This Hybrid World Calls for a Great Unplug

March 22, 2022 John Rossheim

Heading into spring after two years of pandemic troubles, we all deserve a full measure of time off. But what does that even mean in this always-on, hybrid, and hyperconnected global workplace?

Nearly every employer says their employees need paid time off (PTO) to unwind and refresh, and most companies mean what they say. But even before March 2020, too many workers felt compelled to check in daily with work throughout their “vacations.” With hybrid and work from home (WFH) further blurring the lines between work and the rest of life, what do companies need to do to ensure that everyone truly does take time off? What policies and best practices can work?

The stakes are high, from productivity to employee mental health, job burnout, and increased turnover. So we polled experts for clever ideas on how to make PTO real this year. But first, let’s define the problems that need solving.

“Always on” is a recipe for distress, burnout, and attrition.

Checking in with work doesn’t necessarily take a big bite out of vacation days, but it can still exact a psychological toll.

“If there’s an expectation to stay connected, it’s really not time off,” says Jackie Reinberg, senior director and North America leader for absence, disability management and life, at consulting firm WTW (formerly Willis Towers Watson). “Workers who stay connected to work through their PTO never really get to inhabit their own mind space and fill it with whatever fulfills them.”

Increased disruptions in people’s daily activities have been correlated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. When you can never escape the anxious anticipation of work news that the next notification may bring, your mind can never truly relax.

So some PTO advocates are pushing their organizations to recognize that the expectation to work during vacation is a cultural attitude, not a given, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. The proof: “This doesn’t happen in Europe.”

Employees fear what happens at work when they’re not connected.

In a November 2020 survey by WTW, workers’ top choice of work/life benefit was more PTO, even at the expense of other benefits. “PTO is a highly emotional benefit that people want to be able to take,” says Reinberg.

But anxieties about employment security and upward mobility may cause the same employees to resist taking time off. People worry that a mountain of work will pile up while they’re on vacation, that their co-workers will suffer, that bosses will think less of them – even that they may lose their job. Their fears are real, even if they are often unfounded.

Innovative PTO policies can nudge employees to take time off.

It’s important for management to lead by example by taking all of their allotted PTO, keeping interruptions to their time off to the absolute minimum, and even sharing how they personally benefited from time away.

But organizations must also develop hard policies to make PTO real for everyone – and create processes to enforce those policies. Here are five ideas that employers have tried.

  1. Make PTO mandatory: Companies like Hover have set a policy that every employee must take a minimum of three weeks off. If an employee won’t schedule PTO, schedule it for them and put the onus on them to change the dates if necessary.
  2. Give new meaning to the term “paid vacation.” Some employers buy vacation packages for employees, to show them that the company means business when it comes to time off. A related approach is to enable employees to redeem their recognition points for recreational, entertainment, or travel experiences.
  3. Declare days of universal time off. Companies such as Nike, Instacart, and LinkedIn designate a few extra days each year when nearly everyone is off. These days give people room to breathe, knowing that their peers, bosses, and reports will be waking up to zero work expectations. But don’t forget about the few employees who must either report to work (security guards) or must be on call (crisis communications specialists); they should at least get comp time to use when it is most valuable to them. And don’t link these recharge days to traditional, culturally-specific holidays.
  4. Suspend IT access for employees on PTO. Let it be known that vacationing employees’ digital access – email, Slack, files, and so on – will be temporarily shut off. You can’t check what you can’t log in to.
  5. Create a policy of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Many employees will be more comfortable not checking in if they know they’ll be contacted if a truly urgent matter arises. “It’s a better practice for the vacationing employee to leave contact information in case of emergencies to allow the employee to disconnect from work rather than have to find a way to check in,” says Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Genuine PTO has its own ROI.

The key to getting buy-in for true PTO at every level of the organization is to demonstrate its diverse returns on investment – measured not just in employee engagement and retention, but also productivity and innovation.

Years of pandemic disruption have put workers in the mood for change. “I call it the great reevaluation,” says Lister. “Once you step off the treadmill and realize how bad it was, you say, ‘I don’t want to go back to that.’” Hence the big quit.

The good news is that “there’s often greater engagement and higher profits when employers encourage people to take time off – really off,” says Reinberg.

Leaders can also look at bolstering PTO practices as an opportunity to strengthen their organizations while better supporting their people. If employees feel like they must check in daily during vacation “it says to me that management has failed to build bench strength,” says Rousseau.

Getting aggressive with cross-training builds value in your workforce, enhances the employee experience, and gives workers more ways to grow. When your people have broader skill sets and come to work refreshed from paid time truly off, they’re in a better frame of mind to create, innovate, and help take your company to the next level.

About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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