What vacation? Expect to work while you're away

The situation's getting worse for some, but many CIOs are aware and are doing what they can to mitigate it.

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"Additionally, their specific expertise is more 'rare' as compared with entry- to mid-level IT pros -- so if something happens there is not another resource to allocate to that effort," because senior IT staffers often possess very specific/niche skill sets that cannot be easily replicated, Hayman adds. And to keep projects moving ahead while they are out, senior IT execs need to check in and provide resolutions to whatever may be causing a project to halt momentarily, he says.

While not specifically geared to vacation time, a 2013 survey by Robert Half Technology found that 73% of CIOs check in with work "often" or "somewhat often" on evenings and weekends. The survey of 2,300 CIOs at random U.S. companies also found that only 14% said they never check in outside normal business hours.

Harry Roberts, CIO of Century 21 department stores, says most CIOs assume that they have to be available at all times. "You're at the company's disposal," he says. "I take the operation seriously so I would say there's rarely a time when I'm on vacation when I don't have to do something" related to work. That could be reading emails, addressing something urgent or getting back to someone who needs to talk to him, or dealing with a system or budgetary issue.

"When I'm on vacation on any given day I budget at least one hour of time" for work, says Roberts. "It's just the nature of the beast."

Juggling summertime projects

Dave Jackson, director of IT and CIO at Welch's, says it's up to staff to manage their vacation time; scheduling must be done with their managers' approval. "We allow people to carry over vacation due to mission-critical projects," he adds. Welch's has about 30 internal IT employees and 20 contractors.

When there is a project underway, most of his people have a backup, even in the summer. The Welch's fiscal year ends on Aug. 31, so often there are significant projects that need to be completed during the summer. But, Jackson says, people are aware of that coming into the summer months, and if they want time off they need to work with their business process owner.

"We encourage people to plan ahead and work with their backup and communicate with them and schedule tasks accordingly," he says. "It hasn't really been too much of a problem over the last five years."

   Dave Jackson
"We try hard not to bother someone" while on vacation, says Dave Jackson, CIO at Welch's, but "if they're working four hours while they're on vacation they don't have to count that as vacation time."

Jackson says the company really works to make sure IT staff schedule vacation time. "We have several folks who are from India, and what they like to do is save up their vacation time and go back to India for three to four weeks at a time, and we allow them to do that. We also allow them to work from India while they're there. We try our best to be flexible in situations like that."

Jackson says his IT staff is a very dedicated group of people who will take their PCs with them on vacation and check in and make sure things are taken care of while they're gone. "We try hard not to bother someone ... [but] if they're working four hours while they're on vacation they don't have to count that as vacation time."

As a retailer with a heavy ecommerce presence, Roberts says IT needs to keep the lights on 24x7. "Within my organization we spread the load and know when folks go on vacation, and try to have others cover for them," he says.

Specialists on call

However, "like many retailers we don't have 14 people covering the same system. So sometimes we have to call people." Members of his team all carry a smartphone, and most have the ability to access systems while they are mobile. He estimates that someone will get called while they are on vacation less than 25% of the time. "We try to respect vacations but the reality is it happens." There are specialists who are really the only ones who can address an issue, he says.

Century 21 has roughly 50 IT people; about half are on the development/application side and the other half are on the break/fix or computer operations side. The business analysts, who are on the development side and interact with end users as well as troubleshoot business issues, are the ones who probably have the biggest challenge when they go away in terms of making sure they have coverage.

Roberts says they actively cross-train certain IT staff but "the reality is there's always going to be pockets of people or someone who's the 'expert,' and something happens where we need to have that person. There are people who are great at financial systems and merchandising systems, but there's different business acumen in some cases."

Roberts himself takes usually one vacation where he's out of the office five to six days -- but almost never is gone for an entire week. "We're a progressive company and IT is now the center of everything. That's my personal preference -- making myself available every week of the year."

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