Through the Provost’s Window: Out of Office.

By Dr. Kristine Barnett

Out of Office   This installation of The Provost’s Window is delayed, as I took a much-needed vacation. Originally planned for July 2020, this trip was punted more than a few times. It was worth the wait. During my travels, I reflected on how important it is to get out of the office because only then can we gain the distance and perspective we need to remain professionally healthy. Simply put, time away brings us back refreshed to the work that patiently awaits us.  

Why is a blog article on this topic even necessary? We’re all adults, right? We should know how to properly take time off. In the past year, I’ve spoken to more than a dozen senior-level leaders who told me that they are not planning on taking much time away from the office this year. They might take a long weekend here or there; but generally, they tell me there is just too much to do. Offices are understaffed. There are enrollment or financial challenges that must be addressed. These are situations many of us know all too well. And yet, as a senior academic leader, you are committed to your role. If you are going to fulfill your role as effectively as possible, this means committing to a self-care plan that includes time off. Without this, you will quickly lose your energy and your perspective, which will negatively impact your ability to perform and serve. Consider the following as you think about how to recharge your batteries.  

Prepping to Turn Off It seems like common sense to plan for being out of the office, but I’ve had plenty of experiences when deadlines were missed, grant reports were not completed, or meetings were canceled because someone’s vacation came as a surprise to the group of colleagues left at the office. In fact, a colleague shared with me just this week that his company had missed an important milestone with a client because all of the Vice Presidents had scheduled their time off for the same week without coordinating schedules. No one at the company knew that not one senior leader would be able to attend the client meeting! Everyone assumed someone else would be there and the client was left hanging. A little planning and communication ahead of time could have avoided this mishap. When your time off is planned, you can be proactive about how to keep the workflow moving. And keeping the flow moving means your piles might be smaller when you return from far-away places.  

Designate and deputize your second in charge so that it’s clear to all who is tapped to act in your stead and who can keep the traffic moving. Stepping into your shoes temporarily is great practice for your staff who are developing leaders. A couple of days in even a pseudo version of your role can boost their confidence, expand their perspectives, or make them a bit more sympathetic to you for all you do.  

Pre-flight, meet with your support team to review priorities, sorting tasks into “Can Wait” and “Can’t Wait” categories until your return. I find it helpful to explain my rationale for prioritizing to those who will be keeping an eye on the office so that if something new pops up, they can possibly apply the logic we practiced. You should also point others to the types of issues that they should not handle or that they should reach out to you about ASAP if you are going to be at all reachable. For example, as the boarding doors on my first flight closed, I was putting the finishing touches on a job offer and new faculty contract – actions that I could not delegate. Thankfully, my team were well aware that we needed to hustle and all the moving parts worked out perfectly. Had I simply walked out of the office without taking a few minutes to let everyone know what to expect, I’m not sure we would have had a successful ending to this critical job search.  

Use your Out of Office message to clarify that you are not reachable and provide a contact person who can handle emergencies while you are away. Then fasten your seat belt for lift-off.  

Turning Off Commit to breaking up with your phone and email for at least a little while. A recent survey shared by the Society for Human Resource Management indicated that 61% of professionals check their email at least once per day while they are out of the office. As pre-arranged with my team, I scanned my email once per day, answering perhaps fewer than 5 emails total while I was out of the office. It was heavenly.   In addition to turning off my devices, I decided to turn off my work brain too. This was not something I was good at earlier in my career when I would worry and get stuck in FOMO (fear of missing out). Over the years, it has sunk in for me that a well-prepared, trusted, empowered team can handle what is thrown their way and perhaps I am not quite as important as my ego tells me I am. When my mind drifted to work issues or I reached for my phone to check email, I actively reminded myself to check out and unwind. A colleague shared with me that in a position many years ago, she and her office mates dreaded when the boss went on vacation because the boss used the time to dream big dreams about work. This meant that staff received dozens of emails at all hours about new ideas, new plans, new articles the team needed to immediately read, or reports that needed to be completed by the time they returned. Inevitably, when the boss returned, they had moved on from those ideas and the emails with their various assignments had been a waste of time for all. The barrage of emails to the staff in the home office was not beneficial.  

Re-Entry I’ve met more than one person who has told me that they don’t take extended time off because the stress of coming back is too unbearable. Ideally, if you have traveled far, you will take an extra day off to stay at home before you return to work. In addition to handling the laundry you accumulated on vacation, you can also comfortably ease back into email. Review your calendar for the week. Complete your to-do lists. Catch up on the work reading you didn’t do while you traveled. And mentally prepare for what awaits you. When I returned to the office, I ended up working a short week, which was helpful in managing the jet lag. On my first day back, I kept a clear calendar for the first few hours of the day before heading into back-to-back meetings. In short, take it easy when you return so you don’t trigger a significant increase in stress. This stress can be contagious, and it’s not good for anyone.  

Your action step this month is to book your next round of time off – more than just a day here or there.  

We know that time away from the office has physical and mental health benefits. Vacationing, even a staycation, can help you recharge and reframe so that you are bringing your best self to your role. When you prioritize self-care, you are modeling a critical leadership skill for your team. Naturally, you want to encourage your team to take their vacation time to invest in themselves. You may need to nudge a few dedicated colleagues to pack their bags and hit the road. What benefits one often benefits the team. Wherever the road takes you, bon voyage!  

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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