Thunder In Project Management Paradise

Longing to sail away to your summer retreat - do it like you are one of us, do it like a Project Manager!

Article by Lili Kaneva

Thunder In Project Management Paradise
The sun is on like it's out for vengeance and I’ve got my straw hat swooped down to the level of my eyes. Half of my brain is sleeping (finally!) but the other half is still scanning the landscape - colorful umbrellas, cocktails and lounge chairs, the occasional kid flying by to fill up my mouth with sand. The beach, the deep blue sea, the waves…oh, wait, what?! My brain wakes up from a sudden prompt. It’s one man. He doesn’t fit the picture. Just Two lounge chairs away he seems to be there with his wife and kids and they are all smiles and fun but he isn’t. His face is tense, there’s a thick wrinkle between his eyebrows and a piercing look straight at the screen of the phone. Oh, I know what this is! It’s a work emergency. I suddenly feel so sorry for him. I know how this feels. But why do we work during our holidays and…what is a holiday anyway?


Little Context Never Hurts

In Medieval times there was no such thing as a holiday, but there were Holy Days. Regular people - workers and peasants, took time off only when religion told them to. The norm for the wealthy was to go to pilgrimages - arguably the first form of international sightseeing tourism. It took several centuries for the idea to gain ground but by the beginning of the 20th century paid time off and leisure travel were a widespread phenomena for most Europeans. Promptly, accessible transport and the Internet brought us to the era of over-tourism. This is how you get close enough to a stranger on the beach to study their face expression.

This brings us to our next question. Why don’t we stop working while we are on holiday? A recent survey shows us it’s not just a hinch - 82% of the respondents confirmed they work while on holiday.

“How Great Am I?”

“How Great Am I?”

The “Our work is our worth” mantra is so deeply rooted in our culture that we no longer view work as an external phenomena - it becomes a part of our “self”. You can’t simply pack up and leave behind yourself, right? If you ever had a vision of how you would do something dreamy and relaxing only to find out you can’t enjoy it at all, that might just be the single line of analysis you need on this situation. We are so strongly intertwined with our professional identities that disconnecting feels like a betrayal to ourselves through our core values. While you’re reading this, it may already be clear how to tackle it, right? The sole awareness of this common trap combined with a little value checking exercise should help you realize that you appreciate your work but also have many other important aspects of your life to juggle. Your holiday is just the time to do that - serve other needs. If this isn’t enough, here is another good reason to let go - when you find some peace and relax you will actually come back to find a more productive you.

Conquer Dread Hill

Looking for another one? We are creatures of planning (no, in that case I don’t mean “us” like Project Managers, for a change I mean us - humans). It is a genetic feature and it means your brain is wired like that whether you like it or not. As such, we see beyond the 7 care-free days of sun and Pina Colada all the way to a huge pile of accumulated mail and tinned colleagues' patience. This horror image can easily turn into the lead-theme of our entire holiday if we don’t take care. Unlike the previous holiday-spoil reason, this one is quite objective - you don’t want to face a challenge you created for yourself.

Also unlike it - there are simple solutions in a “best practice” style. Among many, I would recommend choosing one of two:
1 Dedicated daily email slots
Define a short slot when you will sit down with your laptop (it is more anchoring and easier to use as a physical limit than your smartphone) and you will scan through the mail box. When time is up - close the laptop and stop thinning about it.
2 An extended auto-reply message
Even if you are back on a Monday, put Tuesday as the official day when you will be available. Take this first day to tackle the inbox, see where tensions have accumulated and tackle them. Go through a planning and prioritization exercise at the end of this first day in order to be able to start fresh the next day. It is a smart way not only to allow yourself to disconnect during your break but also to lower the activation energy for the first tasks when you are back. It means that it will be easier to start over.

Always Connected

There used to be physical boundaries to work, remember? This is why we created offices in the first place - to provide the tools factory workers needed to create products. How different are things today? We need just a few tools to go on and on with our tasks. And we do - be it by taking a meeting on the way home, an urgent meeting while you’re on the beach or checking your mailbox every 2 hours. A lot of us are now digital nomads - nothing binds us to our workplace but nothing separates us either. What then constitutes “working”? Am I working if I hadn’t delivered anything measurable? The answer is yes. Whether you read mail or listen to a meeting you are enabling business goals and you are contributing to business outcomes. As “small” and simple as this may seem, it is crucial for your ability to recharge. Even directing your thought process to work limits your ability to recharge - you continue to put your energy in the same basket. Gaining your freedom is straightforward here - build back some of the walls. Try a digital detox and leave behind your electronic devices. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of doing that for a full day, start with a couple of hours or just remove your company account from your phone. Here a little goes a long way.

Vacation Shaming

Do you feel guilty when you place your vacation request? Is there an implicit agreement in your organization that you will continue working while you are out? Do you get blamed for tasks that were (legitimately) paused for your holiday? All of those are symptoms of vacation shaming. Vacation shaming is a sign of bad organizational culture. As a manager you should make sure you are not creating such a culture. As an employee keep in mind that every time you do work during your holiday you are creating the expectation that your colleagues do the same. It is not a decision you make for yourself, it is a decision you make for everyone. No matter the position you assume in your organization you are responsible to call out such behavior and encourage finding a solution. Open the conversation with the right people and discuss how you can bridge for colleagues that want to take time off and how you can position taking a vacation as a positive attitude. Simple solutions would include not praising people that remain always on and discussing your vacation experiences with colleagues (as opposed to dropping your nose with shame and laying low when you are back).

On the outskirts of every holiday, the opportunity to throw it all from a cliff's edge is so tempting that the only pressing emergency in this last remaining week seems to be the email autoresponder. Indeed, making sure you have everything covered before you go may need extra effort and even time. Make sure you make those investments and provide for yourself a space to disconnect and enjoy. Failing to do so may bring you to the end of your vacation with a smartphone in your hands feeling like you just woke up from a dream that was all about your work. Looking up the faces of your loved ones you will come to realize what you have missed.