Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
XOMU: How to actually go out of office
Four steps to setting effective work boundaries for your next vacation
I just booked my first week off for the summer; a hiking trip with my sister in Colorado. We’re planning some big hikes, some medium hikes, and at least one day at a swanky spa somewhere, interspersed with walks around town, yoga classes, and incredible meals. When I take time off work, it’s a vacation-vacation. I don’t check or respond to email, I turn off Slack, nobody texts me unless something is literally on fire (or Drew Barrymore finally calls me), and I don’t send a single “quick message before I forget.” I’m unplugged, enjoying my time off and modeling that behavior for my team.
As the school year comes to a close and people everywhere are gearing up for a big travel season, I’m going to help you actually go on vacation. Even when bosses/coworkers have called/texted/emailed you during past vacations. Even if you feel guilty for using your PTO. Even if you’ve never taken a work-free vacation-vacation in your entire life.
It’s all about boundaries. Welcome to my favorite TED Talk.
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Step 1: Set expectations well ahead of time
A few weeks before your trip, start seeding your time off to colleagues, people you are working on projects with, and anyone you have regular communications with in meetings, email chains, and project planning docs: “Heads-up, I’m OOO from Monday June 12 through Monday June 19 and won’t be available in any fashion during that time.” If there are team calendars or project Slack channels, document your OOO time there too. You can’t sprinkle in too many reminders!
If there is even the slightest chance a regular weekly meeting could go on without you, set that expectation: “David and Mike will cover the meeting that week, and I’ll review the notes when I’m back.” If meetings require you to be in the room, reschedule it as either a quick touch base right before you leave or for the week you get back, so you aren’t scrambling to cram it in when you return.
As a gift to Future You, keep your first day back meeting and call-free if at all possible. Everyone is going to want to get on your schedule, but you are also going to have a pile of catch-up to do, and it’s hard to pivot when you have calls every other hour. If that’s not feasible, then take a minute now to block out the morning you return as “unavailable” (to allow you to dig into your to-do list, answer important emails, and catch up with your team) and leave the afternoon open for calls or meetings.
Finally, notifying colleagues of your PTO ahead of time is an excellent opportunity to make sure you’re not the only one who knows how to do something in your office. You can also invite colleagues to think of potential issues now, so you can offer a solution before you leave. If no one else can approve the invoice/edit the spreadsheet/place the purchase order, use the time before your trip to train or approve someone to cover that task.
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Step 2: Set clear boundaries
The week before you leave, schedule a quick touch-base with your boss: “Reminder that I’m on vacation next week, and I am deeply committed to respecting my time off. That means I won’t be on email, Slack, text, or calls.” Share your back-up for specific tasks, a status update on your projects, and ask if there’s anything else your boss would like you to make sure is covered before you leave.
If you get push-back from your boss: “We only get so many paid days off. It’s important that we use that time to rest and recharge—and for the company to honor that. Otherwise, people get burned out and resentful. We have a great opportunity here to model the kind of company culture we say is important to us.” If you manage people, you can also add: “It’s also important that I model this for my team. We have to walk the talk. Plus, it’s not a good look if one person can’t leave for a week without something falling apart. I’ve thought this all through—we’ve got this.”
Once you have your boss’s directives, send a note to your co-workers and cc: your boss to seal the deal: “Reminder that I’ll be on vacation from X through X. I won’t be checking email or Slack and will not be available via text or phone. David is covering the website redesign, Ashley is approving expense reports, and Liilu is handling press requests. If anything else comes up, ask (boss).”
If you get push-back from your co-workers: “I am deeply committed to respecting my own time off, so no, I will not be available for work-related questions. I trust that all of the arrangements I’ve made ahead of time will see you through the week. Check in with (boss) if something comes up that you can’t handle on your own.”
Finally, you must set an away message for everyone—internal and external. Make it clear you will not be checking emails, and do not give outsiders the option to reach you another way. Keep it short and sweet: “I’m out of the office on personal time from Monday June 12 through Monday June 19, and will not be reading or responding to email during this time. If this is urgent, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.” (My executive assistant and leadership team know how to get in touch with me if it’s truly urgent.)
Step 3: Hold your boundary
This might be the hardest part, but it’s also the most important: Don’t check email. Don’t even OPEN your email. Turn off notifications for email, Slack, and anything else work-related. Move them off your home screen, even. If you get texts or phone calls from the office, do not answer them. Better yet, have your phone on DND while you are away, so they don’t even come through.
You are the only one who can preserve this space for you, and the boundary is meaningless unless you yourself hold it. If you do all of this work up front to set these boundaries, then override them yourself the minute you land in Mexico… future boundaries are going to be twice as hard to enforce, and likely won’t be taken seriously. You’re also setting a terrible example for others on your team, whether you’re a manager or not—people follow what you do, not what you say. Holding is imperative.
As a back-up, if boundaries are new in your office culture or you’re in the middle of a truly important and time-sensitive project, create a quiet back-up plan with a trusted co-worker or your team’s administrative assistant. “Hey Kevin, just between us—I’m truly committed to being on vacation, but if something comes up that you think I absolutely NEED to know. text me with a heads-up. If I don’t hear from you, I’m ignoring every other work-related voicemail and text I get. Got it?” (Make sure you assign this task to someone with excellent judgment, who won’t cave to pressure from co-workers.)
Step 4: Add an extra day
When you come back from your trip on Sunday afternoon, what inevitably happens on Sunday night? Anxiety, dread, and stress levels through the roof with the fear of how busy Monday will be. If you can, take the following Monday off too. As often as possible, add another day to your paid time off—at least on paper.
According to your boss and co-workers, you’re still OOO, but you can use the day to casually go through your in-box, draft or schedule your replies (but don’t send them yet), do laundry and meal prep, and prepare yourself to head back in on Tuesday with your feet under you. Trust, this makes a huge difference.
If you can’t take an extra day or don’t want to eat into your vacation allocation, another option is just to set your away message for an extra day. (So you’re back in the office on Monday, but your away message says you’re returning Tuesday.) This will buy you an extra day where outsiders won’t be expecting a response, and you can triage important emails to your team on Monday. Draft replies to as many non-urgent emails as you like and schedule them to send the day you’re officially “back,” in alignment with your boundaries. This little deception might not work in a strict corporate setting, but in a small business or as an entrepreneur, it’s a nice cushion.
Setting boundaries and expectations well ahead of time, communicating clearly, and setting Future You up for first-day-back success will help you ensure all of your out-of-office plans are smooth sailing. Now all that is left is to enjoy your vacation! May your travels be easy, your weather be balmy, and your time off be truly restorative.
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