Labor Day Idea: Enhance Company & Employee Performance via Vacations

It came as no surprise, as much as I feigned shock and dismay. A two-day, late-summer getaway I’d planned with my wife for months was underway, and the requests began flowing: an e-mail asking for a quick review on one item; the I-know-you’re-out-but-am-leaving-a-message-just-in-case voicemail; and a series of texts from a client encouraging me to break away for an overseas conference call midday.

As Labor Day looms we realize we’re connected as never before, even to the point of mocking our lifestyles, as Christoph Waltz does well in the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 ad (“Americans, I don’t understand you. Working all the time, busy, busy, busy”). Factor in the demands on PR pros, many whose responsibilities fluctuate with the day’s news, and business and personal time too often are indistinguishable. Where does that leave the concept of vacation? Should PR leaders attempt to have employees use most or all of it?

Last year, 55% of Americans failed to take their full vacation allotment, according to a study by the U.S. Travel Association, a 13% increase from 2013. Looking over a longer horizon, the use of paid time off (PTO) was steady from 1976 through 2000, when the average redemption rate began a steady decline. A study from the same group this past June noted over the course of the last 16 years workers have reduced their vacations by one full week.

With the constant demands of global business, shorter deadlines and rising efficiency expectations, it could be said that PTO is a vestige of a different era. Perhaps it should be reconsidered altogether. After all, other world markets are asking more of their workforce, especially South Korea. Data from the Expedia 2015 Vacation Deprivation Study shows that of the 15 days’ vacation offered on average there, employees took advantage of only six.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be the ideal solution, especially when the benefits of vacation are well established. A Diamond Resorts International survey conducted by Nielsen found 71% of people who take a yearly vacation are satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. Just 46% who fail to take a yearly vacation are satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.

It’s not only the employee benefiting—the organization does as well. Writing for the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), Stephen Miller, CEBS, notes that a 2013 SHRM study indicated HR leaders found employees who took their PTO were more creative, showed increased productivity and were better overall performers.

Jim Bush, president of Bush Communications, also sees another side to employees who skimp on their PTO: It may reflect an inability to plan their time wisely, which could be an issue in effectively servicing clients and working with peers when in the office.

Ensuring that PTO has the maximum return for everyone starts with leaders in each organization, many of whom are guilty of the vacation-reduction trend (myself included).

1. The first need is to establish clear expectations of why vacation is provided and how it should be used, recognizing this can differ widely based on employer. This goes beyond a stock paragraph in the employee handbook and the early December use-it-now memo from HR. It requires regular conversation and feedback. You could do worse than elevating the topic to a similar level as other aspects of the business.

For instance, can an employee take two straight weeks off for a European holiday, completely disconnecting until he/she returns? After piloting this with one of my team members to mixed results, we have made our expectations much clearer. Now, we talk through what is needed from the company and the employee to make vacations occur smoothly.

2. Discuss the maximum continuous time allowed away.  Managed with a little imagination, even five days can stretch to almost 10 when factoring in weekends and departing on a Friday afternoon. For some businesses, even one week can be too much; three- to four-day weekends may be the norm.

3. Agree on coverage in the office, keeping vital work flowing while also accounting for unexpected needs.The U.S. Travel Association study showed that 30% of Americans weren’t spending time away because they believed no one else could do their job. If this fear rings true, consider vacations an opportunity to promote cross-training—before, during and continuing after the PTO period.

4. Make requirements clear as to checking in digitally or phoning. While the ideal would be to remain completely dark, this may be impractical owing to your company’s size or projects. It simply might be the nature of PR today. The often-cited mountain of work that looms over someone’s return to the office usually is manageable when tasks are kept moving by clients, peers, vendors or others versus piling up.

5. And when the date is on the horizon, begin helping the employee ease into vacation. A University of Colorado at Boulder study included having people imagine their vacation in advance, which led to a more satisfying experience than simply remembering it after the fact. This also allows for a more seamless temporary transition of duties, versus the 6 p.m. dump-and-run.

And my brief getaway that began with a flurry of requests? A couple of gentle reminders of where I was, a firm but kind “no” when hints were ignored and 30 minutes set aside on the second day to clear through important emails made all the difference. Oh, and a couple glasses of wine at 3 p.m. by the lake. After all, it was vacation.

CONTACT: @McDougallPR    Mike McDougall, Fellow, PRSA, is an ardent proponent of his team making full use of its vacation benefit. He’s making slow but steady strides doing the the delight of his family.