My boss has been away for 2 weeks and every year this saying comes to my head and how the lab changes when we are "unsupervised".
The truth is that we don't stop working...well, not all of us, but there are always exceptions. But it is true that there is lightness in the air, and this doesn't only apply to our lab. I think as a general rule, independent of the type of PI you have, people work more comfortably when they are away, be it in a symposium or on vacation.
In my case, what happens is that I feel a bit freer to organize my time around the lab. I try to get here early and hence leave early. I like beating traffic, having extra time at my place sure. But I also like knowing that if my experiment doesn't work, even though I did everything according to the protocol, I won't have to just deal with my nagging feeling but also my boss's. I guess that's the reason why sometimes working on the weekend is so appealing, I only have to deal with myself, and let's face it, I can be a handful.
But as I was saying, it's not just me. In most of the labs I know, people don't necessarily stop working when their PIs are away, they just work differently. It strikes me that so many PIs want to see you at the lab from 9 to 5 when in reality science is not a 9 to 5 thing. What is the point of being at the lab at 9 am, when your time point starts at say noon and then you will be working nonstop until 8pm? Why is it so problematic then to just push your starting point until noon? Sure, those extra 3h can be used prepping, but there is a limit of how much of that you can do, and precisely because of the very hectic schedules in wet labs, getting those 3h to run errands or even sleep shouldn't be frown upon.
There are days that I come to the lab to do solely computer tasks: ordering stuff, doing inventory, follow ups of e-mails, etc. so I know that sometimes, the extra time at the lab with no experiments is necessary. But, I also know that there are days when I am all up to date with my lab book, data has been analyzed and orders are done. I then have to spend the day acting busy, because my cells are being treated for 48h and there is not much I can do. Those days are exhausting! The amount of tips I've racked just to be doing something!. "Why don't you just go home" you ask...because the cat is not away, and hence this mouse cannot really go on and play.
But when the cat is gone...this very organized mouse gets all of her experiments running, catches up with stuff around here and yet, somehow, doesn't feel drained at the end of the day. I think it says a lot about stress levels and pressure techniques, wouldn't you agree?
What about on your case? Do you work better or worse when your PI is not around?