It’s March Break for many kids across Canada. This means that parents have the lucky task of thinking up meaningful things for their kids to do this week. For some, it’s traveling out of town. According to Pearson Airport, Friday, March 8th was the busiest March break travel day with almost 200k people traveling out of the city.
Vacations for me have always been a mildly stressful event. The organization and drive needed at work both before and after the vacation are sometimes more trouble than the vacation is relaxing. Yet, vacations and unplugging are a vital part of keeping your creativity and productivity up. We need to disconnect to continue to perform and function at our best.
So, in the absence of never taking a vacation, the pre-vacation and post-vacation trauma is something we just have to deal with. In January’s post on productivity, I talked about the 3 foolproof ways to streamline your work. Today I want to delve a bit deeper into managing emails, specifically before and after vacations.
For most of us, emails are the bane of our existence. We love it because it allows swift communication, and we hate it for the fact that it effectively attaches us to our phones 24/7. And when we go on vacation, the fact that we can’t quickly respond means that we come back to maybe 1000 emails on the Monday after vacation.
Most of us have simply accepted that fact, however, there are ways to reduce the email overwhelm with some steps you can take before you go on vacation.
Set up a Good Out-of-office Email
This is a no-brainer, and I’m sure most of you do this already. However, most out-of-office emails are not written to deter the sender from sending the email. They say something like “I will be out of the office until March 18 with limited access to email. If your matter is urgent, please contact Samantha Sweets at email@example.com.”
There are two things wrong with this auto-reply email. First, it says that you have limited access to email. Now, that may be true, however, when people write that, what the receiver reads is that you will be checking your emails periodically. Which means that you will likely reply to this email while you’re on vacation.
Second, it tells them that you will be back from vacation on March 18, which is the Monday after your week-long holiday. When you write this, people will expect a response from you on March 18, the first day back from your vacation. Now, you and I both know that this is an unrealistic expectation.
Here’s an alternate message for your out-of-office:
“I am currently out of the office with no access to emails. I will reply to your email upon my return to the office on Tue, Mar 19. If your matter requires an urgent answer, please contact my colleague Samantha Sweets at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
In the second version, you’re telling them that you will reply upon your return on Tuesday which is the day after you’re back in the office. Now, if you happen to reply on a Monday, they will be delighted, and if not, you’re meeting their expectations.
Also, you’re emphasizing that they should contact your colleague if they require an urgent answer. Most things do not require an urgent answer, but if they do, Samantha Sweet is available.
Don’t Tackle Emails as Soon as You Return
Our first instinct upon landing and unpacking our stuff on the Sunday night before returning to work is to look at our emails in case we missed something earth-shattering. I would urge you to resist the temptation of doing so. It only causes anxiety when you see a thread of emails without any context.
And, let’s be honest, we’ve all been there where we answer to an email only to read a bit more and find out that things were resolved and your email today will cause more confusion than help.
Here’s what I suggest instead. First, sort all your unread emails by subject line. This is helpful because you can quickly glance over and see where each email conversation was left off. Most likely you’ll see that many, if not all, of the emails, were already resolved. And if they weren’t, you’ll be able to see where things are at.
Second, schedule a meeting with Samantha, your out of office contact, as soon as possible on your first day back. Bring your laptop with you and ask her for a rundown of all that happened while you were away. I can’t stress this enough. In fact, I would suggest that you pre-book this meeting in both your calendars before you go on vacation so it’s in both your calendars.
It’s only after these 2 steps that I recommend you sit down to answer your emails.
Respond to the Last Email of the Conversation Thread
Once you’ve sorted the emails by subject line and have got the rundown from Samantha, you can start your responses to the emails.
My suggestion is to respond to the last email of each conversation thread. A simple response like, “Adam, I see that your question was answered. I’m back from vacation now and we have our next 1:1 schedule on Thursday. Looking forward to catching up then.”
Your time is your most valuable asset as an HR Business Partner (or any professional) and you need to guard it with everything you’ve got. Most people would say “give me a call if you want to chat” (I know I did that for years). But it’s not necessary.
If you’ve been listening to my advice over the past several weeks, you already have regular 1:1 meeting scheduled with your clients ahead of time. There is very little need then to deviate from that schedule with an unscheduled chat that you could easily cover at your next 1:1.
File Emails as Soon as You Respond
If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I’m a stickler for a clean inbox. There’s nothing more overwhelming than seeing thousands of emails in your inbox that have already been actioned.
As soon as you reply to that last email in the conversation thread, highlight all the emails in that conversation (you can do this quickly by clicking on the first email, then holding down your “Shift” key, click on the last email in the thread. This will highlight all the emails).
Then simply drag them to the appropriate folder that you’ve already set up. That way, you don’t have to think about or see those emails again and you can focus your energy on the things that matter.
Sit Back and Enjoy the Rewards of Being Organized
Repeat the process for all your conversation threads. There may be some emails that have not received a response. In this case, you will need to get back to the sender, but again, as soon as you’ve replied to the email, file it away.
Then, revel in the empty inbox and go grab your much-deserved beverage of choice.
Vacations don’t need to be overwhelming. If you set up a process to manage your emails before you leave and have a solid process to deal with them when you return, your time away from the office will be a non-issue.
You can set up a similar process for the projects that you’re responsible for too. I don’t have space in this post to talk about that, but you get the idea. Prepare for milestones and deliverables during the week that you’re away. My recommendation would be to put someone else in charge such as Samantha Sweets.
If you’re an individual HR contributor or don’t have an acceptable backup person, then build your vacations into the project plan and give your team a heads up that there will be no movement on the project during the time you’re away. I know this sounds drastic, but you’ll be surprised at how little a week matters in the grand scheme of things.
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