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Out of office but not out of the running

Penny de Valk, managing director of Penna’s Talent Practice, discusses the advantages to taking a holiday and how to ease yourself back into work

Making a decision about when, or even if, to take holiday from work can be surprisingly difficult for today’s business leaders and managers, particularly if you are new and are eager to impress, or if you’re concerned that your team might struggle without you there to direct them.

A concern in this "always-on" environment is that switching off for a week or two shows lack of commitment or drive. However, taking time out can be highly positive from a professional perspective, on top of the obvious personal benefits. A holiday allows you to recharge your batteries in order to return to work refreshed and ready to work at full capacity once more. Escaping the same four walls and experiencing new sights and sounds can work wonders for your creative faculties too.

As with so many things in life, solving this issue is all about achieving balance. Remember that your career is a marathon not a sprint (especially now the average retirement age is on the rise) and adopt a strategy of sustainability. This means taking regular holidays, but also planning ahead to ensure that your team can adequately function without you and that your company’s customers are not disadvantaged by your absence.

Consider well in advance who will cover your responsibilities, which depending on the circumstances, may mean outsourced temporary cover or allocating individual tasks to existing staff. Whichever option you choose, a comprehensive but succinct handover document is vital. This should summarise the current status of your projects and the next steps, with those action points that need to be progressed while you are away and by who clearly highlighted. As a courtesy, and if there are complexities, additional conversations/meetings are advisable so that your name will not be spoken in vain by those left struggling with their assigned duties.

A decision then remains about exactly how connected to the office you want to be once you exit the building. There is no right answer to this out-of-office etiquette quandary; it really comes down to personal preference and setting expectations. Some will feel more stressed by not knowing what is going on without them and put their mind at rest by keeping one eye on their inbox and the other on their beach read, while others require a full-on digital detox in order to relax.

Whatever you decide about staying in touch with the office – be it intermittent email access, a scheduled call to check-in or going cold turkey – you will earn the respect of your colleagues for laying out the parameters of engagement before you head off. This also rings true if you leave emergency contact details: define what constitutes an actual emergency and/or who has permission to contact you to avoid being in avertedly permanently on-call.

If you are simply taking time off at home or enjoying a staycation, again the key to successfully achieving your holiday objectives is clearly communicating how contactable you want to be to your colleagues. There is generally a perception that someone is more accessible if they are staying in the country rather than heading abroad, but if you don’t want that to be the case then manage the situation appropriately.

I often hear in response to advice like this that the company culture does not allow for these "happy holidaying" tips to be followed. However, culture is defined by the people living/working within it so it is up to you, particularly if you are the boss, to demonstrate acceptable behaviour and lead by example.

Another common complaint is that individuals often feel leaders or a particular manager do not look favourably upon those who use their full holiday entitlement. In this case, mange upwards by actively demonstrating the business case for you taking time off; stand firm, go off on holiday but come back firing on all cylinders and ready for action.

Your approach to your first day back at work is crucial to how your holiday will be perceived by your boss and your team. If you don’t want to sacrifice time the night before your return or to go in early on day one then block out the first 30 minutes or hour of your day and dedicate it to scanning your inbox for urgent items. It is easy when you are feeling unusually relaxed to fall into the trap of tackling your inbox at a glacial pace and easing yourself back into business slowly. Instead, work smarter by promptly identifying priority issues and actively engaging in their resolution.

If you present yourself as the embodiment of work/life balance this summer and return from holiday on a new winning streak, never again will you need to take a deep breath before sending a holiday request.

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