Here’s the policy one company tried for seven weeks. It worked. Really, really well.
As workplaces try to mimic the brag-worthy benefits and culture of tech giants, many employees are left with well-intentioned (but poorly executed) perks and work environments.
In place of on-site chefs, there are drawers overflowing with junk food.
The open floor plan? Don’t get me started.
Another messed-up policy masquerading as a good-for-employees benefit? Unlimited vacation.
UNLIMITED VACATION IS A SCAM
Unlimited vacation presents countless problems. If you work for a company that offers this policy, you know them well. In theory, it sounds great. How awesome is it that your employer supports you taking as much vacation as you want?
But people rarely do. Especially when none of their colleagues take extended vacations. There is too much social pressure not to. No one wants to be “that guy.” It’s easier to put your head down and work. Take a day here and there. Don’t disrupt the status quo.
ONE COMPANY TRIES AN UNCONVENTIONAL SOLUTION
For global aviation strategy company SimpliFlying, offering unlimited vacation wasn’t enough. Their CEO decided to implement an extreme time-off policy to make damn well sure people took their vacations. He made it mandatory for all employees to take vacations.
Shashank Nigam went beyond forcing employees to use up their vacation by the end of the year. He made all of them take a full week of paid vacation every seven weeks. Nigam partnered with happiness guru Neil Pasricha to implement the program. Pasricha recently wrote about the results of the experiment in Harvard Business Review.
Here’s how Nigam and Pasricha made things even more extreme. Employees didn’t get to pick their week off. It was assigned to them. If they didn’t completely disconnect from work during that week–even if that meant sending a single email or responding to a work message in Slack–they wouldn’t get paid for the week.
By taking choice out of the equation, SimpliFlying made it much easier to take time off. Here’s how Pasricha described the thought behind the mandatory vacation policy:
The system is designed so that you don’t get a say in when you go. Some may say that’s a downside, but for this experiment, we believed that putting a structure in place would be a significant benefit. The team and clients would know well ahead of time when someone would be taking a week off. And the point is you actually go. And everybody goes. So there are no questions, paperwork, or guilt involved with not being at the office.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
Employees maximized their time off, to say the least. One employee spent a week with her family in Australia. Another hiked the Camino de Santiago. One spent a week as an official photographer at a cricket match. SimpliFlying’s CEO focused on finishing his book during his weeks off.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence, there were cold, hard numbers that proved the effectiveness of the experiment. Before and after their week off, SimpliFlying had managers rate their employees on productivity, creativity, and happiness. Here’s what the managers found after employees returned:
Productivity increased 13 percent
Creativity increased 33 percent
Happiness increased 25 percent
Employees returned to work re-energized after pursuing their passions, exploring different corners of the world and spending time with family–with zero guilt about leaving work weighing on them.
Before running to implement a company-wide mandatory vacation policy at your work, it’s important to note that SimpliFlying is a relatively small team with just 10 employees. They’ll also be the first to admit that they didn’t get the structure right the first time. When too many people took vacations back-to-back, it made it difficult to keep business moving as usual.
But with some modifications, SimpliFlying is keeping the policy. They’re now staggering the weeks off between team members to ensure all projects and clients have enough coverage. They’ve also switched the mandatory vacation week from every seven weeks to every eight weeks. And it seems to be working.
“We discovered our hidden talents, traveled often, spent time with our family and loved ones,” Nigam wrote on the SimpliFlying blog. “This experiment just re-iterates the fact that humans are multi-faceted, and to make a person do only one type of job or to ascertain his or her value based on the daily job is just not right.”