The Great Holiday Vacation of 2021: New Rules Apply

Why does it seem as if so many people aren’t working this week? Why the typical holiday vacation break appears to be getting longer. 

Have a lovely vacation!

Look forward to talking in the New Year.

Let’s pick this up in January

Did you notice these email signoffs in your inbox late last week? What about the vast emptiness this week of your voicemail and Slack boxes? And the many coworkers who have gone quiet? These are the telltale signs of The Great Vacation, 2021’s mass corporate movement to simply not work from now until January 3.

Yes, vacation time rules are different this year. Actually, there’s just one rule: instead of taking the traditional week off between December 25 and New Year’s Day, many are on much longer breaks or working part time, whether or not that’s dictated by formal vacation policy. Coworkers and partners disappeared from Zoom and email back around December 17, and experts say at least some managers are quietly not counting the usual vacation-day allocations. “Most companies are shutting down,” says Kristi Drew, global account leader in the Financial Services practice at Korn Ferry. Even firms that conduct holiday business are doing so with a skeleton staff, she says, addressing only essential issues through January.

To be sure, millions of employees at retail and service firms will work throughout the holidays, and not all companies look kindly on such time-off extensions. But many nonessential departments and businesses are closed — a new concept for many US companies, experts say. Historically, most companies have stayed open, allowing workers to take individual vacation days spread across the last two weeks of December, a practice that kept them tethered to the workplace. “When companies let people take vacation intermittently, employees are still bombarded with emails and feel pressure to answer them,” says Bradford Frank, senior client partner in the Technology practice at Korn Ferry. This was the case in December 2020, when many employees theoretically took holiday vacation days, yet remained engaged with the emerging supply-chain, COVID-19, and funding crises.

This Thanksgiving, many HR departments quietly tested out efforts to facilitate employee disengagement over five full days, closing offices and urging nonessential employees not to log into email. It worked: when companies actually close, work ceases. The efforts are being repeated this month across firms globally.

Experts say that vacation trends vary from year to year and that the key is to recognize the shifts and stay in tune with them. Financial results heavily influence holiday work plans, says George Bongiorno, senior client partner in the Human Resources practice at Korn Ferry. “In tough years, people work right through midnight on December 31,” he says. Not this year. Many firms showed strong earnings, with individuals enjoying large equity value boosts and soon, healthy bonuses. “People feel that they’ve earned an extended break,” he says.  

Dan Kaplan, who heads the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry, suggests keeping an eye on the social norms of the year. A few years ago he stepped out of a New Year’s Eve party to close a deal. He says he would not consider that this year. “People would look at me like I’m a moron and question whether I’m burning out my team,” he says. Indeed, although pandemic-related exhaustion and stress have contributed to The Great Vacation, sky-high workloads are also in the mix. “The last 30 days have seen the most intense work I’ve ever done with clients,” Kaplan says, citing 80 work emails a day and weekend hours. “Companies have been maniacal about finishing things by December 17 to close down.”

Bongiorno adds that remote work is further driving some of the I’m-not-really-here vibe. In years before the pandemic, workers needed face time at the office. This year, as Omicron sweeps the country, most employees are again working remotely, getting everyone in on the wink-wink “not-really-working” game.

Although there’s humor in contemplating The Great Vacation, the trend reveals the underlying importance of disconnecting this year. Experts say that leaders need to abide by that gravity as much as formal policies allow. Initiatives to allow some disconnects are as old as smart phones, but the idea has become urgent this year because of the intense pressures surrounding employees’ home lives. “It’s more serious now because of the very real and heavy demands in people’s everyday lives,” says Andrew De Marco, vice president of Human Resources for the Americas at Korn Ferry. This is especially true, he adds, for caretakers and people whose lives have been rocked by COVID. This year, experts say, the coded message behind the Great Vacation is clear: we look forward to catching up in the new year. Talk in January. Enjoy your holidays.