Monday, August 18, 2008

The importance of being absent

For the first time in several years I only had a one week summer holiday, now admittedly this was because I also had one week in Paris about a month ago so it isn't too tough. During the week away I was completely off from work this means
  • No work phone
  • No checking email (didn't even take the security card so I couldn't do web access)
  • No contact at all
It was a great break, although the weather was a bit crap. Coming back I have "quite" a lot of emails, only 250 as its August. These break down into broadly 4 groups
  1. Circular & email lists - standards bodies, HR and that sort of thing. No issues here
  2. Urgent requests for information - only one of these is now within time and they've managed to get the information from elsewhere while I was away
  3. Urgent requests for my feedback - about 40 of these, 38 appear to be not as urgent as the original email said as they've then followed up the out-of-office with a "when you get back", 1 has expired and the other one I'm doing this morning
  4. Problems that went away
Its the last group that are the ones that would have killed the holiday. There are only a few (about 6) but they all follow the same pattern
  1. Urgent email asking for help
  2. Email sent cc'ing in others asking for how to contact me
  3. Alternative resolution suggested
  4. End of thread
Now a few of these are now in my inbox and I'll deal with them. But its much better to deal with them after a week by the sea relaxing (if having two young kids can be described as relaxing) with me in a good frame of mind than doing it remotely, being annoyed and having an annoyed family. It also has the added benefit of having flagged up on high that I'm critical to some important things (if I'd done the work on my holiday it wouldn't have been so visible) and that I'm controlling my own time.

The reason I bring this up is that too often in IT people burn themselves up with a mistaken view that working on holiday somehow makes you more valuable. It doesn't, it makes you an idiot and sets the expectations of others that you will do exactly what they ask, no matter how unreasonable it is. Holidays are there to be taken, its your right to take them and a decent company should be more than happy for you to take them as it makes sure you are more productive. The same goes for weekends, evenings and nights. I work late quite a lot, but only when I'm project managing or powerpoint/word writing. Coding means being fresh which means getting in the sleep.

If you work through your holiday then you are basically just saying that your life is less important to you than what work wants you to do. Does this mean you are more likely to get a pay rise? No. Want to know why?

Well first off your working in the holiday won't be visibile, if you get the work done then you'll get a pat on the head but nothing more. If it goes wrong you'll still get it in the neck and be blamed back at base "We are still waiting on George to deliver" and you can bet that the rider of "because he is currently trekking in Peru and only has a pigeons for communication" won't be added. This means that you don't get visibile credit and you do get visibile issues.

Secondly you are covering up for someone elses problem. Unless you have buggered up, in which case it is your fault, then the odds are someone else has made an error of either planning or execution which means they need your help to dig them out of the hole. If this is the PM on a project then you can bet they will take the credit and won't like to be reminded of their error.

Thirdly you are valuing your time cheaply. Why give a big pay-rise to someone who works 365 days a year already? Its not like they can do more.

I was told something in pretty much my first job when I was put under-pressure to cancel a holiday. The PM raised the issue up to the director that I wasn't "co-operating" and he summoned me to his office and said
Take your holidays and make sure we can't contact you. If it screws while you are away up we might shout, but we'll remember that only you could fix it.
Its a message that has served me well. When I've been asked to work weekends I've asked for compensation, and got it. When I've been asked to cancel holidays I've told people to go hang, although on one occasion I did agree to do 3 days while on holiday, the company then paid for all two weeks and I did the work on the flight out there.

My point is this. Keeping in contact doesn't make you more important, it makes you more of a fool. It won't get you the rewards and it certainly won't get you the recognition.

When you take a break, plan for the break, make sure you have done everything that you should have done and everything that you are responsible for. Then get the hell out of there. Whenever a PM complained to me about people being on holiday being an issue I saw it as their problem and their fault for not planning and noted down the people who were the "issue" as being the people to reward.

Ditch the phone, ditch the email, ditch the contact. Kick back and relax. You'll feel better and others will feel better towards you now that they know they can't push you around so much.

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The Simplist said...

This is a very nicely expressed post and worthy advice.

What eats me up while on vacation are the possibilities. No matter how much damage control you do, things will require attention and you somehow need to be in position to counter it. Especially if you own a significant piece of the business and the entity is relatively small.

When you get an RFI, no matter how urgent, there's likely to be a back-up in an entity like yours since the knowledge bank is bigger.

Any advice on how you can keep your head clear and focus on having fun?

I prefer the option of NOT being cutoff and spending a small window every day (30mins) to delegate or send a personal note vs. an auto-responder. The same person who tells you "this can wait" will probably appreciate that more.



Steve Jones said...


What can you usefully do in 30 mins? It takes me that long to trawl through a days emails normally. What you are doing is staying mentally in work mode. After you send the email you will think "I could just do 2 hours tomorrow" and then BANG! the vacation is gone.

If you are owning a business area and it could go pear shaped in a week then you have significant issues, but if you really, really cannot relax then make it incredibly painful to disturb you. Set up a new email address which is to be used during the vacation. Don't use your work phone and only let a few people know your personal number.

A few years ago I had such a situation and my message was that my PA had my private number and a private email address and was under express orders to prevent people contacting me. There was a major disaster (not my fault, but mine to solve) while I was away and this route was used to send out the distress flare. Everyone was hugely apologetic and hugely embarrassed at disturbing me.

The point is that being disturbed should be the absolute exception, not 30 minutes a day.

I don't care if someone appreciates a personal note more than an auto-responder. What I do know is that if I get hold of a person then I'm going to dump on them. If I get an auto-responder I'll find another way.


Steve Jones said...

On the 2nd point which is getting your head clear then my advice there is to do active holidays. Personally I go stir crazy on a beach so I do Sailing, Surfing, Snorkelling, Windsurfing, Snowboarding, Mountain Biking or indeed anything else to keep me focused and above all knackered at the end of the day.

Its really hard to worry about work when doing something like this

The Simplist said...

That makes sense. You could just raise the barrier to access and make it worth your time.

As for being away for a week and the business going pear-shaped, the point here was that the dynamics are different. Smaller consulting firms like mine are more SWAT-team like in nature. When you are responsible for a rapid-reaction setup, distress flares are a currency.

Thanks for the advice on switching off. It seems the reality of it all is that anybody good in our field can never really switch off. You can substitute the mental activity for something else, but the moment you have nothing to do, the mind wanders back to what we do.