Annual leave - preparing for take-off

How to leave your cares behind!

With the holiday season upon us from Thanksgiving to Hogmanay, I thought I would look at the importance of downtime in helping employees to recover from the stress of work and recharge batteries. It is also a great opportunity to make resolutions about what can be done to protect physical and mental wellbeing back in the workplace to achieve a better work/life balance.

Taking annual leave

For some, even this is a problem, with demanding schedules, lack of resources to cover while they are away, and of course, the workaholic or control streak that prevents them from trusting anyone enough to ever delegate work. But our ancestors fought hard for the right to paid time off, so don’t blow it by not taking full advantage of the opportunity available to you. Take. Your. Annual. Leave.

Switching off

For many, the problem is switching off: learning to let go of the constant need to check messages and overcoming the fear that all your projects will stall without your constant attention. Then there’s the dreaded return to your desk – what has or hasn’t happened, and how to catch up on events and get back into the swing. The key to switching off is planning. Meet your two new best friends – the handover, and the “out of office” (“ooo”) message.

The handover

A good holiday handover really can impress not only your colleagues who are picking up your work, but also your boss. They will be dreading your absence, and the additional work it creates for them, but with some thoughtful planning you can make it bearable and eliminate any ugly resentment.

Regardless of when you are taking time out, start now by maintaining a good summary of the status of all your work projects/clients. This is not only useful to anyone who needs to cover for you, but also helps to ensure that you are always on top of the deadlines and next steps in each of your projects. Then all you need to do is share this with your cover person during the week prior to your leave, and spend some time walking through your inbox or mailbox with them. This not only gives your cover the chance to ask questions, but it also reassures you that the organisation won’t fall apart without you, enabling you to take off and properly relax on your holiday. Your work status acts as your holiday notes – it needs to include key dates, key deliverables, contact names and numbers, passwords for shared systems, etc. Give clear instructions as to how you want to be copied on emails in your absence – cc: , bcc: or “for info only” would be ideal, so that you have the email trail for the record, and you are not a direct recipient who’s expected to reply in the usual time frame.

The out of office message

Set up a helpful out of office message on your email and voicemail systems. This is tricky if you serve a number of clients, because you don’t want to give away the names of all your clients to any incoming mailer or caller, but you can suggest alternate contacts for your various responsibilities: “For Accounting queries contact [name and email] and for Marketing queries contact [name and email] etc.”. Phone numbers are also good for urgent queries.  Make sure those alternate contacts are going to be in the office to respond, and up to speed on current issues via your holiday notes. Don’t forget to leave an up to date voicemail message for any callers to your work numbers – landline and mobile. Make sure that you are clear about your out of office days and set expectations about the degree of availability you will have to check messages – ideally, you will be unable to check messages whilst away, and anyone mailing or calling you during this time needs to know that. You could also provide a group email address that would reach several people in your absence. The advantage of this is that several people will be aware of the email, but the potential disadvantage is that it could end up without an “owner” and still be unresolved on your return. Designating a couple of well-chosen individual alternate contacts is a better option, if available.

Boost your ooo message

If your mailer could be contacting you for information that is available on your website, provide a link to that information in your out of office message, so that simple queries can resolve themselves. Some people even suggest that your out of office message can act as a “pitch” in your absence. A short reminder of where your products and prices can be found on your website could generate a qualified lead on your return!

Don’t apologise for being away or for any delay they may experience in getting a response from your alternate contact – it will set expectations for a seamless service in your absence, which may not be the case. In fact, we should not be apologising for delays in responding to emails at any time for fear of raising expectations of unrealistic and unattainable standards. Taking the urgency out of our everyday work life in this way could make it easier for us all to take downtime when we need it.

Let everybody know

Send everyone in your team, your project sponsors, plus your office receptionist a calendar invite to your out of office days – this isn’t bragging, it’s absolutely necessary as they will forget when you are going and you can’t rely on them to just magically remember which day you are coming back. If possible, agree that someone will meet with you on your first day back to summarise what’s happened in your absence and discuss your immediate “to do” list. Holidays are your right, so you deserve to take them without worrying about a catastrophic impact on your return.

If you’re client-facing with multiple projects or clients to manage, it can be useful to state your holiday dates in your email signature well ahead of your departure. “Please note my forthcoming holiday: I will be out of the office XX to XX December.” Even if you are going to be pretty much out of office at the same time as everyone else, for example over Christmas, at least by giving your colleagues and clients a heads up you can rearrange meetings and deadlines to avoid any last minute mad rush or even worse, some work spilling over into your annual leave due to the failure to plan around your absence.

Update your schedule for all known meetings and deadlines, and check for any meetings that get set up in your calendar in the week before your leave. Make sure there is someone to reassign any significant tasks to – you won’t be popular if you leave this to chance.

Plan your first day back before you leave

This is time well spent. If your holiday is successful – that is, you get to relax and unwind completely - you will not be “ready to rumble” the minute you arrive back to the office, so do everything you can to smooth your way back in. Try not to have back-to-back or early meetings on day one, and set aside some time to check emails the night before. Be prepared for one or two balls to have been dropped, or for something to have popped up from out of the blue. If you’ve done a reasonable job at handover, the impact will not have been horrendous and everyone will be so glad to see you back that they won’t notice that you’ve failed to bring nearly enough holiday sweets back with you. When you are ready, turn off your out of office auto-response message and re-record your voicemail message. Communications are key, and being in control before, during and after your leave will reduce the stress for you, your clients and your colleagues.

Find out what’s happening while you’re away…

I love this story from LinkedIn’s Dublin office – here’s an employee saying not “sorry for taking vacation”, but “sorry for not being around to meet with the visiting CEO Jeff Weiner”, with amusing consequences.

Most of all, be present on holiday

Don’t spoil it for yourself and others by offering to attend a call or Skype meeting whilst away. It is usually completely impractical and unnecessary – if your team/clients can’t survive without you once a year there’s something wrong with your company’s business or service model. I have had many clients say they really dislike hearing that someone is calling in from annual leave.

While you’re away, your job is to work on your wellbeing, and bring back some good life-enhancing habits:

  • Family/partner time, or just getting back to nature and re-discovering your self
  • Sleeping – if you must get up early, get more sleep under a beach parasol
  • Digital detox – not just work emails, but social media in general. Ration the screen time
  • Be in the moment – this time next week you won’t be able to walk barefoot to the sea, so make the most of it
  • Diet – if the locals look good, maybe it’s what they are eating. Make a note to bring some food ideas back with you
  • Exercise – adventure sports are not just for the holidays. Check out places back home where you can further develop your new-found skills
  • Make memories (with or without the help of Instagram)!

For more inspiration before you jet off, see this article and for some great and fun out of office examples, check out this site, especially if you have ever wanted to see what a pair of baby sloths look like in pyjamas.

Next week, I will be looking at a condition that affects 50% of the planet but is as yet barely mentioned in your average suite of HR policies. I wonder what that can be?

Until next week!