Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Did you have a holiday or a worliday?

As we head out of summer and into what the politicians call Conference Season my fellow in-house legal bloggers Tom Kilroy and Legal Bizzle have rushed out of the blogging traps in fine form.  I’ve been conscious that it’s a while since I put pen to paper and I’m grateful that my peers have jolted me into action.  But why the inaction?

Primarily, because I took two weeks holiday during August (in fact it was a whopping and unprecedented 12 days).  Which of course meant that the two weeks prior to holiday were heavily compressed at work and the first week back was a decompression exercise as I came out of the depths of two weeks off.  So I’ve had a lack of time to blog.

During my holiday I read this article, headlined “Switch off and stay on through worlidays” by one of the FT's most popular columnists, Lucy Kellaway (here’s another link if you don’t subscribe to the FT).  Lucy is an expert at highlighting the absurdities of corporate life (and beware, lawyers are not immune from the sting of Lucy’s pen).  The nub of Lucy’s article is that most professional workers no longer have holidays, we have worlidays, which is a combination of being on holiday whilst keeping in touch with work.  Lucy paints an idealistic picture of the work/holiday combo as involving the odd email by a stream followed by a barbecue.

I blogged, very much tongue-in-cheek (he said defensively), at the start of the summer about how some of my previous vacations have been plagued by conference calls.  Despite that piece, I do actually try very hard to put an emphasis on the holiday part of my worlidays.  In fact, to be candid, my two week break this summer has been pretty much all holiday.  And I feel better for it.

Lucy writes that these days “hardly anyone sends out-of-office emails at all” and shares an anecdote that she is aware of one media company whose staff are actually forbidden from using the out-of-office tool “on the grounds that they are both pointless and unprofessional”.

I’m glad I don’t work at that media company.   I don’t mind staying in touch with the office a bit whilst I’m away, but I don’t like the idea that people emailing me might be supposed to have the impression I’m there when I’m not and actually expect a response.  I don’t think it is unprofessional to put an out-of-office message on, in fact I think it’s unprofessional of any employer to tell its employees not to.  It might not be very macho law, but I’m happy to say that I think that most of us, yes including but not only lawyers, need time off where we are not on duty and I don’t think a lawyer can do the nuts and bolts of their job effectively from a swimming pool or watching a stream, to use Lucy’s examples.  Or even if it can be done effectively, it makes the lawyer less effective when they get back to base.

Law is a job that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an optimal work/life balance.  Legal Bizzle touches on this subject fairly regularly in his tweets about weekend working and the occasional blog piece on the same subject.  Because of this reality of legal life, I think it is important that we do take the opportunity to recharge and to ensure that our holidays are holidays and not worlidays.  I took a one week break in May and about 36 hours of it were unavoidably (genuinely unavoidably) tanked by a work issue, and I returned from that break feeling less than recharged and racked with guilt about letting the family down more than a bit.

I’m pretty strict with my team when they go on holiday and make clear that I don’t expect them to be on Blackberry duty whilst they are away.  I think that any manager who doesn’t underline that to their staff is not doing their job properly.  People need and deserve time off.  Not just to recharge batteries, but to spend it with families and friends, who often put up with a lot at other times because the job of a lawyer is not as domestic arrangement friendly as it might be.  I’ve even been known to confiscate a Blackberry before one individual’s honeymoon.

To cite Legal Bizzle’s recent post, he has blogged about hoping to avoid a return to the seventies (as an aside, do read this, it is important).  With our obsession about work, availability and, let’s face it, a slight macho tendency for some people to enjoy working from holiday, are we in danger of giving the naughties a bad name in quite a different way?  Technology is still relatively new to us as a working generation – do we allow its novelty value to cloud our judgment?  No-one had a Blackberry ten years ago and corporate life seemed to function just fine (I realise that sounds a little bit luddite, but that’s not the spirit of my sentiment).  As technology improves at lightning speed it is only going to make it ever easier to stay in touch with the office.  Is that really what we’re inventing new technology for?  To make it easier to work?  I don’t think so.   Perhaps in twenty years time when the workplace is full of people who have known such technology since childhood they won’t see it as a tool which allows them to work whilst on holiday.  It might be that those of us who knew corporate life pre-Blackberry have got this all wrong.  Or maybe I’m just a bit of a lightweight.

My holiday strategy this year was to check my emails once a day to ensure no show-stoppers had arrived and then to close it down.  It took about fifteen minutes a day.  I told my team to call me rather than email me if anything urgent came up, which meant I didn’t have to stress about missing any important emails from them.  That worked pretty well, they only called me four times a day on average (joke – two texts in two weeks was it).  I also know that if the board or any other senior management needed me urgently then they would telephone, which is of course fine and part of the job.  In past years I’ve made the mistake of pro-actively wading in via email into issues that would either resolve themselves or could be sorted by someone else.  The risk of that more proactive approach is that before you know it an hour or two has passed and your mind has disappeared from the beach back to your desk – and that is not good for the soul.

I don’t like macho law or macho lawyering for the sake of it.  I hope all readers, lawyers or otherwise, have managed more of a holiday than a worliday.  If legal teams are well managed and adequately resourced, everyone should be able to have some work-free time off.  And if you managed to get a good work/life balance whilst you were away, why not try hard to maintain it, just a little bit, now that you’re back in the office – one way of doing this is NOT to repeat that sickening mantra that “I can barely remember my holiday” – say that too many times and I guarantee you that it will become true.

If you would like to read a contrary view to my non-macho corporate life view of the world, I recommend this interesting blog response to Lucy’s  “Worliday” article by Chris Abraham, the President of US social media marketing firm Abraham Harris, who makes the chilling argument that “you’re really not as ambitious as you think you are if you’re not tied to a Blackberry.....taking a couple weeks of work radio silence may be OK with your employer, but is it indeed a good idea for the vacation taker”?  On the whole Chris, yes, I think it is.


  1. The team is the key to good holiday management. You have clearly got yours working co- operatively. Congratulations. It's surprising how few law firms get the purpose of the departmental team and effectively work as individuals leading to real holiday problems. The whole purpose of instructing a large firm should be that you do not get inconvenienced by absences. If that's not how it works then you may as well deal with individuals. During the conference season you might discuss how many in house counsel expect named out house counsel to remain on call 24-7

  2. Good post!
    I think one of the saddest things I heard was Karren Brady talking about how her kids virtually begged her to stop working on holiday.
    Surely we owe it to our kids to put away the Blackberry?