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How companies can help employees unplug while on vacation

Mike Van Ham, president of Sylvis Environmental Services in New Westminster, B.C., right, meets with company staff members at his home in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Sylvis Environmental Services has always put an emphasis on work-life balance, so the arrival of the smartphone era at first looked problematic for the British Columbia residuals-management firm. Some of its 30 staff members embraced the idea of being plugged in all the time. Others were vehement about wanting to leave work behind when they clocked out.

After wrestling with how this might affect the company's vacation policy, president Mike Van Ham decided not to fight either faction: If checking e-mail every day gives a holidaying Sylvis employee peace of mind, that's fine; if they'd rather hike the Andes for three weeks and leave their phone at home, the New Westminster-based firm will help them plan a way to disappear peacefully.

But there are two crucial rules. Staff have to let colleagues know which option they've chosen, and they can't change their mind. "You can't say you're going dark and all of a sudden be checking your e-mails and popping into conversations," Mr. Van Ham says. "You've got to own it."

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The ubiquity of smartphones blurs the line between work and play on any given workday – an issue that just as easily bleeds into well-earned vacations. There's a spectrum of reactions to this: Some people crave e-mail and telephone contact for peace of mind, while constant connectivity turns others into nervous wrecks during time off. There's no one perfect policy or practice for companies to set, but human-resources experts say managers need to be wholly transparent about what they want.

"If you expect your employees to check in once a week, and there's a benefit to that, let them know," says Cissy Pau, who runs Clear HR Consulting Inc. in Vancouver. "If your expectation is they completely check out when they're on vacation, let them know that as well."

Researchers at the New York firm Office Pulse reported in June that 59 per cent of Canadians don't plan on doing any work while on vacation this year – versus 44 per cent of Americans – but for those Canadians who do give in, they expect e-mail to be the top concern. A survey by temp staffing firm Accountemps of more than 400 Canadian workers this year, meanwhile, found that one-third tend to check in with work at least once or twice a week during vacation.

"For some people, it's a bad thing because they're not taking a proper break," says Dianne Hunnam-Jones, Accountemps's Canadian president. On the other hand, she continues, "maybe you need to check in because then you can relax, so that's okay."

While companies including German car maker Daimler AG and entire countries such as France have experimented with banning off-the-clock e-mails, there is no national or international standard to deal with constant connectivity.

One strategy is to log in for a few minutes each day to make sure there aren't any fires to put out. Another, which Ms. Hunnam-Jones's own firm takes, is to work with staff to do prevacation prep a week before they depart – making sure projects will be wrapped up or handed off before an employee falls off the radar.

What's most important, she says, is for management to lead by example. "There's nothing worse than the manager checking in every single day and providing directives and running their business from the beach – then when the team goes away, they feel they have to do the same," Ms. Hunnam-Jones says.

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Management really does need to walk the walk, says Ms. Pau. "If you know that somebody's away on vacation, why are you sending them an e-mail? Are you actually perpetuating the problem?"

Ms. Pau spoke to The Globe and Mail from the East Coast in the midst of a month-long vacation of her own – highlighting the even blurrier line between work and play faced by entrepreneurs. "It's hard to be completely unplugged for a whole month," she says.

Logging off is often harder for leaders, especially in client-facing businesses. "I don't even put an absence alert on; I don't want to give clients the impression that I'm unavailable," says Muneeza Sheikh, a partner at Toronto labour and employment law firm Levitt LLP. She says staying plugged in is also practical. "Who wants to return to work standing at the bottom of a mountain of e-mails? To me, just the thought of that is catastrophic."

Practices vary among industries, companies and managers. The TSI Group, an executive search firm in Mississauga, instructs employees to set up out-of-office notices telling colleagues and clients that they won't have access to e-mail or phones at all. Chief executive Pamela Ruebusch says respecting employees' personal time this way benefits the firm's corporate culture.

Some companies take that idea to extremes. At California-based Habla Inc., which runs the customer-support chat service Olark, employees work remotely, which itself dissolves the boundaries between work and personal time. To mitigate this, the company offers a $1,000 bonus to employees who stay away from e-mail and work chat apps for five days or more while on vacation. "It's a lot easier for me to unplug and not feel guilty about it," says Kasey Bayne, Olark's Vancouver-based marketing director.

Incentives and recommended practices can be helpful, but Lisa Kay, president of Peak Performance Human Resources in Toronto, says drawing a hard line in policy can actually make life more difficult. "When you have a policy, you need to consistently apply it – and you can't make exceptions to it," she says.

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Instead, offering flexibility might be the best way to reflect the range of a staff's connectivity preferences. "There isn't an on-off switch any more," says Mr. Van Ham of Sylvis. "I think of it as more like a dimmer – you're going brighter or darker."

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. In his spare time, he writes about music and the industry around it. More

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