Vacationing in a Wireless World: Relaxation vs 4,000 Emails

Not long ago, businessmen and women who took vacations could actually  get away from it all. Office equipment was too big to bring along, and people normally did not give out their hotel s telephone number to everyone on their rolodex.

 

Not so today. Your office can fit in a laptop and every customer and contact has your cell phone number. Indeed, there are approximately 136 million subscribers in the U.S. alone (according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association). About 41% of U.S. households have a pager and 12% a PDA (according to the Consumer Electronics Association). About 54% of drivers in the U.S. have a wireless phone in their cars (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

 

In short, technology has changed our concept of vacation. With dataport connections as ubiquitous in hotel rooms as the electric coffeepot, even in the remotest locations, the idea of  leaving the office behind seems quaint. It s a phrase that might have been relevant to an earlier generation, but not to today s knowledge workers who consider themselves indispensable to the office and have the technology to ensure their continual presence on the job, virtually if not bodily.  

 

For vacationers in the 21st century, it would seem that the cult of connectivity rules. And yet people who make a living studying today s workplace and vacation trends have some suggestions. The wireless world, they say, will follow you everywhere unless you make a determined effort to escape, or at the very least, to manage it. Furthermore, these observers note, a niche market is developing for vacation ideas that aggressively reject the intrusion of work into time off. It seems that people are willing to pay extra to  just say no to the urge to connect.

 

The problem is, it s a very strong urge.  What underlies this is project-based work, where employees are given ownership over something that is reasonably complicated to manage, says Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton s Center for Human Resources.  It s often unbounded and messy in the sense that if things go wrong, they have to be updated. So if you really have ownership and you care how the project turns out, it doesn t stop when you go on vacation.

 

 There is no good way around this if you want to own a project, Cappelli adds.  Organizations can take some steps to make this situation less onerous, such as doing projects in teams where another person is assigned to handle crises that come up or can at least filter and decide what a true crisis is. The worst cases are when everyone on a project gets copied on every problem that arises and is asked for feedback, whether on vacation or not.

 

Cappelli, and others, argue that technology is not the problem; rather it s the nature of work.  It creates this need for people to feel they are accountable as individuals, a need to stay in touch. Technology makes it easier to do that but it doesn t create the demand.

 

Stewart D. Friedman, director of Wharton s Work/Life Integration Program, is currently researching the boundaries people create between the different domains of their lives, such as work, home, self and community.  These boundaries are much more permeable because of the wireless world, he says.  What differentiates our current reality from any that has existed before is that in many cases those boundaries are determined by us, as opposed to an outside authority, the natural order of seasons, daylight and sunlight, or a physical work environment.  Those are not constraints any more. For knowledge workers the cycle of work/non-work that has existed in agrarian or even industrial societies no longer holds.

 

As a consequence, the responsibility for determining the right mix is  all on us now, he says.  That s important because it speaks to the need we all have to be very conscious about the choices we are making & If you behave in a reactive way to the demands around you, you will feel strangled by technology as opposed to using the Internet as a way to stay in touch, to be accessible but still have boundaries. 

 

For Friedman, having the tools to stay connected and accessible is advantageous.  But for many people it s a seduction to do the opposite of what you intend during a vacation & Technology works against us only if you let it. And most of us let it.

 

Friedman tells of one manager who forbids his employees to take their laptops on vacation.  This is one more way in which it s a one-size-fits-all human resources policy, he says.  The whole point is everyone is different. Everyone has different needs. They have to put their own controls on where and how they do their work. Here is a leader who thinks he is helping when in fact he is killing his employees because they come back to work and they are dead.

 

4000 E-mails

 

The pressure to stay wired on a 24/7 basis relates in part to the type of vacation  and vacationer  involved, says Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief and vice president of National Geographic Traveler.

 

Many vacations, he says, are short weekend getaways that tend to be  tacked on to a business trip or sandwiched into the melee of day-to-day life. In those cases, it s imperative for people to stay in touch. But even on more leisurely vacations  cruises in the Caribbean or biking tours through Italy  the office remains a powerful draw.  Why? For the simple reason that no one likes to come back to the office and face 4,000 emails, Bellows says.

 

Then you have the businesspeople who  want to get away but can t, he adds.  They are delighted when they see a cyber café or find that their hotel has a 24-hour business center, and they are seduced into checking their email or voicemail or whatever, when 15 years ago it would have been the furthest thing from their minds.

 

Third, says Bellows, are the growing numbers of people  who find it anathema to stay connected as well as the rise of a niche travel market  ready to service this sentiment.  There is a trend towards retreats, towards spiritual travel, like three weeks in India or a northern California monastery, especially among the baby boomers & We are a workaholic society but at the same time there is an explosion in yoga therapy, in meditation, in the greater embracing of spirituality.

 

 The flip side of that, of course, is that there is an equally vigorous explosion in the hotel industry towards making us ever more wired. We can t escape the world. Walk into a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur and you can immediately be online. That s the reality. It comes down to how disciplined you are.

 

 We are in some ways trying to hold these dual worlds in our head but it s difficult to do, Bellows says.  On vacation you have to find some balance, perhaps spend 5% of your time working and 95% not & Vacation is a lot more relaxing for me when I can check in briefly with the office for half an hour and see what carnage is unfolding in the workplace rather than having to face it when I get back.

 

As for travel trends, Bellows cites a movement towards shorter getaways, as well as a growth in therapeutic vacations, such as at spas or on idyllic islands. He notes that less than 30% of Americans have a passport, so most people are clearly not going abroad; in fact about 95% take vacations within 300 miles of their home. But for those who are traveling internationally, Americans favor Western Europe, especially Italy, France and Spain, although Bellows expects India, China and Vietnam to become popular destinations in the near future.

 

Finding a Phone Jack

 

Cari Gray, a spokesperson for Butterfield & Robinson, a high-end tour company based in Toronto, recently returned from a trip to Morocco with a group of participants who were  very connected people. We had to get special permission from a lot of hotel directors to use their personal Internet connections.

 

Even on European trips where logging on is easier,  you end up on your knees looking for phone jacks underneath desks. But then you aren t able to get a phone line, or you have to change the sittings on your computer. The whole process can take up valuable vacation time.

 

Pretty soon, she says, people get it.  It s the first day or two that people tend to be wired, but the physical activity of the trip along with the cultural opportunities quickly encourage people to kind of download themselves. The average American has 13 days of vacation a year, she adds, so  when they come to us they are looking for a pretty special week. Butterfield & Robinson specializes in  active holidays, often involving  biking and walking at a leisurely pace between high-end hotels, mostly in Europe.  

 

For those looking to vacation in the Caribbean, one high-end hotel is known for its ability to help guests disconnect  mainly by removing the hardware that makes connections possible. In the 166 rooms at Caneel Bay, a high-end resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are no telephones, televisions, radios or alarm clocks. Wake-up calls are a knock on the door.  This doesn t mean we don t have room service and those marvelous Italian linens; it s a luxury property, says spokesperson Peggy Blitz.  And we have a business center for those who can t live without it. We also offer complementary cell phones if people are having withdrawal symptoms.

 

Their guests, she adds,  return over and over again, even as an increasing number of Caribbean resorts are feeling forced into providing more technology options.  If we find people can t hack it here, we recommend  accommodations elsewhere. The people who have trouble are those who aren t aware before they come of what the situation is. They are aghast at the lack of communication options. For the people who do know about Caneel Bay, there are 170 acres and 7 private beaches, plus all the water sports one would expect in the Caribbean. And there is a business center  for people who can t live without it, says Blitz. But most guests, she says,  tend to bring a lot of books.  

 

As Wharton management and public policy professor Gerald Faulhaber says,  it s by choice that we stay plugged in. In my mind it comes from a failure to delegate. It also suggests a control freak, someone who has to be in control all the time. That is not a technology problem. It indicates the need for a good mental health professional.

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