasons people work on vacation is that they enjoy their jobs—and that’s a good problem to have. Even for those, however, they should consider the value of disconnecting as much as possible.
For those who want to disconnect completely, management should support this and put cloud technology and rules in place that help teams function with a missing piece. They also must lead by example. 45% of millennials said they are more likely to work on vacation if their boss works on vacation—so it’s critical that managers be mindful of the examples they set for their teams.