“Unless you have a deadline or direct ask, can I get back to you after Labor Day?”
Now is the time to use this response liberally. In fact, you have my permission to cut and paste it as a reply to about 90% of the emails you are getting right now.
Here’s why: After a few years of remote and hybrid work, some patterns are emerging on when office professionals actually, well, work. And right now—summer in the US, very generously and expansively defined as the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day—is one of those times that many don’t. (Other periods that have become similar productivity lulls: the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the whole month of January.) That basically leaves September through November, and February through May, as our windows to get anything done.
It used to annoy me. I’d toil away on a plan only to discover all the parties I need to approve, pay, and execute were nowhere to be found. Or they were “working” but from a cabin or beach somewhere and really did not want to deal with brand-new ideas in the middle of time with friends and family. Now I’ve given in. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the typical American approach to work—more like a European one, minus the social and economic safety nets. Besides, the ramp-up will be here again before we know it.
“Our most productive time of the year is September to November,” says Jennifer Moss, an expert on healthy workplace cultures who wrote The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress And How We Can Fix It. “September kicks off the start of the end, which means we have less time to hit our goals. This shorter window of time to hit year-end metrics can be motivating for employees.”
One reason employees might feel okay shutting down for longer periods is because remote work makes it feel like we are working all the time. The actual work day has not only blurred into living rooms and daycare drop-off but actual timings as well; a Wall Street Journal headline this week called 4:00 to 6:00 pm, when people are picking up kids or exercising or trying to avoid rush-hour traffic, the “new workday dead zone when nothing gets done.” Then they log back on at night or try to catch up over the weekend to respond to everything missed in this time period.
A quote in the article articulates precisely the predicament this presents for many workplaces: “How do we make it so that my flexibility isn’t your challenge?” said Colette Stallbaumer, general manager of Microsoft’s Future of Work initiative.
In the summer months, though, it feels like we could all make a pact to be more flexible with each other. Some ways to support a mutual unplugging:
Make liberal use of out-of-office notes, both internal and external.
Program your email. Pin the dates in Slack channels. Remind your bosses and colleagues it’s coming. Include links to calendar software or other scheduling programs for contacts to book time with you upon return. I’m increasingly seeing out-of-office messages with quotes like “Rest is resistance” or citing civil-rights activist Audre Lorde’s argument that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
Consider week-long breaks for the entire company, or no-meeting weeks.
Summer Fridays and no-meeting Wednesdays are great, but can you go a step further this summer and just give everyone a week off? LinkedIn starting doing this last year for the week after the Fourth of July. PricewaterhouseCoopers gives US employees two annual breaks, in July and December.
Maybe don’t work from Italy.
Interest in “workcations” may be on the rise, but just because you can work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. Between time zones and connectivity issues, it might just be worth it to use time away to decompress completely. A lot of people get on planes with the best of intentions—to work and not interrupt momentum—but they arrive at a destination and discover how hard that really is.
How to get creative and acknowledge the need for flexibility still? Can we offer workers sabbaticals or three-week vacations in alternating years, for example? Or if nobody in your company is really working anyway, is there value in trying to cluster holidays to less productive periods, or tacking on company-wide down time, and have fewer people off in, say, October, when plans for next year are due?
Remember it can take time to acclimate to “being off.”
Stepping away can be uncomfortable at first. “Our amygdala has kept us in a constant state of hyperarousal for 500+ days. We are wired to stay aroused, on edge and anxious,” Leo F. Flanagan Jr., a psychologist and founder of the Center for Resilience, once told me. “Expect it to take at least 72 hours for you to come down from this state. During those 72 hours you are likely to feel uneasy and driven to do things. Do your best to resist.”
Habits I once employed over the summer, such as no Monday morning meetings and no Friday meetings after noon, have become practices all year long. One I started last summer—and am using a lot more this summer—is a tactic I hope also sticks: Be more direct and actionable over email.
I was inspired by Janine Sickmeyer, founding partner at venture-capital firm Overlooked Ventures, who once tweeted: “Here’s the best way to get what you want: ASK FOR IT! Instead of saying ‘let’s connect’ or ‘can I pick your brain?’ do this:
- Email the exact questions you have
- Put your ask at the end so the person knows what you want
- Follow up in one week
- Do not schedule a one-hour call”
Indeed, I am trying to be more direct to avoid this back-and-forth and wasted effort. And I’m trying to preserve that most precious gift of all: time.