Managers, Encourage Your Team to Take Time Off
Article by Sabina Nawaz
“I’m going nowhere fast.”
This was the concern one of my clients recently. Her complaint wasn’t about working in quarantine per se, but about her frantic pace and static productivity. With the initial adrenaline rush of the crisis passed, vast numbers of my clients are reporting that they and their teams feel flayed and exhausted to the point of being useless, work demands are on the rise, and the time saved commuting has been converted to meetings that creep earlier into the day and fill the space between dinner and (a too-late) bedtime.
It’s not just our commute times that have been co-opted but also our vacations. With nowhere to go and much to adjust to, most people have cancelled not only their travel reservations but their time off as well.
However, while the number of hours worked is soaring, people’s capacity to focus and produce quality work is diving. Several of my clients — executives and managers, along with their human resource partners — are increasingly seeking guidance on how to unplug and recharge and encourage their employees to do the same. Companies are offering a range of wellness options but also vary in their policies about taking time off, from “we trust you, take care of what you need to” to “take some of your allotted vacation time” to “we need all hands on deck right now and we can figure out time off later.”
Research shows the benefits of vacations to employee productivity and the economy — both of which are currently under threat. Unused vacations have cost U.S. businesses $224 billion a year.
Noticing that managers are deluding themselves about their own and team members’ productivity, I surveyed clients and heard back from 20 of them — in companies ranging from startups to Fortune 30 and universities — located across the U.S. Through a combination of this survey data and individual coaching conversations, here are six strategies for managers on how to approach vacations when so much of the workforce is working from home.
Ensure you’re clear about your organization’s current time-off policy and communicate it to your team. Your communication needs to include your company’s stance on travel, any restrictions back at work if someone does leave town — for example, a lab worker who must be on site after vacation — and risks to public and personal safety. It’s also important to provide employees with references to any government or health official guidance, so they can also take that into account. Being transparent about leave policies allows individuals to consciously weigh trade-offs and enables everyone to operate from the same set of principles.
When working from home, encourage your employees to consider “vacations” as tools for focused family time, caregiving, and self-care. Down time is likely to be devoted to supporting good mental health rather than recreation or travel. Team members of some of my clients try things they’ve never done, just to infuse novelty — such as sketching or singing. Many have rediscovered activities within their immediate reach. On his half day off, one of my clients created a bouquet for his wife from his garden, repaired a bicycle, and read a book that had been sitting on his shelf for a decade. On his next half day off, he plans to go for a bike ride and camp on his deck with his daughters. Shift your organization’s expectations from what you’d do on a traditional vacation — or even a staycation — to envision creative ways to relax using resources lying in plain sight.
The disparity in working conditions is becoming evident in the yield of work based on individual work-from-home circumstances. For example, women academics are publishing fewer papers, presumably because of their disproportionate responsibility at home. With varying demands for inter-generational care and self-care, encourage your employees to take the time they need to balance competing priorities. You might need to provide extra flexibility. Consider providing informal time off, increasing caps on maximum vacation accrual, and encouraging people to take breaks. Especially amid uncertainty, many people might not feel secure about their jobs and will require extra encouragement from their managers before trusting they’re safe while getting some respite. By starting from a place of care and concern for your workforce you reinforce the maxim that people are your strongest asset — and that you’re there for them in good times and bad, regardless of their individual circumstances.
You will need to demonstrate through your own actions that you’re serious about time off. All of my survey participants said it was important to take time off, but many were personally reluctant to unplug. What you say is less important than what you do. For instance, you can declare a day off for the entire organization: One of my clients, analytics company, Sisense, has scheduled a monthly company-sponsored, company-wide self-care day, where nobody works. Establish firm availability boundaries for yourself and share what you did during your time off. Others are more likely to follow when company policies express — and your behaviors demonstrate — what you most value.
It was hard for all survey respondents to know what to do with an extended vacation of more than a week. Instead, encourage your team to take shorter breaks more often — an afternoon every week or a full day here and there. Also, push your team to unplug for at least a day on the weekend, never checking any work messages. Frequent breaks are more helpful because amped up levels of stress mean we can’t always wait for the long-anticipated, lengthy vacations of the past. We need to refuel early and often.
Activate a team
Ask team members where they can share responsibilities and cover for each other so they can rotate times off without stopping work. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow showed how consultants at Boston Consulting Group made significant progress in job satisfaction, work-life balance, and collaboration and effectiveness by taking “predictable time off” from their cell phones while ensuring that their work is covered by a fellow team member during that time. By involving the entire team, you make taking breaks part of the culture — along with supporting and being generous with each other.
Working from home doesn’t mean working all the time. Ease the numbness induced with back-to-back video calls and a long to-do list by reinventing vacations and time off, and encouraging your team to do the same. As Limeade’s CEO Henry Albrecht stated in my survey, “Share the rules, show care, model the behaviors, and trust people to do the right thing.”