I didnt plan to write this week about my recent 10-day vacation to the hinterlands of Wisconsin, mainly because nothing much happened to write about, which is a good thing. But upon returning, a Wall Street Journal column caught my eye. Jared Sandbergs weekly Cubicle Culture column is always interesting, and the Aug. 25 edition about workaholics on vacation, “Workaholics Use Fibs, Subterfuge to Stay Connected on Vacation,” was no exception.
Sandberg cataloged several instances of the lengths that people-who-need-to-be-connected will go to stay in touch with the home office while supposedly on vacation. For instance, there was the guy who spent much of his time in Florida driving around in search of a cell signal. And the woman vacationing in Hawaii who smuggled along her BlackBerry against the wishes of her husband and checked e-mail from the bathroom and closet. Even here at eWEEK, we have reporters and editors who are popping up all the time on e-mail while theyre supposed to be on vacation.
Its not just so-called workaholics who need to be online. Im certainly as guilty as the next worker who feels the tug of the wire(less) while away, and Im not condemning the folks in Sandbergs column. But theres something unsettling when we need to be “on” all the time, even when were granted the opportunity to be “off.”
Not only are people working while on vacation, many are not taking time off at all. A recent (and shamelessly self-promoting) survey by Expedia.com reported that 30 percent of employed adults give up earned vacation time, totaling 415 million vacation days a year. Thats a lot of free productivity.
A sociologist quoted in the Sandberg column said that new connectivity technologies enable people to channel their work energies like never before. This could be interpreted as an apology for the technologically addicted, but I dont see that as the real source of the problem. The bigger issue, it seems, is that the desire to be connected at all costs is not as much about technology as it is about the workplace.
We spend as many as 50 weeks a year developing teams, networks and processes to get the job done—well enough, we hope, so if one member is missing or out of the loop, things can still get done. But for some reason during those two (or more) weeks on vacation, we think that things will fall apart without us. By constantly checking, we could be sending a signal that we dont trust our teams or partners enough, sabotaging the team culture we are trying to build.
On the other hand, connectivity addiction may stem from our paranoia. We worry that we are putting ourselves at risk if were out of contact, fearful that a new business opportunity may slip away or that someone may step in and fill our role better than we did—and maybe at a lower salary, too.
Obviously, there are some people who cant afford to be out of touch. To be sure, if I owned my own business, I probably would never trust anyone to mind the store while I was away. But even important sales clients must realize that sales representatives need time off and that a good rep will have solid assistants or proxies to fill in when the boss is away.
For the vast majority of workers, a little disconnected time—really disconnected—could do them and their co-workers a world of good. The trust shown in them would allow underlings to experience a little more responsibility than theyre used to getting and perhaps open up new opportunities for productivity and growth for everyone on the team.
Anyway, I made a conscious effort to leave my laptop and PDA behind on my vacation. I have brought them along in the past, rationalizing that I could at least keep my mailbox clear of spam. But there would be no phone line in the cabin we rented, and the nearest Starbucks was more than 60 miles away in Green Bay. I did take my cell phone but quickly found out it was useless anyway (thank you, T-Mobile). The closest I got to the Internet was the horrible screech of a 56K-bps modem from a computer in a nearby lodge. I thought, briefly, about checking my mail but fought off the urge. By the end of the week, I felt I had experienced a real vacation, rather than just time away from the office.
Scot Petersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.