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The cult of connectivity

Technology has changed our concept of vacation, says Wharton. With dataport connections as ubiquitous in hotel rooms as the electric coffeepot, the idea of "leaving the office behind" seems quaint.

Not long ago, businessmen and women who took vacations could actually "get away from it all." Office equipment was too big to bring along, and people normally did not give out their hotel's telephone number to everyone on their Rolodex.

Not so today. Your office can fit in a laptop and every contact has your cell phone number. Indeed, there are approximately 136 million subscribers in the United States alone, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. About 41 percent of U.S. households have a pager and 12 percent have a PDA, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

In short, technology has changed our concept of vacation. With dataport connections as ubiquitous in hotel rooms as the electric coffeepot, the idea of "leaving the office behind" seems quaint. It's a phrase that might have been relevant to an earlier generation, but not to today's knowledge workers who consider themselves indispensable to the office and have the technology to ensure their continual presence on the job, virtually if not bodily.

For vacationers in the 21st century, it would seem that the cult of connectivity rules. And yet people who make a living studying today's workplace and vacation trends have some suggestions. The wireless world, they say, will follow you everywhere unless you make a determined effort to escape, or at the very least, to manage it. Furthermore, these observers note, a niche market is developing for vacation ideas that aggressively reject the intrusion of work into time off. It seems that people are willing to pay extra to "just say no" to the urge to connect.

The problem is, it's a very strong urge. "What underlies this is project-based work, where employees are given ownership over something that is reasonably complicated to manage," says Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources. "It's often unbounded and messy in the sense that if things go wrong, they have to be updated. So if you really have ownership and you care how the project turns out, it doesn't stop when you go on vacation.

"There is no good way around this if you want to own a project," Cappelli adds. "Organizations can take some steps to make this situation less onerous, such as doing projects in teams where another person is assigned to handle crises that come up or can at least filter and decide what a true crisis is. The worst cases are when everyone on a project gets copied on every problem that arises and is asked for feedback, whether on vacation or not."

Cappelli, and others, argue that technology is not the problem--it's the nature of work. "It creates this need for people to feel they are accountable as individuals, a need to stay in touch. Technology makes it easier to do that but it doesn't create the demand."

"For knowledge workers the cycle of work/non-work that has existed in agrarian or even industrial societies no longer holds."
--Stewart D. Friedman, director, Wharton's Work/Life Integration Program
Stewart D. Friedman, director of Wharton's Work/Life Integration Program, is researching the boundaries people create between the different domains of their lives, such as work, home, self and community. "These boundaries are much more permeable because of the wireless world," he says. "What differentiates our current reality from any that has existed before is that in many cases those boundaries are determined by us," as opposed to an outside authority, the natural order of seasons, daylight and sunlight, or a physical work environment. "Those are not constraints anymore. For knowledge workers the cycle of work/non-work that has existed in agrarian or even industrial societies no longer holds."

As a consequence, the responsibility for determining the right mix is all on us now," he says. "That's important because it speaks to the need we all have to be very conscious about the choices we are making...If you behave in a reactive way to the demands around you, you will feel strangled by technology as opposed to using the Internet as a way to stay in touch, to be accessible but still have boundaries."

For Friedman, having the tools to stay connected and accessible is advantageous. "But for many people it's a seduction to do the opposite of what you intend during a vacation...Technology works against us only if you let it. And most of us let it."

Facing 4,000 e-mails
The pressure to stay wired on a 24-7 basis relates in part to the type of vacation involved, says Keith Bellows, editor-in-chief and vice president of National Geographic Traveler.

Many vacations, he says, are short weekend getaways that tend to be "tacked on to a business trip or sandwiched into the melee of day-to-day life. In those cases, it's imperative for people to stay in touch." But even on more leisurely vacations, the office remains a powerful draw. "Why? For the simple reason that no one likes to come back to the office and face 4,000 e-mails," Bellows says.

Then you have the businesspeople who "want to get away but can't," he adds. "They are delighted when they see a cybercaf? or find that their hotel has a 24-hour business center, and they are seduced into checking their e-mail or voicemail or whatever, when 15 years ago it would have been the furthest thing from their minds."

Third, says Bellows, are the growing numbers of people "who find it anathema to stay connected" as well as the rise of a niche travel market ready to service this sentiment. "There is a trend toward retreats, toward spiritual travel, like three weeks in India or a northern California monastery, especially among the baby boomers...We are a workaholic society, but at the same time there is an explosion in yoga therapy, in meditation, in the greater embracing of spirituality.

"The flip side of that, of course, is that there is an equally vigorous explosion in the hotel industry toward making us ever more wired. We can't escape the world. Walk into a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur and you can immediately be online. That's the reality. It comes down to how disciplined you are.

"We are a workaholic society, but at the same time there is an explosion in yoga therapy, in meditation, in the greater embracing of spirituality."
--Keith Bellows, National Geographic Traveler
"We are in some ways trying to hold these dual worlds in our head, but it's difficult to do," Bellows says. "Vacation is a lot more relaxing for me when I can check in briefly with the office for half an hour and see what carnage is unfolding in the workplace rather than having to face it when I get back."

As for travel trends, Bellows cites a movement toward shorter getaways, as well as a growth in therapeutic vacations, such as at spas or on idyllic islands. He notes that less than 30 percent of Americans have a passport, so most people are clearly not going abroad; in fact, about 95 percent take vacations within 300 miles of their home. But for those who are traveling internationally, Americans favor Western Europe, especially Italy, France and Spain, although Bellows expects India, China and Vietnam to become popular destinations in the near future.

Looking for phone jacks
Cari Gray, a representative for Butterfield & Robinson, a high-end tour company based in Toronto, recently returned from a trip to Morocco with a group of participants who were "very connected people. We had to get special permission from a lot of hotel directors to use their personal Internet connections."

Even on European trips where logging on is easier, "you end up on your knees looking for phone jacks underneath desks...The whole process can take up valuable vacation time."

To read more articles like this one, visit Knowledge@Wharton.

All materials copyright © 2002 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.