I took a day off work yesterday. Unplanned. One of my hobbies is hiking and backpacking. I find a lot of enjoyment in wilderness areas and decided that work could wait for a day. Then this morning as I started my routine, I realized I needed to send an email to a coworker and was struck by the implication of part of the out of office response I received from him.


It makes sense for us to let people know that we’re away, right? But what doesn’t make sense is the implication that there might be a chance that we will still respond to email (or voice mail, or Slack messages, and so on), even when taking time off. My coworker notes “… and will have limited access to emails.” Shouldn’t the implication already be that he won’t be responding to email? Why do we feel the need to let people know that, in addition to taking personal time off, we’re also not going to answer email?

I have a couple of ideas why we often feel the need to include caveats in our notifications to coworkers about time off that we won’t be responding to email or answering the phone and what is driving this unhealthy idea that even though we’re gone — taking personal time — we still feel like we either need to be responsive, or at least appear as if we’re responsive:

  1. Poor leadership. I come back to this a lot, and blame a lot of problems on poor leadership. Often managers don’t support time off for their employees. Sure, overtly they say that employees should use time off, but do their actions and company policies really support time off?
  2. The 24/7 workplace. We have email buzzing our phones at all times of the day, everyday. Some bosses actually expect a response, and some employees believe their response is imperative, regardless of the time. In Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarjan remark in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review: “… any suggestion of meaningful outside interests and commitments can signal a lack of fitness for the job” (Reid & Ramarajan, 2016). The coworker I talked about above is also a member of some of my team’s Slack channels and actually called me in the evening, wondering what I needed because he kept getting Slack notifications on his phone. My response: “I have no expectation that you’ll respond to me while you’re on personal time.” And “you know, there are ways to turn off notifications.”
  3. There is an unhealthy perception in some organizations that taking time away from work is for the weak, and to make sure everyone understands one’s commitment to work employees have to make sure their coworkers know they’ll be checking email or answering the phone, even when taking personal time. Too many people believe that time off is bad for effectiveness and profitability. The opposite is true, however: there is mounting proof that demonstrates that taking time from work actually enhances creativity and productivity (Reid & Ramarajan, 2016).
  4. Seat-time is a 20th century concept we should throw away with fax machines and shoulder pads. What we should be paying attention to is simple: quality results done in realistic time frames. While we’re at it, we should throw away the idea that we even need to physically see employees to trust that they’re working. Especially for knowledge workers — we don’t need to see the work being done. That’s foolish and reflects a lack of trust and leadership. If a manager doesn’t know what her employee is doing without them sweating in an adjoining cube, the problem is with the leaders — not the employees.

So, if you’re a leader and you even entertain responses from your employees when they’ve taken personal time — make it stop. Clearly state that you have no expectations at all that they’ll pay attention and participate in any communication with you during those times. Support your employee’s efforts to complete work on schedule and with the expected quality, so they don’t have to waste personal time doing work for you.

If you’re an employee and you’re responding to coworkers or your boss when you’re on personal time — knock it off. You’re training them to expect that behavior. Instead, follow-through with your commitments, meet your deadlines, and get someone to back you up when you’re gone so you can relax and recharge during your personal time and focus on those things that matter most — usually family and friends.

And back to me … here are some pictures from that hiking trip I mentioned at the beginning.