While on vacation in Ocean City, Md. a few years back with his wife and kids, Michael Adler got a panic-stricken call from the office. At the time he was working at Symantec, which was in the throes of an acquisition, and an intellectual property problem had arisen. As vice president of engineering and enterprise mobility, Adler had to take what he calls "a vacation from my vacation" for an entire day. Armed with his cell phone and a computer at a local library, he ended up working remotely for seven hours. (He is now vice president of engineering at digital marketing company Constant Contact.)
"It was pretty intense. It became just a regular workday -- I just wasn't in the office," recalls Adler. "The availability of technology allowed me to do it, but it's not healthy. I literally lost a Friday of my vacation week and I was supposed to be on the beach."
Adler's story is far from unusual. With companies operating 24x7 and employees increasingly working from mobile devices, the pressure on IT staff to stay in touch even when they are on vacation is becoming almost an unspoken requirement.
On the whole, IT workers take less vacation than other types of professional workers, says Jack Cullen, president of Modis, a global provider of IT staffing services. "I wouldnt say they 'lose' vacation time," as they often can cash in any unused time off for wages at year end, but recently IT staffers "have taken less time off than in the past" due to more IT projects going on these days, as well as an undersupply of some IT titles.
Even while on vacation, "folks in IT feel [they] need to be checking in . . . there's a lot going on during the day, and some of them have come back and said 'I don't even think it was worthwhile taking a vacation, given that I was connected pretty much all the way through,'" Cullen explains, of what he has heard from IT workers.
"Generally speaking, most managers want to make sure their employees are taking time away from the office and recharging their batteries and getting quality time to themselves or with families," says John Reed, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half Technology. However, if an IT person is involved in a time-sensitive project that is critical to the company, "there is an implied expectation you would be periodically checking email for updates in case there is something really critical that required a response or opinion on something."
A 2013 survey by TEKsystems, the largest IT staffing firm in North America, revealed that more than 80% of organizations made no staffing or workload adjustments during IT staff summer vacations. Some 67% of the 200 respondents at all levels of IT indicated their vacations have been interrupted by work demands.
There is also no rest for the weary when it comes to senior IT professionals, since working vacations are increasingly becoming the norm. The 2014 TEKsystems survey, which included responses from 224 IT staffers, found that 47% of senior IT professionals are expected to be available 24x7 while on vacation (up from 44% in 2013), compared to 18% of entry- to mid-level IT professionals (a decrease from 20% in 2013).
These statistics map to other studies. An April 2014 Glassdoor online survey of 2,022 adults (not specific to IT) said that the average employee takes only half of his or her vacation time, and 61% of respondents said that when they do take time off, they do some work.
Getting worse for senior-level staffers
For some IT workers, the problem seems to be getting worse. The percentage of senior IT professionals who said their workplaces did not expect them to be available during vacation shrank from 33% in 2013 to 30% in 2014, according to the most recent TEKsystems survey, while the percentage of entry- to mid-level IT professionals not expected to be available increased from 71% in 2013 to 74% in 2014.
Generally speaking, the more senior your position, the higher the expectations that you'll be available, especially when problems occur, says Jason Hayman, research manager at TEKsystems. One reason that expectations for senior execs are typically high is due to the fact that they tend to be more involved in mission-critical initiatives, he adds.