For us IT types it is important to maintain a good balance between work and our lives. Just as they say that good fences make good neighbors, I’ve found that a good delineation between work and home improves both. The holiday season is taxing, though. People rush around trying to wrap up loose ends, they’re using vacation they’re going to lose, and they’re generally scattered and distracted, which isn’t a good thing.
If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere with a true 24×7 operations center then coverage over the holidays is already thought out. However, most IT staff in the world aren’t in places like that. Here are some thoughts I have about how to defend your time off over the holiday season.
1. Talk to your manager about expectations.
Ideally your manager has told you what they expect over the holidays, but if that isn’t the case you might have to bring it up. Certainly there is a range of competency when it comes to leadership but hopefully you can have an honest & fair discussion about staff availability.
I always have a million questions about expectations. For example, will anybody be working during the holidays? Remember that not everyone follows a Christian religion. What I think of as Christmas will just be “Monday” to several of my coworkers. Will they need support? Does that mean you’re on call? If you’re on call, what are the expectations? Can you support them remotely, or might you need to go into the office? What timeframe do they expect you to respond in? What timeframe do they expect you to get to the office in? How will they contact you?
If your boss doesn’t have answers seize the chance to propose something reasonable. I might start with “no calls on the actual holidays, and one person will be available by phone, but not on site, during business hours between Christmas and New Year’s Day” and go from there.
Remember that this stuff is work, so any work you do reduces any vacation time you’re taking. Keep that in mind if you’re trying to use up vacation.
2. Publish & honor holiday hours.
Many problems in IT are communication issues. Getting called on your day off is both a communication issue and a problem. Head it off by making a calendar of who’s available when so your team knows who is in and who isn’t, and who’s on call. Make that a PDF and send it to people so it’s in their email. That way they can get to it if they’re traveling.
The second part of that is honoring those hours. Where I work you’re either working or you’re not working. If you’re working you’re fair game, but if you aren’t working we don’t call. If we do call there’s no expectation that you’ll answer.
My teammates will text the group if there’s something going on, which is nicely non-disruptive. If we’re busy we ignore it, if we have a few minutes we’ll jump in, or suggest a course of action. Above all, respect your team’s personal lives and time away from work.
3. Institute a pre-holiday change freeze.
There have been several studies done over the last couple decades that showed a high percentage (85% or more) of incidents & outages are caused by IT staff themselves. To me that means if we’re all on vacation there’s a much smaller chance something bad will happen!
You don’t want to deal with preventable problems when you’re trying to leave on vacation. You also don’t want to have to call or be called to help someone fix something they could have left until January. To avoid that, invoke a change freeze. For example, you could declare that no changes will be made between December 18 and January 2 unless they are to resolve a critical issue. As Shakespeare would put it, “on pain of death.”
Every IT shop I’ve ever worked in has had lots of stuff to do that didn’t involve changing production systems. Find something else to do. Write some documentation. Build a wiki for your documents. Vacuum your office. Vacuum the data center. Clean out that closet of old cables. Demo some new software. Restock printer supplies. Brush up on your Linux admin skills. Learn a scripting language. Test your backup system by restoring something. Take long lunches and do team building exercises at a pub. You’ll figure it out. One last thing, though — all these things are part of your job. Stand your ground if someone says you aren’t working, because they’re wrong.
4. Find opportunities for users to help themselves.
One thing you can do is find opportunities for your users to help themselves. Write a “what to do if your IT person is out” document. There’s no reason that a user couldn’t reload paper in a printer, or reboot their PC, or do some basic troubleshooting before they interrupt your vacation time..
For example, I once found that adding a second printer to people’s PCs, a printer in a neighboring department, for instance, got me out of 95% of urgent printer calls. People get really angry when they can’t print right before a meeting. Write up some tips and give them permission to help themselves out.
5. Socialize limited availability and light work schedules.
Now’s the time to mention at meetings that the holiday week will be lightly staffed, so turnaround times might be longer, project work will be on hold, and issues that aren’t absolutely life or death will be tabled. I’ve always found that by mentioning these issues early you get people thinking about it in a non-threatening way, and scheduling assumptions can be sorted out proactively & calmly.
6. Set up an on-call phone number.
It’s one thing for your team to know your personal cell phone number, but you really don’t want everybody in your organization knowing it. Trust me. If you are doing an on-call rotation that involves actual calling you should find a way to forward a business phone number to whoever is responding. Maybe it’s tricks with Google Voice, or someone logs into Burner or Signal or something when it’s their turn. Be creative but make sure it’s reliable. Make sure to document it and send the document to people via email so they can find it when they need to.
7. Set up & test remote access methods.
The time to test your ability to get in remotely is BEFORE you need it. Make sure you can get in from the road if you’re traveling. Do you need a hotspot? Can you VPN in? What happens if the VPN concentrator can’t talk to your Active Directory? Can you get to the consoles of all of your devices? Does everyone on your team know how to get to everything?
Anything you can’t reach remotely is potentially a reason you’ll have to go into the office. Going into the office means having to put on pants, comb your hair, log out of Overwatch, sober up — all things we just don’t want to have to do while we’re on vacation. So get it together, folks, and lay the foundation for a very merry end of December.
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Using a VPN is a good tip, especially during the holidays when most employees will be working from home. I recommend looking into ExpressVPN as the apps are really straightforward and easy to use.