ATD Blog

Is "Out of Office" a Myth?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer will be here soon. Yet more than 40 percent of Americans don’t use all their paid time off, and many more stay tethered to their phones and devices, working part-time while their kids and spouses relax. Because so many people continue to respond to emails and messages while they are supposed to be on vacation, their co-workers and superiors have learned that “out of office” doesn’t really mean “unavailable”—even if the status declares it. 

Indeed, in our constantly connected culture, employees in all organizations are being asked to stretch, take on more responsibilities, and increase productivity. Training and development professionals see this daily. Consequently, we are always looking for ways to help organizations support their employees so they can maintain buoyancy. 

Buoyancy is the ability to bounce back from stressors—on the job and outside of work—so employees can perform with excellence. It’s about being resilient through challenging situations, and it relates directly to both employee engagement and customer experience. I believe there’s a direct link between helping employees maintain buoyancy and loyalty, dedication, and retention. 

To increase buoyancy, I offer all employees a minimum of three weeks of vacation annually. After seven years, employees have the opportunity to take an extra four weeks of leave as a sabbatical. For parents, that effectively allows them to take a summer off to spend time with their children—time they will always treasure. I have observed that employees who take advantage of the leave policy return to the office with a deepened level of appreciation, commitment, and fire to do their jobs. 

Following Guidelines for Time Off 

My company’s handbook spells out vacation and leave guidelines and expectations, and I do my best to never disrupt employees while they are on a planned vacation. Even if an employee tells me he needs time off with merely a week’s notice, we do our best to make it happen. On the other hand, we may expect that employee to be reachable and check in at least once during the day. 


Our guidelines outline how employees should prepare for their leave, so that they can take “true” time off: 

  • Employees post their days off on the calendar 60 days in advance.
  • One month before vacation, employees are proactively planning what needs to be covered while they are away—delegating responsibilities and setting expectations with co-workers.
  • Two weeks before they go on vacation, employees submit a plan to me for approval, covering any “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios while they are out. 

I also request that employees have a conversation with clients before their vacation, informing them how the account will be managed in their absence. During these conversations, there’s no reason to use the words “If you need to reach me...” If employees are truly going to be off, why even open that door? 
Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. We spell out in our guidelines that co-workers have permission to send a text to the employee on leave if there is a “Category 5 Emergency” that no one else can solve. But that is for BIG emergencies only. 

Having specific parameters and guidelines around vacation and time off in your employee handbook is a great leadership tool. But all rules require action. It boils down to managers communicating with employees and sharing expectations. If I honor that with my employees, I know they will work their tails off and do it in return for me. 

Monitoring Stress and Avoiding Burn Out 


To me, the sign of a successful vacation experience is when my employees don't crack open a laptop or return to the office to find a huge influx of email. It doesn't always happen, but we genuinely strive to protect an employee’s time off. 

This philosophy goes beyond planned vacation days; it’s also important to consistently manage burn out. For example, my business doesn’t have the luxury of a 9 to 5 job, and our team members know the level of commitment that is required. Along with that pressure comes rewards. Case in point: We just had an employee finish a massive project, so we surprised her with time off and a day at a spa. 

All leaders in the organization need to recognize the power of monitoring stress and burn out. During my one-on-one meetings with managers, I always ask: “Are your batteries charged?” and “How’s the workload affecting you?” Questions like, “How’s your bandwidth?” promote conversations that otherwise might not surface. The result is a level of trust among managers and staff that translates into loyalty. More importantly, this trust can ultimately keep employees engaged—reducing churn and the costly business of hiring and training new workers. 

As a business owner, I know there is a direct link between employee buoyancy and customer experience. People do business with my company because of our people, and there’s no better way to invest in an employee than protecting and valuing their time. Furthermore, nothing beats the level of loyalty, commitment, and excitement of an employee who returns to work after vacation recharged, resilient, and ready to face new challenges.

About the Author

Amy Fox is president, CEO, and founder of Accelerated Business Results, a provider of innovative business learning solutions, and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies on training and sales performance strategies. 

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