Rethinking Holiday Vacations in the Era of Remote and Hybrid Work

By Holly Rosenkrantz January 18, 2022
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Rethinking Holiday Vacations in the Era of Remote and Hybrid Work

​Jackie Reinberg, who heads the absence and disability practice of the consulting firm WTW, formerly Willis Towers Watson, went to Aruba for an extended Christmas break. And as much as she wanted to "unplug," she lugged her laptop with her.

"Normally I would just take my phone on holiday travel, but this is COVID, and God forbid anything happens, I have to be able to be flexible," she said.

Indeed, flexibility was key this year for managers during the holiday season. The prevalence of pandemic-era hybrid work, along with a vaccination-inspired increase in travel, led to a new holiday phenomenon this year: longer working vacations at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.

"Bleisure," the trend of business travelers adding leisure days to their work-related trips, took on a different meaning around the recent holiday season as workers extended their holiday travel to include working days while visiting family or vacationing. It was an opportunity that wasn't as easily accepted by managers before the pandemic and wasn't really an option in 2020, when travel was considered unsafe.

Moving forward into 2022—with an eye on future travel-friendly holidays like Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July—managers face a unique challenge when overseeing extended holiday travel.

To Brian Elliott, vice president of the Future Forum at Slack, this challenge is an opportunity for managers to flex progressive leadership skills.

"As a leader, your priority should be to bring your workforce back energized and excited" after a holiday break, he said. "You're far more likely to achieve that goal if you give people freedom to work where it's best for them, instead of mandating their presence in the office during the holiday season."

Travel Picks Up

The start of the holiday season is traditionally Thanksgiving, and in 2021, an estimated 53.4 million people were expected to travel over Thanksgiving weekend, according to AAA. That is close to 2019 levels and the highest single-year increase since 2005.

CLEAR, a biometric airport security kiosk company, says the median trip length of its members in 2021 was double what it was in 2019.

"The flexibility of hybrid work and the rise of 'digital nomads' are changing the travel landscape as we know it," said Ken Lisaius, vice president of public affairs and communications at CLEAR.

A Deloitte survey released before the recent holiday season found that working vacationers planned to take twice as many trips—and to stay longer—than those who planned to unplug during the holidays. Three in four workers said they would add at least one day to their holiday trips, and 38 percent said they would add three to six days. Many also planned to increase their vacation travel budgets because of their companies' work-from-home policies.

"The pandemic has blurred the lines between work and life more than ever before," said Mike Daher, Deloitte's vice chairman of U.S. transportation, hospitality and services. "Employees are taking advantage of increased workplace flexibility to extend their holiday travels. Gone are the days of workers being stuck in the office until the day before a big holiday. The freedom for employees to add a couple of days to their travel with remote work is truly a gift that managers can give their teams" during holiday seasons.

Daher noted that some managers may worry about lost productivity or time zone coordination when employees remain in their holiday spots and continue to work remotely. But "as long as the lines of communication are open with employees and they're getting the work done, there should be little difference from traditional 'work from home' situations," he said. "Not only do workers avoid some of the headaches of traveling on the busiest days, but it allows for a healthy work-life balance, which can keep employees happy long term."

Some companies dealt with burnout by expanding their vacation policies. Others scaled back their expectations about the amount of work that could get done during the holidays and asked everyone on the team to be agile, Reinberg said.

As for the coming holidays, "managers really need to be thoughtful and have a plan," she said.  "Take inventory of deadlines and deliverables and confirm those deadlines with employees. Then trust that they will get it done. And understand that while the employee is away, you can't pile on."

As the pandemic continues and future holidays approach, Reinberg said, workers and managers need to recognize that there's always a chance that traveling for holidays may wind up being extended longer than planned—such as with the massive delays that travelers saw as hundreds of flights were canceled in late December when airlines were short-staffed, or if travelers find it difficult to comply with COVID-19 testing requirements before they can return.

"During this period," she said, "everyone should expect the unexpected."

Holly Rosenkrantz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. 

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