AMERICAN OFFICE workers of an envious disposition must avoid emailing colleagues in Europe this month. The inevitable “try me again in September” automatic rejoinder is unlikely to improve the mood of those spending most of their summer toiling. Perhaps one consolation is the knowledge that holidays are not what they used to be. Rare is the employee who leaves all their work behind these days. Plenty of people will at least furtively scroll through emails while on the beach. Everyone has occasionally shirked work. Now many workers are shirking holidays, too.
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In the olden days, office life used to be binary. Establishing whether Bob from accounting was on annual leave was as simple as checking whether he was at his desk. Then BlackBerrys—the executive status symbol of the early 2000s—were granted to those who implicitly agreed to use them outside office hours.
Now everyone has smartphones tethering them to their inbox, and the pandemic means Bob has probably not visited the corporate headquarters for several months or more. Whether he is on holiday or not might be immediately clear only to him, his line manager and the buggy HR computer system logging his days off.
Bosses are mostly mindful not to demand that their underlings do anything while on statutory leave. In Europe policymakers talk of a “right to disconnect”, which allows employees to leave their day jobs behind during holidays (as well as evenings and weekends). But the right is not an obligation. And some individuals might find a small dollop of work a respite from their time off. Even the most petulant colleagues can be more relaxing to deal with than one’s own children.
A few workers find ways to delete the work email app from their phones. And there are arguments for being a holiday hardliner. Time away from work serves to clear the mind. Plenty of jobs now require a measure of inspiration. A stretch away from the office helps, all the more so if it is an actual break, complete with a change of scenery away from home. French workers, many of whom live up to the stereotype of taking much of August off, are expected to fizz with ideas come September.
Severing all links to your quotidian tasks can be salutary for employers too. Refreshed workers are less likely to burn out. Fraudsters inside companies are known to be reluctant to take vacation days, lest colleagues covering for them unveil the mischief. After Jérôme Kerviel, a holiday-dodging French trader, blew a €5bn ($7.4bn) hole in the balance-sheet of Société Générale, a big lender, in 2008, regulators insisted that some bankers be forced to be away for two consecutive weeks so as to make future fraud harder. Even if no one is cooking the books, enforcing a more complete cut-off lets tasks be passed to someone else in the organisation. That builds resilience.
What is the right balance? Nobody suggests toiling on leave at the same pace as in the (home) office. But most people will conclude that if a few minutes spent answering emails can save a stranded colleague hours of work, it would seem churlish not to step in. If nothing else, keeping even a distant eye on things can make a return to the job—whether after a week off or even a month—less daunting. Who wants to deal with thousands of unread emails on their return?
And plenty of professionals quite like what they do for a living, even when they aren’t meant to be doing it. Staying loosely connected might encourage people to take their full entitlement of holidays: in America, more than half of workers reported not taking their share even before the pandemic roiled their working lives.
An intriguing possibility is that the rise of remote work will spawn a new type of holiday. Among his European contacts Bartleby has glimpsed some exotic Zoom backgrounds of late. Some people are “working from home” in what look to be pretty swish holiday destinations. One executive admitted that, having decamped to a Greek island for a couple of weeks in the past, he is now spending most of the summer there. He is toiling a touch less than full whack during the weeks he is meant to be working—but putting in a few hours a day during what is meant to be time off.
Thus the binary nature of holidays—either you are working or you aren’t—may yet become another casualty of covid-19. Plenty of thought has been given to how the pandemic has changed how people work. It may end up altering how they don’t work, too.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Nearly out of office”