No vacation time = good

By Polly on Recent Posts

It’s that time of year. As the days get longer, the air gets warmer, and the trees get greener, thoughts turn from work to play. But for all of the “summer hours,” “early Fridays,” and strategically planned Monday sick days, our vacation skills are generally abysmal in this country. Endless studies confirm that Americans get fewer vacation days, use fewer vacation days (most never use all of their vacation days and almost nobody takes a full two weeks off), and spend many of their vacation days working (Blackberrys and cellphones are crowding out books on the beach). Theories abound—from the Boomer work ethic to technology tethers—about why we can’t seem to chill like our European peers, but I think there’s a bigger problem at work.

Companies apply a tremendous amount of discipline, creativity, and resources to packing their ranks with the right great people. Then, in too many cases, the first day those great people walk through the door, they’re greeted with policy manuals and intricate rules for vacation days, personal days, alternative holidays, sick days. The message is clear: your time is not your own. Flex time and telecommuting haven’t really tempered the compulsion to clock in—face time has just been replaced with the green “available” light on IM screens and instant email replies at all hours.

Every leader wants to “get more” out of his or her people, but too many are stuck with the notion that the best way to do that is to exert more top-down control. The maverick leaders I’ve encountered take the opposite tack: they believe their most important job is to unleash people, not to bind them with all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles and rules. Want innovation, collaboration, and results? Don’t push people harder, give them free rein.

Here are a couple of the most inventive and productive approaches to giving people their time back:

The Best Vacation Policy = No Policy

Netflix, one of the maverick companies we feature in the book not only keeps figuring out new ways to connect movie fans with films they’ll enjoy and each other—it also spends a lot of time figuring out new ways to keep its people energized. The latest mechnism is an undoing of what CEO Reed Hastings calls “a relic of the industrial age”: all vacation, sick day, personal day policies and face-time requirements. The new vacation policy at Netflix is simple: there is none! Netflix estimates (it’s guesswork because the company doesn’t actually track vacation time or hours worked) that its people take off about 25-30 days per year, sometimes several weeks at a time. Check out the San Jose Mercury News piece on the un-policy. John Cancutti, director of engineering put it best: “We don’t think of it as a perk. It’s just emblematic of hte way we work here.”

Google’s 20% Time

This is Google’s institutionalization of a basic maverick principle: your people’s individual pursuits and passions are a great source of ideas and insights for your business—if you craft the right mechanism for drawing them out. Google’s is simple: all engineers are free to spend 20% of their time (basically one day a week) on pet projects and personal pursuits rather than on company priorities. The logic: the company is relentlessly rigorous and inventive when it comes to hiring the best people for their culture (which includes people with wildly diverse backgrounds and experiences) and its leaders are interested in bringing all of their ideas and insights and energies into play. They figure that those individuals will come up with all sorts of new product ideas and directions for the company that the management team couldn’t possibly figure out alone. And that’s turned out to be the case: 20% time has yielded important new products like Google News and Google Suggest.

TiVo for Work

Best Buy has taken the concept of freedom from the clock to a radical extreme with its “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE) experiment. By the end of this year, all 4,000 headquarters staffers will be free to work anywhere, anytime they want, just as long as they get their work done. One of the creators of the program (which started out as a stealth experiment rather than a top-down program), Jody Thompson calls it “TiVo for your work.” Check out the BusinessWeek piece, which details some of the “13 Commandments” of ROWE: #1: People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customers’s time, or the company’s time. #7: Nobody talks about how many hours they work. And my favorite, #9: It’s okay to take a nap on a Tuesday afternoon, grocery shop on Wednesday morning, or catch a movie on Thursday afternoon. Best Buy is so gung-ho about freeing up its people that the company plans to institute ROWE among hourly workers in its stores in the next year and has set up a subsidiary called CultureRx to help other companies unleash their people.

We’d love to hear about other innovative practices when it comes to freeing up people to work on their own time. In the meantime, get busy working on your summer vacation!

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