CIOs share their secrets to unplugging on vacation

Reconfiguring infrastructures, transitioning to the cloud and cross-training staff are some measures that CIOs and other tech executives have taken to reduce stress in the IT department and improve the business in general.

Stress, when it forces people to learn time-management strategies and make processes more efficient, can be a good thing. However, stress can also be a health risk and lead to burnout in the workplace.

Over the past few years, IT professionals and executives have learned how to build strong, reliable and trustworthy teams so that no one person is the single point of contact. Cross-training staff and building in redundancy has proven to be a critical step toward achieving a better work-life balance for executives and their staffs.

According to a recent survey conducted by TekSystems, a provider of IT staffing solutions, "When on vacation, 83 percent of senior-level IT professionals say they are not expected to provide any availability, up considerably from the 30 percent that said the same in 2014."

[ Related: Is IT work getting more stressful, or is it the millennials ]

But is there a difference between feeling obligated to connect and needing to connect in order to feel at ease

"It's funny. I have a picture of me in Cancun sitting on the beach with my ThinkPad," says Mark D. Johns, CIO and IT director at First Winthrop Corporation. While CIOs like Johns are getting away from the office and turning off the work icons on their phones, whether they can enjoy themselves and completely unwind depends on many factors.

The challenges of disconnecting

"I am able to disconnect. I still check in using my iPhone and laptop, but I try not to be too obsessive about it," Johns says. Letting go can be a challenge, because, he says, a couple of times he has been away and received that critical call. "Can I enjoy myself Depends on the business cycle," says Johns. "The intensity level of an issue that escalates to my desk makes it more difficult."

Johns says that he has great people working for him. In order to ensure that things run smoothly, he "hired a great staff, smart people who are proactive. We have a flexible workforce, we build in redundancy, we cross train and we utilize consultants."

Being able to trust a talented and reliable team is one reason why executives can get away from the office with confidence and focus on their families. Knowing that they can trust their team to deal with critical issues takes the pressure off while they are trying to achieve a work-life balance.

John Glennon, CIO of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, agrees. Glennon says that he is able to enjoy his down time because he has a great team. "I have an outstanding staff who know when to escalate issues. My concerns are more about management of unexpected issues than day-to-day operations," Glennon says.

Escalation process leads to relaxation process

Having an escalation process in place helps executives to step away and enjoy vacation time. "I love my job and the people I work with, but I work to live, and I enjoy my time away," Glennon says. "Work can be stressful and I ensure my staff have a good work-life balance, and I try to do the same."

[ Related: How to use Outlook's auto reply features to free your vacation from email ]

The challenge for many executives is knowing that emails will pile up very quickly. "I try to go off the grid completely, but based on the daily volume of inbound mail I tend to check several times while I am out," Glennon admits.

Even though Glennon and many others are checking email to avoid build up, they are able to let go to a large extent. "I have good folks on my team and I trust them to keep the place running in my absence," Glennon says. Many executives credited the expertise of their teams and expressed that being able to trust their staffs helps them to relax while out of the office.

"I put a lot of stock into a work-life balance," says Jennifer Minella, vice president of engineering at Carolina Advanced Digital. She admits that learning to disconnect was a process for her, but she says she realized that she needed to change her habits and mindset.

Many have the intention of leaving work at work, but the need for peace of mind or the fear of disaster keeps them connected, especially when they have access to work email on their phones, which are always with them. "I'd tell myself that I was just going to check my mail to stay ahead of the curve and delete the junk, but checking it wasn't putting me ahead, it was putting me behind," says Minella.

[ Related: What vacation Expect to work while you're away ]

"It's like a diet," says Minella. "If it's not sustainable, it won't work."

Baby steps to disconnecting

So what is the best diet for disconnecting "Take little bites," Minella says. "I started by trying not to look at my email at night. I wake up at about 4:30 a.m., so it was only about four hours to start, but I realized that nothing happened during those four hours."

It's these small steps that make being able to completely disconnect for a week's vacation possible. Minella says her process for ensuring that all runs smoothly in her absence addresses three concerns: preparation, team and mindset.

In preparing for a vacation, executives can let people know that they will be gone and who their escalation point contacts are, says Minella, who puts an auto reply on her email days or even a week before she is going away to alert partners, customers and colleagues that she'll be out of the office.

Minella echoes the thoughts of other executives who have come to rely on their teams to be able to handle critical situations. "It's important to be surrounded by people you trust, to be able to offload onto them, and that they are able to make authorizations in your absence," Minella says, adding that the keys to building a strong team are "communication, collaboration and trust."

What's most important factor to being able to relax and enjoy a vacation "Being OK with not staying on top of things. In our heads we always think we are working," says Minella. Shifting the mindset to accept that they trust their staff will help them to relax a little bit more.


Kacy Zurkus

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