On Vacation (for Real!)

More than 75% of workers plan to vacation more and check in with the office less. Can leaders adjust to a new reality?

One member of the team hasn’t had a day off in six months and desperately needs a vacation to avoid burning out. Another member wants to take a week off to spend quality time with his kids before the school year starts again. And a third is finally going on the trip to Europe that got delayed because of the pandemic. The trouble is, they all want their time off during the same week.

Many leaders barely needed to think about staff vacations through the pandemic, with so many layoffs and those employed skipping much of their time off. But a new reality is setting in this summer: in a recent Korn Ferry survey, nearly 80% of people say they plan to use more vacation days this year, while 82% say they will check in with the office less—if at all—while away.

It all comes at a challenging time for many firms. Already facing the greatest labor shortage in a generation, they are now trying to juggle that with stacks of vacation requests. But according to Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for leadership development, the drain and strain of the pandemic is changing worker attitudes around vacation. “We are seeing more and more concern over wellness, burnout, and psychological safety,” he says.

For instance, instead of checking emails while away, people are now leaving out-of-office notes proactively telling clients not to leave messages and to contact them upon their return. Evelyn Orr, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, says there has also been a move toward prenotifying people about an upcoming vacation. “It’s a nice way to let people know when you are going to be out so they can quickly wrap up any necessary business beforehand,” Orr says of the trend.

The emphasis on not being tethered to the office while on vacation is yet another pandemic-inspired change from recent history. To be sure, the norm has been for people to not just check in with the office but also work while on vacation. And it isn’t because they love what they do—44% of people polled by Korn Ferry cite “having to put out fires” as the primary reason for working while on vacation, and 56% say they have had to cancel or cut short vacation because of work pressure.

But managers and corporate chiefs are of two minds about worker vacations. While it is true that employees often return from vacation energized and more productive, companies also benefit from people who do more than they are paid to do. The financial services, healthcare, and media industries, for instance, are notorious for making people work on a weekend, day off, or while on vacation and not paying them extra to do so. In industry parlance it’s called “charity work,” or people putting in time on the job when they don’t have to.

The attention on unplugging comes at a time when many companies are trying to fill vacancies of as much as 20% to meet mounting consumer demand. The dynamic may leave short-staffed managers debating if they need to call people back while they’re away on vacation. In response, Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources for the Americas, says leaders need to be diligent about scheduling to avoid such scenarios. He says after the mental and emotional taxing employees absorbed last year, not honoring personal time away from the office this summer is the surest way to lose what employees still remain.

Or, as Baltzley says, any leader who is grumbling about people taking more time off and checking in less is living in denial. Referring to the number of people who have resigned from jobs or not returned to the workforce since the pandemic, he says, “most managers today should be grateful to have employees come back to work from vacation at all.”