The Tethered Vacation

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October 11, 2017

In 2003, BlackBerry introduced Quark, the first handheld device to integrate email, web browsing, texting, and phone functionality. Four years later, Americans lined up for the release of Apple’s first iPhone. By 2008, when Google launched its Android device, the era of the smartphone was well underway. Today, smartphones are ubiquitous—nearly eight-in-ten Americans own one— and have made the office anywhere there is a Wi-Fi or cellular connection.

The tech-fueled transformation of the workplace is creating new problems for employers. While employers have introduced robust flex-time policies and remote-working arrangements, they often fail to clearly communicate guidance and expectations about working outside the office.

By failing to establish boundaries around work, companies are unintentionally sending the message that they do not respect employees’ time off. This undermines efforts to create and sustain an engaged, motivated workforce.


GfK conducted an online survey from January 26-February 20, 2017 with 7,331 American workers, age 18+, who work more than 35 hours a week and receive paid time off from their employer. These data were weighted and scaled. The survey included 2,598 employees who are able to access work remotely. The following report looks exclusively at those employees.

A Modern Definition of Face Time

Thanks to today’s technology, face time does not mean what it used to. Email response time has replaced the last car in the office parking lot.

This dynamic does not change even if an employee’s location does. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say they are more comfortable taking time off if they know they can access work. Most employees (46%) reported that they check in with work occasionally during vacation while smaller percentages (27%) are logging on frequently or fully unplugging.

It is no surprise more connected employees leave more time on the table. They are much more susceptible to the barriers to taking time off. They fear work will pile up and that no one else can handle their responsibilities, due in part to their belief that taking time off is harder as they advance. They also feel that they are expected to be working, even when on vacation.

Employees who are more connected are not only taking less time off, they are also more stressed. More than half (51%) of those who check in frequently report stress in their home life, compared to 48 percent of those who check in occasionally and 36 percent who unplug on vacation.

The Tethered Vacation 6

Working Remotely: How it Affects Employees and Their Vacations

Working remotely is becoming more desirable for employees and more manageable for companies. Current job seekers rank flexible work arrangements—the ability to telecommute and work nontraditional hours—as one of their most desired benefits.

Face time is highly valued by employees who can work remotely, likely because they are not always seen doing the work they produce. Employees who are able to work remotely put more pressure on themselves to check in with work while on vacation than employees who do not work remotely (43% to 23%).

The Impact of Company Tech Culture on Employees

A company’s unplugging culture can predict an employee’s engagement and commitment to the organization.

While workers in pro-unplugging cultures do unplug more than employees in unsupportive cultures (32% to 20%), the majority still check in with work while they are away. But there is a difference. Most employees in supportive cultures say that they like to check in only occasionally while on vacation (47%), compared to those in unsupportive cultures who are most likely to say they check in frequently throughout the day (40%).

For many Americans, the idea of an unplugged vacation sounds ideal, even mythical. But whether or not being unplugged is a good thing is dependent on company culture. Of the employees who unplug totally while on vacation, those who work in supportive cultures are more likely to say they feel valued by their employer (57% to 45%), cared about as a person (55% to 36%), and that their job is important to the company’s mission (65% to 45%) than employees who unplug in unsupportive cultures.

Setting an Example: The Manager’s Impact on Vacation Culture

Managers and their actions have a disproportionate impact on an employee’s time. Employees report that their boss has the most influence over their time—even more than their own family (24% to 23%). But many bosses do not fully appreciate or even know the power of that influence. Just 14 percent of managers unplug when they take time off. Senior leadership is even worse—just seven percent of these high-level managers unplug.

The more connected the vacationing manager, the more likely they are to say no to time off requests. More than a third (35%) of managers who check in frequently on vacation say that pressure from the company prevents them from approving vacation requests, compared to just 20 percent of managers who check in occasionally or 17 percent of those who unplug.

The Connectivity Bellwether for Companies

Talent retention and attraction depends on a magnetic company culture, and the numbers prove vacation time is an essential part of shaping that culture. Employees rank vacation (19%) as one of their top workplace benefits—second only to health care (36%). Vacation also beats out retirement plans (17%), flexibility (15%), and even bonuses (5%).

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of employees who are currently looking for a new job say that paid vacation is “extremely” or “very” important to them in their job search. Company cultures that do not support unplugging may be facing more flight risks. Forty percent of employees in cultures that do not support unplugging are looking or planning to look for a new job in the next year. Just 21 percent of employees in supportive cultures say the same.


The Most Connected Generation

Millennials are a technologically savvy generation. They have been called obsessed—even addicted—to their phones, checking them more than 150 times per day, according to a recent Qualtrics study. But when it comes to connecting to work, these digital natives are not all that different from the generations that precede them.

It is actually Generation X that is most likely to say they feel more comfortable taking time off knowing they can connect to work (82%). Millennials are closer to Boomers (77% to 75%, respectively) when asked the same question.

The most pronounced generational disparity manifests in the challenges to taking vacation. Millennials are far more likely than other generations to be concerned about how dedicated they would look if they took time off, to fear what the boss would think, and to believe they would lose consideration for a raise or promotion.


As Americans become increasingly connected, employers must be realistic. Work and technology are inextricably linked. But understanding technology’s influence and the value of boundaries will empower employees to take a break and help determine whether your company’s vacation culture is successful.

Creating an environment where employees feel supported in leaving the office behind will ultimately foster an engaged workforce that feels valued, motivated, and committed—all of which have a lasting impact.