Economy, Technology Bring Work to Vacations

Who has time for vacations these days, anyway? Actually, plenty do - but they're taking work with them, and both technology and the economy are responsible.

TeamViewer, a company that designs remote meeting software, surveyed 2,200 adult professionals on the subject in July. The survey found 52 percent of them expected to be working during their vacations. Of those, 30 percent would be checking business emails while away, 23 percent taking phone calls and 13 percent doing actual work requested by a higher-up.

How did we get to this point?

Christine Vogt, a professor of tourism marketing at the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources at Michigan State University in Lansing, has been researching the American vacation for about 20 years.

"In the last 10 years, the travel industry just really blossomed using the Internet both in terms of people doing travel planning as well as reserving and buying online," she said. Hotels, airlines and rental car companies have all burgeoned thanks to the Internet.

But the Internet also changed how people communicate. Everyone is accessible all the time. Vogt said she began studying this particular phenomenon in the mid-2000s.

"Some people consciously worked to bring technology with them," Vogt said. "This was at a time when laptops, MP3 players - the early generation of portable devices - were coming on board. Those that had those typically brought the gear with them, but what they often encountered was a lack of Wi-Fi and connectivity, particularly as they traveled outside of the country."

Less than a decade later, being out of reach because of limited technology is a rarity.

"Now we're getting closer to that world of what people have and use match up with what the community and city are providing," she said. "A lot more people are holding phones, smartphones, [tablets]."

Now that everyone's universally accessible, when they leave work, work doesn't really leave them. Harry Hamlin, a managing partner at Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC in Little Rock, said he sees this all the time.

At first, Hamlin said, "you'd see smartphones every once in a while and a couple of people here and there with Blackberries. But a year and a half later, everyone has one sitting on the table."

Eventually, his firm began providing attorneys with the devices, Hamlin said.

"Now everybody's got iPads, iPhones or ‘Droids," he said. "More and more clients, where they used to pick up the phone and call, now text or email, and the old ‘Sorry, I'm out of the office' doesn't work."

That hyper-connectivity extends to vacations, Hamlin said, and attorneys are expected to keep up with their workloads.

"If you want to go on a vacation for a week or two weeks, you can, but you have to make sure your clients are covered and satisfied," he said.

Hamlin himself said he tends to stay connected while away.

"One of my trips in Asia, I was literally 12 hours ahead of the local time here, but every day, in the morning, I'd put aside 30 or 40 minutes to catch up on emails," he said.

Recession's Effects

Brandy Johnson, human resources manager at Little Rock's Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind, said she had actually seen an increase in employees taking vacations. They're still on call, though.

"Especially in leadership positions, if you go on vacations, you are expected to respond to emails and check your iPhone, do all those types of things," she said. "It's not necessarily a spoken rule that you have to do that, but it's kind of known."

She said that in her workplace, employees are thinking about advancement. They want to shine in front of the leadership, she said, and that often means being available even in off hours.

"To be at the top of your game in the workplace, these things are almost necessary," she said.

Johnson noted that the phenomenon involved more than just the prevalence of technology; it's also a matter of the lingering effects of the recession.

"Companies are leaner and leaner and leaner," she said. "In most workplaces, you are expected to continue your workload. No one else is there to take your calls while you're gone."

Johnson said that during her own vacation in July, she corresponded with employees on three of the four weekdays she was off.

"Based on today's economic times, you have to do more with less," said Michael Smith, human resources manager for the Clinton National Airport in Little Rock. "People leave and are terminated, and companies don't want to fill those positions, so you've got less and less of a team to work with. You want to take PTO, but the only other person who wanted to cover you is no longer working there. This is something a lot of other companies are faced with. It's a growing trend. You have to have that work-life balance, but there's so much work and not enough people to cover it."

Vogt said the work-life imbalance had something to do with the diversity of the American economy.

"We have such a strong service industry," she said. "That doesn't often come with vacation benefits, and we have a fairly strong agricultural industry as well, in most states, and I think the school year has changed in some pockets of the U.S."

Smith said his management position means that he is usually on call. The airport itself employs about 165 workers, mostly hourly. Smith said the work-life imbalance hadn't hit the airport as hard as some other workplaces.

A Continuing Trend

The future doesn't look too good for those who want to totally unplug from work.

"I see it getting worse," Johnson said. "There are more tools available to stay attached. We're in that type of society. And I feel there's a psychological side to it: Some people are email junkies. They hear the beep, they look down, see emails, and they have to check them. I think employers ... maybe they don't take advantage of it, but they don't discourage it either."

"If vacations are to get away and relax, then yes, vacations might be in danger," said Vogt. "And I think it will rest in the consumer's purview to decide whether [workers] can leave and be away from the office. I think some will succeed and others will not. I think the vacation - in terms of getting that relaxed, unplugged and balanced life - I think for some, it's harder to achieve that outcome if they aren't able to leave their office behind."

Vogt said she tends to stay connected when she's on her own vacations. But does she work away from home?

"I try not to," she said. "I think I'm like other people. If they do a little bit every day, then when they get back it won't be as bad. Taking care of a few things on vacation means that Monday, when I do hit the office, I'm not snowed under. I think that's what motivates a lot of people to stay connected."

(There remains one place really hard to reach: the middle of the ocean.)