Being Away but Checking In

A Korn Ferry survey finds an overwhelming majority of employees plans to take longer-than-usual winter vacations. But they will checking in often, too.

Toothbrush? Pajamas? Socks? Check. A snazzy outfit for the soirée? Check. But this winter vacation, there’s one more item workers are packing in their suitcase: work.

A recent Korn Ferry survey reports that while the majority of professionals are planning a longer vacation than in years past, a whopping 67% say they will be checking in with the office at least once daily while they’re away—with 37% planning to do so multiple times daily. Experts say the downstream effects of the pandemic, along with the tough economy, have created a pent-up need for a proper break. “It’s the first time since 2020 where we aren’t under this dark cloud of COVID-19,” says Margie Warrell, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession and Executive Development practice. At the same time, inflation and a possible recession have tied many vacationing professionals, who are worried about job security, to their work. “Macroeconomic conditions always play on the psyche of any employed worker,” says Deepali Vyas, Korn Ferry senior client partner and global head of FinTech, Payments and Crypto practice.

The survey’s findings are in sharp contrast with the vacation habits of last summer. This winter, 68% of professionals said they were planning on taking longer vacations than they did last year. In summer of 2022—the most recent previous vacation season—the majority of professionals said they would do the opposite: amid the peaking of a down economy, 63% said they would take a shorter vacation than they did the year before. Of course, a summer vacation is likely to be longer than a winter vacation, because of school schedules, but in relative terms, people today are more inclined to go away for longer. Which isn’t to say that career concerns don’t continue to weigh heavily. In a new practice known as “career cushioning,” many executives say that fear of layoffs has prompted them to look for a job while they’re still employed.

Even as their members take longer vacations, teams will still—more than ever—need to hit or exceed expected targets, as top executives are well aware. The onus falls on leaders to model and manage expectations for employees, says Warrell. She adds that leaders can mitigate productivity drops by communicating their own vacation agendas—saying something like, “I will be gone for two weeks, but I’m going to be checking emails once a day from 4 to 5 p.m.” Warrell cautions that staff need to be heard as well: it’s important for leaders to facilitate two-way conversations before employees go on leave. This allows team members a chance to share their vacation availability, she says, and “can help to manage expectations both ways.”

The advent of remote work gives leaders another tool to leverage. While some top bosses consider off-site work to be detrimental to the bottom line, others can ask employees to put in a little elbow grease over the holidays by reminding them that they’ve been able to work from the comfort of their homes for the past two years. The key, says Vyas, is to communicate this potentially off-putting message with a measure of grace and empathy and a sense that “we’re in it together.” By mixing compassion with frank conversation, leaders can help underperforming employees not only meet their KPIs, but also protect their job security in the New Year.

People “always feel pressure” to perform, says Warrell, but it’s doubled during a difficult economy. On the one hand, leaders should do their best to avoid burning out their staffs; on the other, they should convey a realistic message: work will persist over the break and some people will need to manage it. A perfect work-life balance, for those who seek it, might be unrealistic in the short term, says Vyas, and only achievable in the aggregate. Things ebb and flow, she says: “Think about your career in terms of long-term balance versus reaching work-life balance on the daily.”