Viewpoint: Staycations During COVID-19 Should Still be Time Off from Work

By Linda Dunbar June 7, 2020
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​During the COVID-19 pandemic, with so many employees working remotely and potentially vacationing from home (staycationing), creating updated rules on time off is essential. Now is the time for HR departments to review their company's summer workforce policies and look for ways to encourage overworked and potentially burned-out employees to take a break.

"One of our biggest concerns is that employees won't go on vacation because they can't go anywhere," said Adam Schair, vice president, internal communications at New York Life. "Since the pandemic started, we've been emphasizing self-care. Vacation time is an important part of self-care, and breaking away from work is a critical part of that."

Now that work is home and home is work, employees may not properly disengage, making it impossible for them to "unplug" and refresh. Learning how to manage staycations across the organization requires coordinated consideration by HR and the company's internal communication team, so that employees hear a consistent message that covers such key aspects as:

Employee experience. Taking time off is influenced by the company's culture and its formal and informal communications—what the company says versus what people actually do. You may say you care about employees, and that rest and enjoying time off are critical components of health and productivity. But if an employee experiences continued demands while taking time off, the communication becomes empty words that undermine HR's credibility. It's critical to align internal communication with actual behavior, demonstrating the company's commitment to doing what it says and walking the talk.

Corporate culture includes vacation behaviors. Whether or not leaders and managers respect other people's time off is a demonstration of the company's culture and the leadership team's effectiveness. Do leaders and managers contact employees unnecessarily during their time off? How do they manage their own time off? Do they call or e-mail while on vacation when it's not necessary? Can appropriate-level decisions be made in their absence? Now is a good time to consider these behaviors at an organizational level.

"At New York Life, we've been encouraging leaders to model time off by not calling, e-mailing or texting their teams while they themselves are taking time off," Schair said.

Communicating about time off. As you share information across the organization regarding vacation rules of engagement, be clear about the tone you want to convey. Empathy is vital, especially now.

"Companies need to exhibit that employees are appreciated, valued and understood," said Rick Pogue, a New York human resources consultant. "A clear approach to time off is one of the ways companies can demonstrate respect for their employees' health and well-being."

Striking the right tone also includes remembering that everyone is in different circumstances at home during this time. Senior leaders with quiet, spacious, comfortable (maybe multiple) homes must remember that not everyone in their workforce enjoys the same circumstances. Newly renovated kitchens, bigger than average living rooms or palatial home offices overlooking Olympic-sized pools are video backdrops employees neither want nor need to see.  Best to keep the video camera angles tight and backgrounds modest. Please carry this thinking through to written materials like e-mails or intranet postings. Make no assumptions about where and how employees are currently living.

Staycation as a recruitment and retention tool. If employees are forced into staycations that turn out to be work under a different name, your employees will know and so will everyone they know. If staycations during the pandemic do not afford an opportunity to disconnect from the workplace, this experience is likely to become a major topic of conversation. Instead of gushing to friends about how wonderful work is, they will talk about their working staycation nightmare, giving your organization a reputational black eye. Employees may also begin to feel less engaged or start to wonder if they would fare better somewhere else.

Setting expectations. Forward planning on time-off expectations is an opportunity to reinforce company culture with best practices. Interrupting employees during a staycation is not a best practice, even if you know they are "just home anyway." Vacation time is critical to replenish the body and mind. This year, vacation is likely to look very similar to work if you are staycationing in the same house or apartment you were working from home yesterday.

"Work has changed dramatically due to several factors, such as the added stress of dependent care," said Jim Minogue, chief human resources officer at Mizuho Americas in New York. "Many of our staff are working longer hours as they juggle work, homeschooling and day care duties. We recognize the pace is relentless, and we instituted a weekly livestream broadcast by our CEO and president where they answer employee questions, provide company updates and keep reiterating the importance of mental health by encouraging staff to take vacation time, even though they can't go anywhere, to take time for themselves, connect with loved ones and get away from the daily grind."

 Experts and employees agree that creating separation between work and time off is more important than ever.

"My boss knows he can e-mail me at almost any time, and I will respond right away," said a vice president of HR at a Manhattan hospital. "That's fine with me," she continued. "That's how I like to work, with a continual ebb and flow between work and my personal life. But I let my team know if I e-mail you during your time off, I don't expect an answer. I am just clearing items from my desk and my head. It can wait."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Taking Practical Steps

To create a vacation policy that holds up well throughout the pandemic, consider the following three steps:

  1. Establish enterprise-wide guidance. Policies should be agreed upon and shared through employee communications. Identify which specific workstreams or duties must covered while employees take time off or can wait until their return. Keep it simple. Get as close as possible to the message, "Completely unplug and don't think about us at all on your vacation," while allowing discretion and encouraging a mutually agreeable and responsible arrangement between manager and employee.
  2. Train coverage, if feasible. Encourage managers to train others on their team to backfill the vacationing employee's work while they are "gone." If your company is small, that person may be you. If your workplace has genuine emergencies, carefully work out under what scenarios you will contact an employee on staycation. Be very specific about what channel you will use to contact them so they don't worry about missing a message and spend their time off continually checking text, e-mail, cell phone, home phone and social media for messages. A live phone call is probably best. Be specific about the number. Make sure you have come to a mutually agreeable arrangement.
  3. Encourage leaders and managers to walk the talk. To be respectful of time off as a matter of company-wide practice, leaders and managers should model behavior by not calling team members during their own time off unless it is absolutely necessary. While not always practical for senior leaders, managers should consider appointing someone from their team to handle responsibilities that can be delegated while they are "away."  Delegation builds trust and is an opportunity for professional growth. For senior leaders, unplugging completely may not be realistic, but encourage them to give thought to how they intend to interact with their organization before they take off.

COVID-19 has created uncertain times across all levels and functions. Many employees, managers and leaders are experiencing anxiety and collapsed boundaries between work and play. Providing a place to turn for guidance, understanding and continuous information on how best to proceed is critical to the empathic leadership required at this moment.

Linda Dunbar is a New York-based PR and corporate communications consultant, strategist, business enthusiast and lifelong learner. 

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