time off

Are your people taking the time off they have coming to them? Are you? Something happened over the end of December this year that highlighted the importance of that question, and why organizations and their leaders need to be vigilant on behalf of their people who work from home.

This all arose because I noticed something unusual at the end of December. A larger number of companies than usual closed down over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Day. Part of that was probably just exhaustion—a lot of people said “the heck with it, we’ll see you in 2021.” But many companies closed for a different reason: their people had so much unused paid time off and stored vacation time it would have created a payroll and HR nightmare.

Downstream impacts of the pandemic

While Americans in particular are notorious for not using their personal time, this highlighted a couple of very real problems as more and more people work from home.

First, as people moved to working from home, and travel plans for most people collapsed, a lot of people put off taking vacation time in the hopes they’d be able to use it later in the year when things opened up. (Remember when COVID was going to be gone by June? Good times.) As  the year dragged on, a lot of people didn’t take their vacation time because they thought, “we can’t go anywhere anyway.”  This was one reason there was a huge backlog of unused personal time, that in many organizations is “use it or lose it.”

Tech addiction doesn’t take a vacation

But there was a more insidious, systematic problem at work. A bigger reason people didn’t declare time off, was even if they did take it they’d wind up working anyway. Emails still come in to your phone even when you’re on holiday. The mobile-phone addictions that plague society don’t take a break just because you’re supposed to be at the beach.  Study after study shows a lot of us don’t really break from work or email when we’re on vacation anyway—checking status reports from the beach. It’s even less likely we can control those impulses when we are in the same physical location as we are when we’re at work.

Boundaries matter now more than ever

One of the negative aspects of working from home has become alarmingly clear: most people do a terrible job of creating workable boundaries to separate our jobs from our personal lives. Unlike what many people feared—that people would do as little work as possible while enjoying their being home—the opposite has occurred. Through habit, misplaced work ethic, or fear of losing our job if we don’t, we are sacrificing more and more personal time to our work.

This imbalance can create any number of problems including domestic arguments, frustration, resentment towards the employer, and burnout.

Ultimately, the responsibility for managing one’s time rests with the individual. It’s clear most of us do a lousy job of creating boundaries for ourselves, and this needs to become a priority.

What organizations can do

In the meantime, organizations and leaders owe it to themselves and their people to help create a new definition of work-ethic that is less about taking pride in how much you work and more about how productive you are in the reasonable time allotted.

If this isn’t addressed, the possibilities of working from home and flexible employment will turn into a kind of dystopian drudgery that will be negative for both the work and home lives of too many people.

How are you handling the need to take the time off you need and deserve when you work from home?

How will your organization support those who work from home and need to be better about creating guardrails around their time?

Maybe most important for leaders: what examples are you setting and unspoken expectations are you creating by your own behavior and the way you manage (or ignore) your own time?

This year unused time off was a kind of accounting problem for many companies. In the future the costs will be much higher, and a couple of weeks off at Christmas won’t solve it.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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  1. Great topic and advice. It was bad here in the US as you point out. In the UK, they addressed the unused time issue by mandating that statutory time off be allowed to carry over for the next two years (bit.ly/3oJbmZg). That, of course, doesn’t address the issue of not taking time off when you need to. Mental issues are up with stress and lockdown as it is, and not being able to get away can only exacerbate it.

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