Back to Work—But Slowly

Teams used to hit the ground running in January, but experts say still-weary staffers are returning slowly, creating a new curveball for leaders with first-quarter goals to meet. 

Remember the days when leaders and their teams arrived at work bright-eyed and ready to achieve on January 2nd? That did not happen this year, of course, as that day was a holiday.

But leaders say they noticed that many managers and staffers were still on vacation during the first week of 2023. Others have returned, but with sluggish energy. In one indicator, only about 33% of offices were occupied during the first week of the year, a drop from 48% for the month of the December, according to security-solutions company Kastle Systems. “This is definitely a new tipping point.” says Deepali Vyas, global head of the FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. She says that publicly traded companies that operate on calendar years are particularly affected by the slow returns: “The winter is a terribly challenging time for people to take three consecutive weeks off.”

Experts say part of the issue is school schedules, with many public schools still off during the first week of the year, as well as the upcoming Martin Luther King holiday in the US that creates another three-day weekend. Others say easing into January could also be an extension of summer 2022 vacation trends. A mid-2022 survey by Korn Ferry found that two-thirds of leaders and employees planned to take shorter vacations; it also found that those vacationers tended to check in with the office more often. At the time, economic uncertainty and work demands were mounting. “People weren’t confident that they could step away and keep things moving,” says performance expert Mark Royal, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Now you have pent-up demand for winter time off.” Indeed, winter data from Korn Ferry shows that 67% of professionals surveyed were planning longer end-of-year vacations than in years past.

But a slow start to the New Year can be difficult for firms, such as manufacturers, that rely heavily on getting an early jump on orders. Many leaders say they were caught off guard, expecting the same holiday work patterns as in previous years, when staffers typically disappeared between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but still checked email every day or two. This year, many inboxes were ice-cold for one to three weeks from mid-December until this week. “This year, leaders need to focus on performing—driving sales and profits right out of the gate,” says Christian Hasenoehrl, a senior client partner who leads Korn Ferry’s work with consumer and industrial accounts. He notes that one client worked through the holidays with its leadership team on a turnaround plan for the first quarter. ”It’s hard to start from a total stop,” he says.

Experts say leaders should avoid a negative outlook with workers who are slow to return. Instead, they should set clear targets and define new courses of action for the shorter time frame. “It’s great for everyone to take real breaks after more than two years of crisis, but getting people started and into a normal rhythm is good for people and good for business,” says Leila Lance, advisory leader for Korn Ferry’s Global Technology Market practice. Nothing that spring break isn’t that far off, she adds that getting some “quick wins” can be important. “A quarter can go by fast,” she says.