In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for.If you dig this idea, let me know if the comments, and submit your ideas and votes.
This week’s reader’s choice post: What’s the impact of 60 hour work weeks and only 2 weeks of vacation on American companies? (submitted by Lynn – thx!)
The running joke at any big corporation is the phrase ‘work/life balance‘. Anywhere that needs to make a special phrase like this is by definition a place populated by workaholics. You’d never hear people talk about ‘work/breathing’ balance, or ‘work/clothing’ balance, because work never puts a supply of oxygen or a shirt on your back in question, unless you’re a workaholic naked astronaut or something.
It’s interesting how us Americans are fond of taking pride in our freedoms, yet when it comes to time off we are the least free for much of the Western world. It’s typical in Europe to get 6-8 weeks off 4-6 weeks off, commonly taken in the summer. This explains, in part, why Europeans have a deeper sense of their own culture, as they actually have time to learn, experience and enjoy the parts of life not spent in front of keyboards or in meetings.
Frankly, hours are a lousy way to measure value. If I can do great work in 5 hours, work my peers at best do in 10, that’s not my problem. I should be rewarded for results, not how much time it took me to get them. A good manager knows this. Good companies know this too. My best managers made clear they didn’t care about the HR policies for time off, or hourly reporting. They knew I’d be motivated to work hardest for them if after I got my stuff done, and had done it very well, I was free to do as I wished. (Oddly, in cultures like this, I tended to stay late and kept working because I enjoyed my work so much).
The impact of the 60 hour work week, or any rigidly defined number of hours, is that smart people loaf around. Rather than be efficient, clever, and wise, and go home, people feel obligated, are in some cases are rewarded, to linger, to pretend, and to give pretense about how long it takes to actually do things. This is all kinds of bad. We should reward people who kick significant ass and then go home. Early. Not those who pull all-nighters for things that were never that complex to begin with. All sorts of goodness happens when managers learn to reward results, not effort. And this starts by getting past the stupid pretense of effort known as hours.
Miserly vacation limits are juvenile and short term thinking. It assumes that time off is bad for the company, and puts faith in the notion that doing things outside of work is an indulgence. God bless the Puritans, as we are still victimized by the prudish stink of their ideals. We want to be whole people, and being whole means having an identity beyond work. We are more than our jobs. Two weeks of vacation takes a bet employees won’t be around that long, so why invest in their long term happiness? If they burn out, it’s not our problem. That’s what two weeks of vacation says to me.
A major reason I quit my job in 2003 was to have complete control over my TIME. The only measure of life you can not get more of. I did not want some corporate policy, written by someone I’d never meet, defining how most of my waking hours on planet earth would be spent. The older I got the more clear it became I’d rather make less money and take on more risk than willingly give away control over MOST OF MY LIFETIME. Especially if the thing I was spending all that time making was mediocre, forgettable and far from what I’d call reaching for my best possible work. But enough about me.
Certainly for any creative field, which many knowledge worker type companies claim they are, time away from work is where much creative growth happens. It’s away from work people have new experiences, see new places, ask new questions, and learn to appreciate the life they’re working so hard to get.When people return from vacation they are better people, not worse (explaining the wise philosophy of rock star web firm, Jackson Fish). And they bring new energy, perspective and ideas back into the company, all things that are essentially priceless.
The objections to more time off typically are:
- I didn’t get it so why should you. This is bad arguing. Just because something sucked in the past doesn’t justify it sucking now. A tradition of suffering and stupidity isn’t worth defending.
- If people get more vacation our projects will die! Good managers manage. They can handle working around people’s vacations just as they do already. And of course when to take time off should always be a negotiation between the boss and the worker. Somehow in the U.S. we all know Thanksgiving to New Years is a dead zone. Yet we’re still here.
- This will mean the end of the world! Yes, the sun will explode and we will all die someday, but this has nothing to do with how much vacation we get or don’t. In fact should the Vogons arrive after you finish reading this post, and announce the destruction of the earth, I’m certain near the top of your list of gripes would be you’d wish you had used more of your vacation, and had been granted more to use.
My bet is, in a well run company with a good manager, if you:
- Drop the 40/50/60 hour a week expectation. Treat people like adults.
- Clarify the results you want from your staff
- Increase people’s vacation days by 50 to 100%
- But, and here’s the rub, demand everyone still do the same amount of work they already do every calendar year
You can pull this off without any noticeable decrease in performance. I’d even bet you might see some increases in work quality, as people have real motivation, are free from the pretense of pretending to be busy, and will love their lives so much more and bring some of that love to work with them every day. Why not try this as an experiment for a year?
Other variables worth trying:
- Let employees choose salary increases vs. more time off. I understand the cost to a company to have people on salary who aren’t working. Fine, come up with a number and let the employee decide if they want raw income increases, or time off increases. Put the equity they’ve earned into their hands and see what they do with it. Then it is truly up to them, without the bean counters complaining.
- Or work the other way. I never understood why workers can’t give up some % of their salary for additional time off if they want it. Un-paid vacation should be part of every serious company’s benefits plan. It’s a win-win.
- Stop hiding behind sick days: I don’t understand the accounting, but I’m sure some bean counter has done the math. People don’t use all their sick days, so the more you can push days off into that pile, the better it is on some spreadsheet. “Personal days” and other crap are sneaky ways to attempt to influence behavior. Be on the level.
- Sabbaticals make sense. Part of why I quit Microsoft in 2003 was I knew I needed a few months to figure things out. At one point I’d have preferred to stay with the company, at no pay, but just to give me some security and the option to stay while I mulled it all over. But this required secret handshakes with executives that I never learned. It made my choice easy: I quit.
It’s surprising, but few companies I’ve heard of have ever experimented with different approaches to vacation and unpaid leave. If you know of examples and case studies, please leave a link.
So what do you think? I’m a insane? Has being independent warped my demented brain? Or is there plenty of room for more time off without betraying the bottom line?
Related: See my essay, work vs progress.