PM Articles > Executive View > Making Vacations a Company Project

Making Vacations a Company Project

by Cinda Voegtli

(actually by DeAnna Burghart, filling in for a vacationing Cinda)

As I write this, Cinda is exactly where she should be: the middle of nowhere. She has taken a much-needed vacation, which puts her a couple weeks ahead of me for the year. Now, before you think I'm downtrodden and bereft, think again. I'm well stocked with vacation days, and my coworkers have no problem with me taking them. (I believe, in fact, that I've detected a pleading note from certain quarters lately.) But there always seems to be a good reason to stay behind, doesn't there? I've turned staying put into an art form. Instead of truly getting away, I delude myself into believing that it's enough to indulge myself on weekends—like my "vacation" to the bookstore last Saturday.

I usually head to the bookstore to get away from people for a little while. The joke was on me this time—it was crawling with customers. (It seems people like to shop after holidays. Clearly, I need to get out more.) I'm not the eavesdropper sort, but in a store that packed with people, it's impossible not to overhear some conversation. I was struck by how many of them were about vacation plans. In Periodicals, a couple browsing the international magazines commented about how a cover photo reminded them of some exotic European city. In the children's section, a mother helped her preschooler pick out a pair of sticker books, "one for now and one for later," for their road trip to Napa Valley the next day. But it was the conversation overheard as I was browsing idly through the craft books, near the travelogues, that really got my attention. A young child's voice piped up cheerfully, asking, "What's that?"

"That's Hawaii," his mother replied casually. "That's where we're going next year."

"Can I walk there?" the child asked.

"No, we'll fly again," was the equally casual response.

Aside from my shock at the sheer number of people strolling through this packed store who obviously made it a point to get away, it was the simple, matter-of-fact nature of the conversation that penetrated my consciousness. Her inflection—next year—made it clear that another, just as impressive trip was already in the works or had just concluded. The child took it just as much for granted. It was vacation time, and they were going someplace fun this year, and Hawaii next year, and clearly there would be a trip the year after and had been before. These are people that know how to take vacations. It made me realize how long it's been since I went all out and took a vacation; not just time out of the office but still home, furtively checking emails and watching the phone lights, but a real stretch away from everything to rest and recharge and completely break the routine.

When was the last time you took a vacation?

Here around the office we have the occasional debate about the proper use of our vacation allotments. It's not that any of us are particularly deprived; it's rather that some of us are fairly inventive about coming up with all sorts of reasons not to use it! It's too busy right now. We're in the middle of too many projects. It leaves too big a hole when we're not here. The others, the vacationers—the healthy people, you might call them—shake their heads in bewilderment and wonder where we get these strange ideas that we are so indispensible, no matter how indispensible we are. They've given up trying to change minds, I think. They simply turn and calmly schedule their next outing, secure in the knowledge that the world and the company will move on whether or not they see the Grand Canyon or the Left Bank, so why not go see it?

The rest of the developed world seems to have this figured out. Much has been made about the meager US vacation allotment in the media. Not only do we get a mere two weeks on average (and many people get none at all, or have to use that two weeks for family illnesses), we tend to leave a good chunk of that on the table. Canadians only average three more days than we do, with the considerable difference that in addition to mandating everyone gets it, they actually take it. Fourteen days with only 11 used versus seventeen with almost all used... and that's nothing next to European allotments, which are mandated, frequently twice as long, and almost always used. They make us look like slackers in the slacking department.

How awful is it that we look at our meager two-week (or generous 3-week) allotment, and think we shouldn't complain because of all of the people who get none? How much worse is it that so many people get none? Assuming, of course, that you have food and clothes and a place to sleep, vacation isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. Higher American productivity is often used to justify our work-a-day penchant, but that global productivity number doesn't tell the whole story. While the US often tops the charts in terms of raw productivity, that has a lot to do with raw hours worked. In terms of productivity-per-hour, vacation rich countries in Europe and Asia frequently match and even exceed US figures. (See the most recent reportfrom the International Labor Organization for detailed statistics, if you'd like a little light reading on the beach. In addition, study after study has demonstrated that people who take vacations—real vacations, sans BlackBerry—are healthier and more productive than people who don't. In the end, we're hurting our teams as well as ourselves by supergluing ourselves to our desks. And in spite of the mountain of pro-vacation evidence, the United States is alone among industrial nations in not mandating paid vacation time.

But the conversation about how backwards Americans are about vacation time has been done to death in the popular media, so we'll give that poor, dead horse a day off now. Instead, I'd like to start a more constructive dialog. To the extent that we agree our provision and use of R&R stinks in this country, what can we do to change it? Think globally, act locally, as the saying goes; what can we do within our own organizations to encourage more generous vacation availability and more generous use of vacation hours?

If you (or your employees) are not the two-weeks-at-the-Grand-Canyon type, there are many reasonable alternatives to keep our minds fresh. There's the cleverly scheduled week around a holiday, if you can arrange it. Booked properly, four vacation days can net you nine consecutive days out of the office. There's the quarterly long weekend—a Friday-Monday-Tuesday (or Wednesday-Thursday-Friday) outing every three months or so will use up most of two weeks without raising too many eyebrows, and give you frequent breaks. One high-powered executive I know who is nearing completion of at least one critical project arranged to take every Monday off this summer, in what I consider nothing short of sheer genius. She's never away so long that it overwhelms anyone, but she has months of three-day weekends to stay recharged. It's brilliant. I wish I'd thought of it.

As managers, how do you handle vacation time—for you and your team members? Do you encourage full two-week swaths, or reward the folks who keep their nose to the grindstone? What do you do, or wish you could do, to encourage your team members and peers to use vacation time differently? What could your team members or executives do to improve the situation?

As team members, how do you use your vacation time, and do you think your manager approves and supports it? What could your managers or your organization do to improve the situation in your company? Does your boss need a good vacation?

As executives, do you use your vacation time? Do you care if your managers and their team members use their vacation time? What do you wish could be done to improve the situation at your organization?

While you discuss it, I'm going to take a long hard look at vacation options for the rest of this year. I hear Hawaii's nice...

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Kimberly Wiefling makes a good case for using our vacations to accumulate valuable cultural knowledge, even if she doesn't directly mention it. And a non-PM proves that project management techniques can be used successfully even on a mini-project like a family vacation.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

High on my list of reasons why I work, just below paying kids' college tuition bills and way above buying a new car, is vacation. Sometimes I work hard on vacation, traveling across Europe collecting a couple of dozen bottles of wine, moving every couple of days to see the next spot. Other times I relax, a week on the beach with no worries other than finding which place makes the best mojitos.

I negotiate extra vacation when I take a new job. More than once, I have told a new employer, "and one last thing - I have three weeks in Costa Rica planned and paid for, starting in a month, I'll take it with no pay or with pay, but I won't forfeit it." This has never hurt me.

I cannot understand people who do not use all their vacation. The good thing is they will keel over dead sooner, leaving their useless "wealth" to their spouse and his/her new lover and generally increasing the quality of the gene pool...

I work at an organization where many persons take pride in saying it's been ages since they have taken a vacation. I took my annual vacation back in April and one colleague actually approached me to say he did not understand why my supervisor approved my time off as this was a critical time for our Department. He proceeded to say he has over sixty days vacation (days accumulate) owing to him. I thought "well, good luck in burnt out city". My belief is if I am organised then anyone qualified can act in the position while I am away, especially, with succession planning it should make it that much easier.

I am still baffled by persons glorifying their inability to take a break. What about diminishing returns--is it real?

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