The IT pro's vacation planner: Must you unplug to unwind?

Follow our formula now, and you won't feel tempted to check in with the office while on vacation (well, maybe just once or twice ... )

Rod Masney believes it's a key part of his management role to encourage his employees to really disengage from their in high-pressure IT jobs -- to take a week or two at the beach or that long-awaited European tour.

Only problem, the global director of IT infrastructure at Owens-Illinois doesn't follow his own advice much.

"I believe people should strive for work/life balance, but I'm not very balanced," admits Masney, who is also the immediate past chairperson of the Americas' SAP User Group. "My PC bag is like my purse; it goes everywhere I go, and so does my BlackBerry. They're my safety blankets."

He's not alone. IT employees rank high among professionals most likely to contact the office when they're on vacation, second only to salespeople. According to the 2008 Vacation Survey conducted by CareerBuilder.com, of nearly 7,000 U.S. workers polled, 37% of those identified as IT employees plan to contact the office while on vacation, compared with 50% of sales professionals and just 15% of retail workers.

And some 19% of IT workers said their employer expects them to work or check voice mail and e-mail during their time off. (See Guilty pleasure for more statistics.)

Other tech professionals never even make it that far. Data from NFI Research in Madbury, N.H., found that 75% of IT workers have four weeks or more of vacation coming to them, but that only 39% of that group takes their allotted time.

Tips for taking off

Clearly, when the goal is to take time off without checking into the office, tech employees have the deck stacked against them (see Why IT stays home). Nevertheless, according to IT pros and human resource experts, it is possible to stay in the loop and recharge during your precious time off. Just follow this formula:

Do the prep work before you leave -- let people know in advance the dates you'll be away and finish up key deliverables before you go.

Surround yourself with good people who can reliably step up to the plate and solve problems when they occur. Encourage your staff to "backstop" one another so expertise is interchangeable and the department doesn't rely solely on one individual to get any one task done.

Establish escalation and problem-solving policies and document them well so there's clarity on what to do and who to call in the event of an emergency -- say, a network outage or any other type of system crash.

Guilty pleasure

IT workers who said their employer expects them to work or check voice mail and/or e-mail during their vacation.
19%
IT workers who feel guilty that they do not work when on vacation.
14%
IT workers who have lied to their employer -- saying they were going somewhere inaccessible -- to avoid being contacted while on vacation.
10%
IT workers who fear they could lose their job if they take a vacation.
8%

Source: CareerBuilder.com 2008 Vacation Survey of 6,987 U.S. workers

IT management needs to address vacation planning just as they would cover the departure of a key employee, says Eric Presley, chief technology officer at CareerBuilder.com. "You expect that you can absorb some turnover without projects being delayed -- it should be a similar thing when people go on vacation. There shouldn't be significant issues and have everything held up because a single person is out."

To that end, he himself has identified a backup leader in his absence and put formal escalation policies in place so staffers are clear on what to do and who to contact when a hot issue arises.

Schedule vacations carefully -- yours and those of your co-workers and direct reports -- to avoid big project deliverables and ensure there's ample backup for day-to-day activities and routine ongoing projects.

In general, plan vacation time when work volume is not at its peak. "Scheduling vacations when people's mind-sets are different -- around July 4th or the Christmas holiday -- is a good idea because people are not getting high volumes of work done and there are fewer expectations," says NFI Research CEO Chuck Martin, co-author of Smarts: Are We Hardwired for Success?.

Cut a deal with a peer to cover some of your work while you're out in exchange for doing the same during his vacation. That way, there won't be a huge pileup of must-do tasks waiting for you upon your return.

Stay as lightly in touch as possible and encourage your vacationing employees to do likewise.

Stay lightly in touch? How is that last point possible? Easy, says NFI's Martin.

By using voice mail and e-mail to screen out all but the most genuine of emergencies, managers who can't let go completely can monitor what's going on back at the office without actually taking action or initiating a response. Reading e-mails without replying or checking only certain e-mails are good ways to set boundaries, as is resisting the urge to call in.

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