What vacation? Expect to work while you're away

The situation's getting worse for some, but many CIOs are aware and are doing what they can to mitigate it.

While on vacation in Ocean City, Md. a few years back with his wife and kids, Michael Adler got a panic-stricken call from the office. At the time he was working at Symantec, which was in the throes of an acquisition, and an intellectual property problem had arisen. As vice president of engineering and enterprise mobility, Adler had to take what he calls "a vacation from my vacation" for an entire day. Armed with his cell phone and a computer at a local library, he ended up working remotely for seven hours. (He is now vice president of engineering at digital marketing company Constant Contact.)

"It was pretty intense. It became just a regular workday -- I just wasn't in the office," recalls Adler. "The availability of technology allowed me to do it, but it's not healthy. I literally lost a Friday of my vacation week and I was supposed to be on the beach."

Adler's story is far from unusual. With companies operating 24x7 and employees increasingly working from mobile devices, the pressure on IT staff to stay in touch even when they are on vacation is becoming almost an unspoken requirement.

"I literally lost a Friday of my vacation week and I was supposed to be on the beach," says Michael Adler, now vice president of engineering at Constant Contact, about a situation that occurred while in a previous job.

On the whole, IT workers take less vacation than other types of professional workers, says Jack Cullen, president of Modis, a global provider of IT staffing services. "I wouldnt say they 'lose' vacation time," as they often can cash in any unused time off for wages at year end, but recently IT staffers "have taken less time off than in the past" due to more IT projects going on these days, as well as an undersupply of some IT titles.

Even while on vacation, "folks in IT feel [they] need to be checking in . . . there's a lot going on during the day, and some of them have come back and said 'I don't even think it was worthwhile taking a vacation, given that I was connected pretty much all the way through,'" Cullen explains, of what he has heard from IT workers.

"Generally speaking, most managers want to make sure their employees are taking time away from the office and recharging their batteries and getting quality time to themselves or with families," says John Reed, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half Technology. However, if an IT person is involved in a time-sensitive project that is critical to the company, "there is an implied expectation you would be periodically checking email for updates in case there is something really critical that required a response or opinion on something."

A 2013 survey by TEKsystems, the largest IT staffing firm in North America, revealed that more than 80% of organizations made no staffing or workload adjustments during IT staff summer vacations. Some 67% of the 200 respondents at all levels of IT indicated their vacations have been interrupted by work demands.

There is also no rest for the weary when it comes to senior IT professionals, since working vacations are increasingly becoming the norm. The 2014 TEKsystems survey, which included responses from 224 IT staffers, found that 47% of senior IT professionals are expected to be available 24x7 while on vacation (up from 44% in 2013), compared to 18% of entry- to mid-level IT professionals (a decrease from 20% in 2013).

These statistics map to other studies. An April 2014 Glassdoor online survey of 2,022 adults (not specific to IT) said that the average employee takes only half of his or her vacation time, and 61% of respondents said that when they do take time off, they do some work.

Getting worse for senior-level staffers

For some IT workers, the problem seems to be getting worse. The percentage of senior IT professionals who said their workplaces did not expect them to be available during vacation shrank from 33% in 2013 to 30% in 2014, according to the most recent TEKsystems survey, while the percentage of entry- to mid-level IT professionals not expected to be available increased from 71% in 2013 to 74% in 2014.

Generally speaking, the more senior your position, the higher the expectations that you'll be available, especially when problems occur, says Jason Hayman, research manager at TEKsystems. One reason that expectations for senior execs are typically high is due to the fact that they tend to be more involved in mission-critical initiatives, he adds.

If you get to this beach in Recife, Brazil -- or any other vacation spot this summer -- you might want to make sure you also have a laptop or some other means of working. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

"Additionally, their specific expertise is more 'rare' as compared with entry- to mid-level IT pros -- so if something happens there is not another resource to allocate to that effort," because senior IT staffers often possess very specific/niche skill sets that cannot be easily replicated, Hayman adds. And to keep projects moving ahead while they are out, senior IT execs need to check in and provide resolutions to whatever may be causing a project to halt momentarily, he says.

While not specifically geared to vacation time, a 2013 survey by Robert Half Technology found that 73% of CIOs check in with work "often" or "somewhat often" on evenings and weekends. The survey of 2,300 CIOs at random U.S. companies also found that only 14% said they never check in outside normal business hours.

When I'm on vacation on any given day I budget at least one hour of time [for work]. Harry Roberts, CIO, Century 21 Department Stores

Harry Roberts, CIO of Century 21 department stores, says most CIOs assume that they have to be available at all times. "You're at the company's disposal," he says. "I take the operation seriously so I would say there's rarely a time when I'm on vacation when I don't have to do something" related to work. That could be reading emails, addressing something urgent or getting back to someone who needs to talk to him, or dealing with a system or budgetary issue.

"When I'm on vacation on any given day I budget at least one hour of time" for work, says Roberts. "It's just the nature of the beast."

Juggling summertime projects

Dave Jackson, director of IT and CIO at Welch's, says it's up to staff to manage their vacation time; scheduling must be done with their managers' approval. "We allow people to carry over vacation due to mission-critical projects," he adds. Welch's has about 30 internal IT employees and 20 contractors.

When there is a project underway, most of his people have a backup, even in the summer. The Welch's fiscal year ends on Aug. 31, so often there are significant projects that need to be completed during the summer. But, Jackson says, people are aware of that coming into the summer months, and if they want time off they need to work with their business process owner.

"We encourage people to plan ahead and work with their backup and communicate with them and schedule tasks accordingly," he says. "It hasn't really been too much of a problem over the last five years."

"We try hard not to bother someone" while on vacation, says Dave Jackson, CIO at Welch's, but "if they're working four hours while they're on vacation they don't have to count that as vacation time."

Jackson says the company really works to make sure IT staff schedule vacation time. "We have several folks who are from India, and what they like to do is save up their vacation time and go back to India for three to four weeks at a time, and we allow them to do that. We also allow them to work from India while they're there. We try our best to be flexible in situations like that."

Jackson says his IT staff is a very dedicated group of people who will take their PCs with them on vacation and check in and make sure things are taken care of while they're gone. "We try hard not to bother someone ... [but] if they're working four hours while they're on vacation they don't have to count that as vacation time."

As a retailer with a heavy ecommerce presence, Roberts says IT needs to keep the lights on 24x7. "Within my organization we spread the load and know when folks go on vacation, and try to have others cover for them," he says.

Specialists on call

However, "like many retailers we don't have 14 people covering the same system. So sometimes we have to call people." Members of his team all carry a smartphone, and most have the ability to access systems while they are mobile. He estimates that someone will get called while they are on vacation less than 25% of the time. "We try to respect vacations but the reality is it happens." There are specialists who are really the only ones who can address an issue, he says.

Century 21 has roughly 50 IT people; about half are on the development/application side and the other half are on the break/fix or computer operations side. The business analysts, who are on the development side and interact with end users as well as troubleshoot business issues, are the ones who probably have the biggest challenge when they go away in terms of making sure they have coverage.

Roberts says they actively cross-train certain IT staff but "the reality is there's always going to be pockets of people or someone who's the 'expert,' and something happens where we need to have that person. There are people who are great at financial systems and merchandising systems, but there's different business acumen in some cases."

Roberts himself takes usually one vacation where he's out of the office five to six days -- but almost never is gone for an entire week. "We're a progressive company and IT is now the center of everything. That's my personal preference -- making myself available every week of the year."

Policies differ

Company policy is to encourage people to take all their vacation within the year, since Century 21 doesn't want carryover, he says. While there are no blackout periods, summer tends to be a good time for staff to be out, because November and December are critical times for retailers. "There's no downtime in retail anymore," he adds.

Downtime can also be dicey when a company has a very small IT staff. Michael Feldman, vice president of engineering and IT at BigBelly Solar, a provider of solar-powered trash compactors and enterprise waste and recycling software, is part of an IT staff of two. If there is an emergency while he's on vacation, "I'm going to have to step in and figure it out."

As one of a two-person IT staff, if there is an emergency while he's on vacation, "I'm going to have to step in and figure it out," says Michael Feldman, vice president of engineering and IT at BigBelly Solar.

BigBelly doesn't have a formal policy on vacation and Feldman says he and his colleague coordinate schedules carefully to make sure there is always coverage. "If I were to plan a whole server upgrade I wouldn't plan my vacation a week or two before or after ... you only have to make a mistake once where you let someone write new software, deploy it, test it and then leave to go on vacation."

Feldman says there have been "plenty of times" over the course of his career that he's been called while on vacation, even when he was in Aruba last January. There was a problem with the production server and fortunately he had his iPad with him.

Feldman logged in remotely, got on the phone with someone at the office and was able to finally get at the root of the problem -- after putting in a couple of hours of work. "So you go to the beach and come back and check on things ... you do what you've gotta do."

A good time for others to show off skills

Constant Contact's Adler is planning a week-long cruise to the Caribbean this summer and says vacations are a good time for other IT people to step up. "It's an opportunity for people to sit in your seat and see what it's like on a temporary basis, and a good chance for leadership development and for people to show what they're capable of."

That happened when the company experienced a critical outage, Adler says. "I was on a plane and fortunately, we had the right procedures in place; a number of directors stepped up and handled customers appropriately." He says IT staff did exactly what was expected and, with a little guidance, led the team through a difficult situation. "It was a great example of setting up the planning and figuring out who's in charge. It showed good leadership."

Pride in IT overall declined slightly in this year's TEKsystem survey, says Hayman, and organizations need to pay attention. If senior-level people are expected to be available 24x7 even while on vacation, "that's an indication that they don't have proper succession management in place. People thrive on being challenged and ... when they have developmental and career growth opportunities." Echoing Adler, Hayman says "If you're setting things up so mid-level people can step in you're going to build a foundation ... of IT talent."

Being unplugged and unavailable while on vacation is more crucial than ever before so IT workers can decompress and become refreshed, industry observers say.

The message to be had from this year's TEKsystems survey, Hayman says, is "it's really important for organizations to consider the long-term ramifications of how they're managing their workforce ... [it] could come back to haunt them."

While elaborate compensation packages may help get talent in the door, it's typically not what keeps them there, Hayman emphasizes. "Currently, there are not enough IT professionals available to meet the demand, meaning oftentimes the IT workers with the most experience or hottest skill sets can basically have their pick of the lot when it comes to a job opportunity."

Companies need to be very careful that they don't "cross the line," he adds. "If organizations are not helping them maintain an appropriate work-life balance, offering training/development opportunities and clear career paths, they'll lose their best talent to the competition."

This article, What vacation? Expect to work while you're away, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at eshein@shein.net.

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