I recently took five days out of office for the first time since the pandemic hit. We did a big road trip down to southern Utah for some red rocks church, then east into Colorado for some winter hiking. These days when I take a vacation, it’s a vacation-vacation. I don’t respond to email, I don’t check in on Slack, I don’t send one quick message “before I forget.” I’m unplugged, enjoying my time off and modeling that behavior for my team.
When I returned, I had a number of DMs in my in-box that all basically said the same thing: “How do you actually go on vacation, when bosses/co-workers keep texting/calling/emailing you and you feel guilty for using your PTO?” I’m assuming many of you are planning summer trips now that we have a vaccine and things are opening back up, and wondering how to make the most of that paid personal time.
This is all about boundaries. Welcome to my favorite TED Talk.
In thinking about how I plan for a vacation, I realized I do quite a few things well ahead of time to make sure my trip is truly personal time, and I’ve set the expectation with my team that I’m truly OUT OF OFFICE. Here are some of the boundaries I set:
Prep everyone that you’re going away. I sent emails a week ahead of time to my team, colleagues, people I was working on projects with, and anyone I had regular communications with saying, “Heads-up, I’m OOO between Wednesday 2/17 and Tuesday 2/23.” If there was even the slightest chance a regular weekly meeting could go on without me, I told someone on my team to take notes and fill me in on the high-level stuff when I got back. If it couldn’t, I rescheduled it ahead of time (not the day I returned though—keep reading), so I wasn’t scrambling to cram it in when got back. I also let folks know who to contact if they had an issue in my absence.
Heads-up, this is an excellent opportunity to make sure you’re not the only one who knows how to do something in your office. If no one else can approve the invoice/edit the spreadsheet/place the purchase order, use the time before your trip to train someone on that task.
Prep your team that you will not be checking emails, Slack, texts, etc. Have this conversation in-person with your boss first: “Hi boss! Just a reminder that I’m on vacation next week, and I’ll be completely off the grid. Can I send folks to you if they need help while I am out, or would you prefer I direct them to (co-worker)?” Once you have your boss’s directives,send a note to your co-workers and cc: your boss: “Reminder that I’ll be on vacation from X through X. I won’t be checking email and will not be available via text or phone. (Boss) said to speak with (co-worker/boss) if you need assistance while I am out.”
If you get push-back from your co-workers: “I’ll be ready to pitch in when I get back, but I’m not available for work-related issues while I’m away on personal time. (Boss) said to check in with them if there is an emergency you can’t handle on your own.”
If you get push-back from your boss: “I’ll be ready to pitch in when I get back, but I only get so many paid days off, and I need to hold that space for myself. (If you manage people): It’s also important that I model this for my team, so they know we support their mental health and respect our HR policies. If you have an emergency, (co-worker) said they would help in my absence.”
Set your away message with a clear boundary. In your away message (you must set one for everyone-internal and external), make it clear you will not be checking emails, and do not give outsiders the option to reach you another way. Mine says. “I’ll be out of the office from X through X and will not be checking email during this time. If this is urgent, email firstname.lastname@example.org.” (My team knows how to get in touch with me if it’s truly urgent issues, as do my close friends)
HOLD YOUR BOUNDARY. This is the hardest part! Don’t check e-mail. Don’t even OPEN your email… probably. (More on this in a minute.) Turn notifications off email, Slack, and anything else work-related. If you get texts or phone calls from the office, do not answer them. Better yet, have your phone on DND while you are away, so you’re not tempted. You are the only one who can preserve this space for you. HOLD IT.
If this feels uncomfortable… have a quiet back-up plan with a trusted co-worker. “Hey Mary, just between us—I’m holding space for my vacation, but if people from work call me I’ll feel pressure to listen to the voice mails, and that will ruin my trip. If something comes up that you think I absolutely, positively NEED to interrupt my vacation for, text me with a heads-up. If I don’t hear from you, I’m not checking anything until I get back. Got it?”
Maybe check your email? Here’s a tip that really depends on your Gretchen Rubin Tendency. If you’re an Upholder or Rebel, this is probably for you. If you’re a Questioner or Obliger, not so much. When I’m on vacation, I check my email once a day just to delete newsletters, announcements, stuff I don’t need to respond to because someone else is handling (like bill approvals), and other “junk” mail, so my in-box doesn’t look SO cluttered when I get back. Because I am comfortable holding this boundary, I will NOT touch any other emails, and I can see 100 emails piled up and not feel stressed or anxious about what is going on without me.
If you think you’ll be tempted to open “just one email” or “send this one reply real quick,” skip it. Once you Red Rover your way across that boundary line, you open yourself up to, “You sent that other email, why didn’t you reply to mine?” or “On your last vacation, you still handled some emails.” DON’T DO IT.
BONUS: Add an extra day. If you’re out of office Monday through Friday and you come back from your trip on Sunday afternoon, what inevitably happens Sunday night? Anxiety, stress, and preoccupation with how busy Monday will be. So if you can, take Monday “off.” Tell your boss and co-workers you’re OOO, but use the day to go through your in-box, draft or plan your replies (but don’t send them), work on that project, do laundry and meal prep, and head into your Tuesday with your feet under you. Trust, this makes a huge difference. If you can’t take an extra day or don’t want to eat into your already slim vacation allocation, do your best to keep Monday meeting and call-free, so you actually have time to dig back into your to-do list, answer important emails, and catch up with your team.
Setting boundaries and expectations well ahead of time is the key to making sure all of your out-of-office plans are smooth sailing. Now all that is left is to enjoy your vacation!