We've all done it. Sworn to stay completely uncoupled from the office during a vacation, only to check email and get drawn into a work issue -- going from relaxed to tensed up in minutes.
While most IT professionals appreciate the need for a healthier work/life balance, many still struggle to disconnect while on vacation. But new research shows that the tide is turning -- techies at all levels are feeling less pressure to be connected to work during their downtime.
A recent TEKsystems survey of more than 1,000 IT professionals indicates that organizations are making adjustments to ensure that employees can achieve a more satisfactory work/life balance. And the numbers bear this out: Among the entry- and midlevel workers polled by the IT staffing firm, 85% reported that they aren't expected to be available at any time during their vacations, up from 74% in 2014. The change was even more significant for senior personnel: 83% of those respondents said they aren't expected to make themselves available while they're on vacation, up from a mere 30% last year.
While those statistics are encouraging, many people still struggle to find that balance. Here are a few tips from IT professionals who have learned how to make vacation time really work.
1. Get away when business is slow
"It's a challenge for anyone in IT to get away for a number of reasons," says Chris J. Meyers, IT manager at accounting and tax services firm James Moore & Co., which has three offices in Florida. "Everything is a fire when your firm is running at a billable rate."
"I've handled a help call in my kayak in the middle of a lake," he says. "The last time was around Christmas -- a WAN went down."
Meyers says he checks in via email often, and has his team contact him by text in case of emergencies while he's away. But even with those communications channels, taking time off is still difficult. "I can't remember the last time I took a two-week vacation. It had to have been 10 years ago," he says.
Instead, Meyers tries to coordinate his time off with business cycles, opting for one-week breaks or days off that wrap around long weekends or other holidays. Sometimes, he says, "escaping to the Everglades in the middle of the summer where there is no service is the only way to completely relax."
2. Develop a contact protocol
For Joe Piazza, enterprise platform architect for the Andover, Mass., town government and the Andover public school system, the summer months -- ironically -- are the busiest, and essentially off-limits for vacations.
"If I'm going to take a full week or even two-week vacation, it's during the school year," he says. "Summer is especially difficult for those who work IT in K-12 because it's the time to do major projects and updates that will be least disruptive."
When he does get away, Piazza monitors his phone and email because he wants to stay on top of any problems that escalate, but he also wants the peace of mind that comes from knowing everything is running smoothly.
Having a primary contact person and making sure the entire team knows the emergency protocols are two other steps that help put Piazza at ease. "The first contact is the customer service manager, who oversees the help desk and dispatches technicians to deal with customer issues in the classroom," he says.
And because Piazza is part of a team of three people who each have different skill sets, the organization is exploring cross-training options.
3. Trust your team
Randy Kuehntopp, vice president of IT at healthcare services provider ProNerve, says vacations boost his overall productivity. But he adds that it took time for him to learn how to step away from work.
"If you're having a hard time disconnecting, you're probably doing something wrong," says Kuehntopp, who explains that although he does give a few people the ability to contact him in case of emergency, he doesn't check in at all while he's on vacation. Instead, he puts his trust in a talented and reliable team that can deal with critical issues in his absence.
The same is true for Jennifer Minella, vice president of engineering at Carolina Advanced Digital in Cary, N.C., who admits that learning to disconnect was a process of changing her habits and mindset.
"I'd tell myself that I was just going to check my mail to stay ahead of the curve and delete the junk," she says. "But checking it wasn't putting me ahead, it was putting me behind."
Minella says her process for ensuring that everything runs smoothly in her absence has three elements: preparation, team and mindset.
The preparation includes setting her email to auto-reply to start notifying partners, customers and colleagues that she'll be out of the office a few days or even a week before she actually goes away.
And she relies on her team to handle critical situations. "It's important to be surrounded by people you trust, to be able to offload and to enable them to make authorizations in your absence," Minella says.
But above all, unplugging requires a change in mindset. That means "being OK with not staying on top of things," she says. "In our heads we always think we are working." But in fact it's the time we spend not working that might be just the break we need.