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 ... )

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Martin also suggests drastic action on the voice-mail front. Leaving an outgoing message saying you're out won't deter callers from rambling on anyhow in the hopes you'll check in and solve their problem from afar, he reasons. The only sure-fire solution: Fill up your voice-mail in-box before you depart so people can't leave a message and won't expect action.

Another key Martin tip: If there's an ongoing issue that you know is a potential trouble spot, force yourself to skip over related e-mails. Most often, the problem will resolve itself -- or more precisely, your brilliant team will solve it -- without your having to follow all the ins and outs along the way.

"Don't respond. Be passive," Martin says. "If you're not interactive, no one knows you're connected." By keeping yourself in the loop, but inconspicuously so, you'll be apprised of what went on in your absence without having to actually intervene. In the worst case, this strategy does allow you to jump in from your vacation if a true four-star emergency blows up.

No BlackBerry? No way.

For years, Robert Rosen was one of those CIOs who believed everything would come to a screeching halt if he or any of his key people were out of touch with the shop. Then this past winter, he came down with a flu so severe it kept him out of the office and even off e-mail for an entire week.

Lo and behold, nothing fell apart. "I was so sick, I didn't look at my BlackBerry," recounts Rosen, CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, in Bethesda, Md., and immediate past president of Share, the IBM user group. "It took me 20 years to learn this lesson that no one is irreplaceable."

So does that mean Rosen now feels free to vacation with zero contact with the office? Not quite. Rosen did schedule a totally out-of-contact cruise to the west coast of Mexico, where he couldn't get cell phone or Internet access for nearly a week, but he did break down and peek quickly at his e-mail when the ship made a port of call.

CareerBuilder's Presley isn't having any of that. Every summer, he takes a camping trip for a week with his family in the Smoky Mountains. "There's no phone, no BlackBerry access. There isn't even a shower," says Presley. "For me, it's great because I totally get away."

Presley feels strongly that CIOs and IT managers can't effectively do their jobs over the long term if they don't create a strategy for prioritizing time away -- completely away.

"If you can't take off for a week, you haven't structured the responsibilities and day-to-day interaction of the team properly," Presley asserts. "People are all too happy to take their BlackBerries with them and act like a hero checking in at 5 a.m. [But] it's up to the leader to put a proper backup plan in place and encourage them not to do that."

John Halamka's not on board with that plan. Halamka, CIO of the CareGroup Healthcare System, a group of leading Boston-based hospitals, doesn't see any point in completely checking out while on vacation. His in-box would be too cluttered, he maintains, and there would be far too much stress and worry during the vacation over how he would possibly catch up.

Therefore, Halamka, who is also CIO and dean for technology at Harvard Medical School, has come up with his own strategy to strike a balance between work and play. He schedules time off only in August when a lot of his IT constituents are not around and there aren't new projects scheduled. He's also built a first-responder team and put escalation procedures in place that aren't dependent on any one person. And he's designated a second-in-command who covers for him when he's gone.

Then, when he's on vacation, Halamka sets aside time in the early morning and then again at night to answer e-mails and take care of pressing work matters. "If you don't bring your laptop or your BlackBerry, the definition of vacation doesn't work," he maintains. "All it does it defer work."

Yet even though he's never fully out of touch, Halamka feels strongly that IT professionals at all levels absolutely need to get away.

"In this crazy, Internet-connected world we live in and the accelerating pace of projects and stress, it's important to have people separate," he says. "People say they can't possibly let go, but I get 700 e-mails a day and am responsible for keeping 40,000 people up and running, and I still take two weeks off every August. It's about striking that right balance."

Stackpole has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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