« You are where you work: Linked In boosts morale with cubicle decor contest | Main | Do you dare use child care on a family vacation? »

Does staying connected to the office allow for longer vacations?

I know it's important for work life balance to disconnect from the office -- completely. But is it realistic? If not, is there an upside to staying connected? I say yes. The upside is it may allow for a longer vacation. Here's my take on the topic from my Miami Herald column.

Vacations that restore the working soul

Cristy Leon-Rivera of Navarro Discount Pharmacy and  husband Alex Rivera balance family vacations with work by tag-teaming on office check-ins.
Cristy Leon-Rivera of Navarro Discount Pharmacy and husband Alex Rivera balance family vacations with work by tag-teaming on office check-ins. 



My husband and I differ over what constitutes a vacation in 2013. For my husband, getting out of town for a few days would be defined as a vacation, an important part of work-life balance. That of course doesn’t mean unplugging all together. He still sneaks in brief phone calls to the office, 6 a.m. emails, and work-related reading.

For me, those few days away aren’t enough. In this workaholic, multitasking society, I need more than a few days to unwind — and less time in contact with “the real world.’’

Of course, I realize my family is fortunate to be able to take a vacation at all. Many Americans — about 23 percent, according to a recent survey by Kelton research commissioned by SpringHill Suites — don’t get paid time off, or have the money to get away. But the economic worries that led American workers to limit themselves to drive-by vacations for the past several summers seem to have lifted. Fortunately, this summer, the two-week vacation is making a comeback — even among overachieving professionals.

Mostly, it’s because people have figured out ways to integrate work and travel to make for a better return.

Travel agents, hoteliers, and rental-property owners report a trend toward longer, farther trips this summer, according to TravelMarketReport.com and AAA. The trend is buoyed by more hotels that offer wi-fi and more mobile devices that have the same functionality as desktop PCs. A new TeamViewer survey found about 70 percent of employed vacationers bring work-capable devices with them.

“You have to weigh the ability to disengage fully with how much pain there is in the return,” said Michael Crom, executive vice president of Dale Carnegie Training, who just returned from a two-week road trip from New York to North Florida. “People are coming to the decision that they need a mental break, but they don’t want to come back to thousands of emails.”

Cindy Kushner, tax partner at Crowe Horwath in Fort Lauderdale, brought a laptop with her when she traveled throughout China for 15 days with her college-age son last month. Before bed each night at hotels, she would read and respond to work email, schedule meetings on her calendar, and flag and prioritize what needed to get done when she returned. She also checked email on train rides.

“I was able to stay organized and I think it helped me enjoy my vacation more,” she said. “It felt good to come back and not feel overwhelmed.”

While that might not seem like pure vacation, Kushner says she spent her days exploring and stayed away from working on tax returns or other documents.

“I just flagged it with a reminder and left it for later so that I could enjoy my vacation.”

An abundance of research has found employees who take advantage of their vacation days perform better (short- and long-term) and are happier than those who let their days squander. I believe it. One year, when my husband and I moved homes, we opted not to take a family vacation all year, by the time the next summer rolled around, my husband and I lacked patience for each other, our kids, and our jobs, particularly during intense work weeks. Crom says getting out of the office for an extended time has big benefits: It allows you to work on bigger-picture ideas and come back reinvigorated. “It’s one of the critical drivers of engagement.”

CareerBuilder recently surveyed almost 6,000 workers and discovered that 12 percent of them say they feel guilty they’re not at work when they’re on vacation. The key to a guilt-free working vacation is building work activities around your family’s or companion’s schedule — knowing when to check in and field calls and when to disconnect. If it’s before family awakes, that’s palatable. If it’s mid-day during a zip-line excursion, that’s a problem. It’s also important to avoid anything complex that will pull you out of vacation mode.

Cristy Leon-Rivero, chief marketing and merchandising officer with Navarro Discount Pharmacy, discovered that working on vacation means she can take a full week off, but she and her husband tag team so their three children don’t feel short-changed when their parents connect to their offices.

“I might say, ‘Watch the kids for a minute I’m going to get on a call’ or he might do the same, but we keep our family activities time-protected.” Even on a beach escape, Leon-Rivero says it takes at least a week to let go of stress and relax. She believes time away from the office pays off. “The best ideas happen outside the office.”

With the return of longer vacations, more companies are going toward unlimited vacation policies, convinced it leads to better productivity and engagement. Tech companies, such as Evernote and small-business loan-finder Lendio, both on the West Coast, have told their employees they won’t be tracking the amount of time they take off, just their individual results. When announcing the policy change, Brock Blake, cofounder and CEO of Lendio said, “I trust all of you to do your job and take the time off you need.”

Others who have tried similar approaches have had positive results. Two years after instituting its vacation policy, the web service Hubspot found “the company has been ranked as the #2 fastest-growing software company on the Inc. 500.” The same goes for website GoHealthInsurance.com, which claimed a 200% increase in growth over the last year.

But such free-wheeling policies don’t work for every type of firm. Mayi de la Vega, founder and CEO of One Sotheby’s in South Florida, says if she took long vacations and went completely off the grid, she would lose business. But she can combine business with pleasure.

This summer, when she took a week off to vacation in Aspen, she used her getaway to build new relationships with potential Florida buyers. While away, De la Vega organized a Burger Bash at an Aspen lodge for vacationing professionals and area residents, teaming up as host with Sotheby’s affiliates in Colorado and Florida. She also attended getting-to-know-you meetings with the marketing director at an Aspen condo/hotel project.

The key: people who own homes in Aspen often also want homes in Miami. “I would wake up and go for a bike ride on the Rio Grande trail or take a nice hike. Then I would come back and go to a meeting in my gym clothes. Back in Miami, she says she feels completely rested and invigorated. “I’m ready to go back to 14 hour days.”

Here in South Florida, my husband and I are still negotiating our summer vacation. But I think I have him convinced that a longer break in work routine pays off – particularly if we intend to stay connected with our jobs.