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Take a REAL break from the digital workplace. Can we? And, if so, should we?

In my early graduate training days at Boots, my first manager taught me that being a good manager meant the office could function without you. Of course, that was in the days when we all went to a physical office. What she meant was that “business as usual” should continue when you are not there; that your responsibility should be delegated or covered to allow you to be away, for up to 2 weeks, for whatever reason, and your business shouldn’t suffer as a result. OK, some new initiatives might not be driven forward and the stuff on your proactive list won’t happen, but the business should still function well in your absence.

In the 25 years since then, I’ve personally carried this ethos forward and firmly believe that a holiday should be a holiday. Much as I love my job, I also enjoy a break from it and know that this means I will come back refreshed and ready to go.

For the last 12 years I’ve worked in a digital workplace – almost exclusively. At Digital Workplace Group (DWG), there is no office. We have team members across the US, UK, Europe and Australia. We expect people to deliver results as agreed, and to communicate as needed to ensure that their work is completed and client expectations are exceeded – but we don’t really mind where those people are or when they work, within reason. Part of my role at DWG is what I call “maintaining team sanity”, so understanding how to make this flexibility work for people matters to me.

Can you switch off?

The digital workplace is hugely enabling in many ways, as is well documented; however, the fact that you can work from anywhere at any time also means that many people find they simply cannot or perhaps choose not to switch off. So my question is: Can and should everyone take a “real” break from the digital workplace whenever they have a holiday booked?

Well, I do. I book two weeks off, prepare the out-of-office message and make sure that any regular meetings I chair or reports I run have been delegated. I switch off. That said, my immediate team do know that they can text or call me if there’s anything really urgent, so the door is open. But guess what? That’s hardly ever been needed in 12 years.

At the other extreme, a friend from outside our business recently joined a company that expected him to be online, replying to emails and available for calls seven days a week, 365 days a year. I know the type of business he’s in and I honestly don’t understand why this would be necessary, other than to feed the owner’s control ego. I simply can’t see how that is good either for the business or for the team.

What is the “right” way?

I have learned though that my way isn’t necessarily the right way for everyone. I used to think that ensuring the team took a proper break was the “right” way – that it was best for the business. But I have come to realize that people manage their holidays in different ways – and, as much as I care about my team’s “sanity”, I can’t force them to drop completely offline.  

As an example in our business, the management team of four at DWG is split down the middle. Two of us switch off totally; two prefer to stay in touch and reply to the more important emails and conversations, even while on holiday.

I admit that I’ve tried to change this, but I now recognize that this varied way of working allows for what is “right” for each individual. For some people it would actually be more stressful not to engage with work at all while they are away, therefore negating the benefits of the holiday. So, I confess that I was wrong to try to impose my way of working.

Holidays come in all shapes and sizes

Across the rest of the team, holiday “styles” also vary a lot. We have some who choose to work reduced hours for a few weeks rather than take two whole weeks off. One member of the team said she has a “Do NOT pack for my holiday” list (the top item being her laptop) so that she’s offline and present for her family. She says her laptop would just suck her back into the work she loves. Others have told me they see their laptop as their “comfort blanket”; they couldn’t possibly go on holiday without it and are reassured to know they can work if they choose to.

OK, I’ll come clean, I probably skim-read my emails every couple of days, just to get rid of the junk and to have an idea what’s ahead of me, but I never (well, 99% never) interact or reply. As soon as you reply you’re seen to be there and interacting and you’re back into work mode. I know that I work better for having a real break and that’s what I’m sticking to.

So, as a manager, I’ve learned to offer and provide all I can to ensure that each individual in our digital workplace manages a holiday that leaves them feeling rested, relaxed and ready to dive back in when they return to the “office” – and sometimes that means they have been emailing or interacting online every day they were away. The trick is to recognize and respect each person’s individual way of working, to ensure that everyone else understands and doesn’t abuse the availability of those on holiday, and to encourage people to spend their time off, however they see fit.

So, back to my original question. Can we take a real break from the digital workplace?  Yes. And should we? Well, that’s up to you.

About the author

Helen Day - DWG's Managing DirectorHelen Day is the Group Managing Director of Digital Workplace Group. Her role includes chairing DWG member meetings in the UK and Europe and developing business strategy along with DWG clients. Prior to joining DWG, Helen worked for 14 years at the UK-based pharmacy chain Boots the Chemists, now part of Walgreens, where she set up the organization’s first intranet. She led an award-winning site-wide redesign as well as projects to consolidate seven business intranets – some international – and to roll out a new group-wide CMS and portal.

When not working, Helen spends much of her time trying to fit in 10,000 steps a day, controlling crazy cats, renovating a 1930s house to its former glory and learning how to use all the food its orchard garden produces.

Connect with Helen on Twitter at @helenday.

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