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Over the X-mas holidays, will your smartphone be on or off?

“BlackBerrys on or off while on holiday? Definitely on, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of communication services giant WPP, told this newspaper recently. Off, said Tamara Mellon, founder and chief creative officer of shoemaker Jimmy Choo. When it comes to e-mails, Ms Mellon said, “holidays are a no-go zone”.
Sir Martin suggested that those squinting at the passing talent on the beach rather than at the little screen would pay a price. “Our clients’ businesses are 24/7 and do not stop for holidays,” he said. “Opportunities, challenges and crises do not wait for our return.”

Michael Skapinker (Financial Times, 23 August 2010)

The holiday period is nearly upon us, and the busy modern executive is going to face one of the existential dilemmas of our age: do I leave the smartphone on or off? Should I read my e-mails, take calls, get news feeds? Or am I supposed to be taking a real break from all the corporate kelele?

A tough one, and one that reveals how the world of work has changed. Ten years ago, things were easy. There was work time, and there was play time. We lived in boxes, and could delineate our behaviour accordingly. But what do we do in this 24-7, always-on world?

Sir Martin Sorrell, alpha male of the advertising industry, has only one answer: he’s on. His work, quite clearly, is his whole life, so he would no more switch off his phone than stop breathing. For him, life is about “opportunities, challenges and crises”, and those things do not know time and place. Switching off weakens your competitive position.

On the other hand, there is nothing more annoying for a patient spouse and parental-attention-deficit-afflicted children than to see you spending all your time on the beach or in family activities fiddling away on your device. A break is as much about them as it is about you, after all.

So, what are you going to do? The FT’s Michael Skapinker suggests a sensible middle way. Recognize first that being like Sorrell is a sign of dysfunction. If a CEO feels the need to be on top of every event, every decision in a firm as huge as Sorrell’s WPP, then something has indeed gone wrong. In Skapinker’s words: “A business that relies on its boss to spot all the crises and opportunities is going to have too many of the former and too few of the latter, because the person at the top is not usually the first to hear about either.”

Indeed so. Don’t kid yourself that your need to be on top of everything is a good sign. Equally, can any of us take the feeling of being completely in the dark while on holiday? And who can cope with the mountain of e-mail and messages that accumulates if nothing is addressed for weeks? The first two days of getting back can undo all the effects of your break!

The middle way is simple: put aside a small amount of time every day of your holiday to switch on your smartphone or tablet, and look through your mails and feeds. The rest of the time, keep it switched off and recharge your personal batteries, enjoy your surroundings and engage with your family. That works for me.

But the decision is personality-driven: those who can’t let go will stay on all the time; those who can, will switch off. There’s room for all types in business life. Oh, and these days, smartphones and tablets are as much instruments of leisure as they are for business, containing newspapers, magazines, books and videos. They have become life devices rather than just work tools.

Whether you are on or off, this column wishes you a refreshing holiday break.

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