December 15, 2017
Harvard Business Review
Emailing While You’re on Vacation Is a Quick Way to Ruin Company Culture
Companies expend untold energy building culture—defining their values, revamping their office space, organizing holiday parties and volunteer outings. And yet many managers don’t seem to realize that while company culture can be really hard to build, it’s incredibly easy to destroy. And you may unknowingly ruin it in just two steps.
Step 1: Go on vacation.
Step 2: Continue working like you never left.
It is common practice for American managers. Our latest research at Project: Time Off shows that just 14% of managers unplug when they’re on vacation. At the most senior levels of leadership, a mere 7% do. The majority check in with work at least once a day.
If you’re in this camp, there is a good chance you are thinking about maintaining your own peace of mind either while you’re away (what if something crucial happens?) or when you get back (if you truly unplugged, how would you ever catch up?). But before you hit “send,” think. All emails are not created equal, and when you’re on vacation, you’re sending more messages than can be contained in the contents of your note.
Every email sent by a vacationing employee is a tiny cultural erosion: a signal to other employees that time off isn’t really time off. In aggregate, these tiny erosions matter. They send signals like “I don’t trust you to do the job without me,” or “I’m not organized enough to wrap up my loose ends before I go on vacation.” Either way, they erode perceptions of your likability and competence.
While all employees can contribute to this problem, when you’re a manager, those signals are amplified even further. And unfortunately, many don’t realize the consequences until the ground gives way underneath them. Company cultures that don’t support unplugging have employees that are less engaged and less committed to the organization. Compared to employees in supportive cultures, they are less likely to say they feel valued by their company (69% to 50%) and cared about as a person (64% to 43%). They are, however, more likely to be looking for another job. Four in ten employees who work in companies that don’t support unplugging are looking or planning to look for a new job in the next year, nearly double the 21% of employees in supportive cultures.
And their motivations have shifted considerably from the last time they were in the market. When asked why they left their previous job, the top reasons were predictable: increased compensation, advancement opportunity, or a better commute drove their decisions to leave. Now that they are job-hunting again, those reasons decline in prominence. No longer are they leaving in search of something positive, rather they are fleeing something negative. These employees who are working in cultures that don’t support unplugging say they are leaving because they do not feel valued by their employer, are overwhelmed by a stressful workload, or have a negative relationship with their boss.
The boss is the number one influencer over an employee’s time—even more than the employee’s own family. The power of that influence may not be clear to managers, just as the downstream consequences of staying connected to work on vacation may not be intended. But their connectedness on vacation is a predictor of their support for their employees’ vacation time. More than a third (35%) of managers who check in frequently on vacation say that pressure from the company prevents them from approving vacation requests, compared to just 20% of managers who check in occasionally, or 17% of those who unplug.
The consequences of a prohibitive vacation culture are stark, but there is also great opportunity for businesses that see the value of a true break. Vacation matters to employees—it is the second-most important benefit after health care, but ahead of retirement plans, bonuses, and flexibility—and it should be seen as an opportunity to improve culture.
Deloitte Consulting CEO Jim Moffatt had an epiphany shortly after sending an email to his employees. The note, sent ahead of his own vacation to Scotland, covered all the work they had in front of them, with the halfhearted closing, “Unplug a little before Labor Day, if you can.” He now acknowledges that by saying, “if you can,” he might as well have said, “don’t try.”
He came to that realization after a colleague and friend replied to his email with a note advising him to trust that he had hired the right people and given them the proper strategic direction, and there should be no need to send emails while he was on vacation. If he hadn’t, a few emails would not fix what was wrong.
Today, Moffatt is among the converted. “You’ll be amazed at what you can do when you’re unplugged—and what your people have accomplished when you plug back in. I can personally attest, you’ll be a more confident and better leader because of it.”
Let’s take another look at our two-step plan for destroying culture and see if we can revise it. How about this instead?
Step 1: Go on vacation.
Step 2: Trust your employees to handle the business while you’re away.
Taking this approach can lead to realizing your employees have new capacities and talents, developing their skills, and ultimately growing your business.
Work and technology are inextricably linked. Understanding the power and value of vacation time and creating an environment where employees feel supported in leaving the office behind will ultimately foster an engaged workforce that feels valued, motivated, and committed—all of which have a lasting impact.