- To work better, take time off more!
- Why taking time off is so hard yet so important?
- Good vacation policy and practices
- What about sick leave?
- How to report holidays and sick days
- The case of unlimited vacation days
- Holidays in the times of a global pandemic - staycation!
- How about sabbaticals?
- The one thing: take time off!
“Those who think money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop… People would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and spent it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction.”
To work better, take time off more!
The hustle culture is very popular now. No pain no gain. Work work work. Sleep is for the weak. If you’re not working, your slacking off. Right?
Study after study show that both sleeping (getting a good 7-8 hours sleep) and taking time off makes you more productive. Encourages out-of-the-box thinking. Helps you come up with better and more creative ideas.
Rest is critical. Taking time off is key.
But it’s not easy. In America, young employees on average get about 10 paid vacation days per year and only after 20 years at work they can hope to get to around 202. In Japan the government established many official holidays, because hardly anyone takes the mandated 10 days of paid vacations3. In Europe the situation is much better, with many countries requiring by law that the employees take 20 or more vacation days.
My home country of Poland, the law mandates 21 or 26 paid vacation days, depending on employee seniority, and people should take at least one two-week holiday break.
Why taking time off is so hard yet so important?
Because there’s always so much to do! Also, when you’re running a small company you feel like you don’t have enough resources to go around. Some things just don’t happen if people are away.
This is a common pitfall and I was guilty of it. I remember my first years of running Nozbe when I was first alone, then we were 3 and I still felt I needed to be there all the time.
Checking my email. Checking my tasks. Checking everything.
I remember going on a two-week vacation with my pregnant wife. It was our last vacation as a married couple without kids because our daughter was going to be born in just a few months. It was supposed to be a great time for both of us, but my wife got increasingly frustrated as I couldn’t let go of thinking about my company. It took me more than a week to fully disconnect. It was hard. I realized I had to change the way I was running my business.
The problem is that the bad habits we develop when running a small company will eventually scale with the business! If you overwork, you’ll keep overworking. If your company is not prepared to function a few days without you, it simply won’t.
And everyone needs rest. Just like I mentioned in the previous chapter about socializing, we need to have a life outside of work. This includes traveling, hanging out with family, enjoying reading a good novel. We need the time to completely and utterly disconnect.
And the business needs to work without us. Maybe not at full speed, but it should be able to function anyway. Even if you’re a freelancer where you are the business, you still need to recharge between gigs.
Good vacation policy and practices
Over the years we’ve tried different things and we’ve been taking advice from many companies. Here are my best tips and tricks regarding implementing paid vacation time in a team:
Make sure people get enough paid vacation days
Please don’t follow the American or Japanese averages. I believe at least 20 days of paid vacation days should be a worldwide standard.
We have recently reviewed our policies and decided to make it equal for everyone on the team. Seniority be damned. This way we can also attract young talent with our fairly generous 27 paid vacation days.
In some companies when you haven’t used your vacation days, you can get paid an equivalent of that. We don’t allow that. We don’t want to exchange people’s unused vacation time for money. We really want them to take the days off and rest.
Plan longer two or even three weeks of vacation
People on the team need to know that taking the time off for two or even three weeks is completely OK. The business should be ready for that.
However, folks are still reluctant to plan longer vacations.
That’s why while having our quarterly reviews (see Chapter 16) we check their current vacation situation and if they haven’t planned a longer holiday in the first half of the year, we make sure they get one in the second half. At least one two-week holiday is a must and we try to work with our team members to enable them to have even three weeks off. Such longer holidays require more planning for everyone involved but people report much more refreshed and energized for work after being out for such a long period of time. They actually start missing work by then.
Discourage work when on holidays
We joke at Nozbe that Tom, the CTO, should never be allowed to take vacation time as he’s been really indispensable to all of us for many years. He still is our local wizard who knows all, but slowly but surely we started putting in place measures to be able to function without him and let him enjoy holidays with his family.
In the past we had this bad habit of calling him in the middle of his trip. And he got into the habit on checking tasks and messages when out and about with his family. This wasn’t right or fair. Now that we changed how we operate and made sure not everything is on his shoulders, I think he enjoys his vacation time much more. And we don’t panic when he takes his days off.
The other issue is with newcomers to our team. As people join they sometimes bring their bad habits from their previous employer with them. Like being expected to check work on holidays. We have to teach them not to do that by policing such behavior. When a message from a person who’s away comes in, someone tells them to please leave the office and stay on holidays. After a few days the message finally sinks in.
It takes time, but this creates a culture where we have set proper expectations not just for ourselves but for everyone involved. If someone is out for a week or two, they are truly out and we need to embrace it.
The only exception is if they post their holiday photos to our #random chat channel. This is allowed. But then again, why don’t they just post them after they’re back?
Prepare for people’s vacations
Preparation is key. The business and the team must be prepared for people leaving. At least one week before a longer vacation a person should start getting ready and re-distribute their tasks. They should get everyone they work with prepared.
Even if everything is ready, things might go sideways when someone crucial is not present. There will be issues and fires. So when they eventually come back it’s time to write up these problems and figure out a long term solution so that such hiccups don’t happen again. This will make the business better, the team stronger and everyone just calmer next time they go out for a vacation.
What about sick leave?
The great thing about people working form home is that they’re never sick. At least they never admit they are. After all, they’re at home anyway, right? They can just take their laptop to bed and be as productive as ever.
That’s the tricky part.
Again, it’s a question of creating an open team culture when people are OK to admit that they don’t feel well. Then you tell them to relax, take a day of sick leave and if they don’t improve after a day or two, go see a doctor. You have to actively tell them to stop working.
Yes, when you work from home you also can get sick. You’re not immune. So don’t force working. Don’t kid yourself that you’re just fine. Take you sick day off and recharge your mental and physical battery. Don’t take your laptop to bed.
How to report holidays and sick days
Let’s get practical. We have a shared project where we openly post our vacation times. In this project everyone can add a task with their vacation days solicited. In the name of the task they put their name, number of days off and dates when they’ll be absent.
In the past we used this system to solicit vacation time, as in, ask their manager for permission to take these vacation days. Over the last few years we realized people are almost always granted their vacation days. The whole asking for permission process isn’t necessary.
So we simplified it.
Before people post their vacation task, they check the company calendar and ask around if they’re in doubt that their vacation days will overlap with someone with similar role in the company. And then they just inform the team that they will take vacation at certain dates. No approval necessary. They also add their holidays to our shared company calendar so that everyone can see it. Our accountant adds the mentioned days to each person’s total to make sure we track it and everyone’s really taking their vacation days.
The case of unlimited vacation days
Recently some Silicon Valley companies started bragging about giving people unlimited vacation days. Take whatever you want or need. We won’t track it. Just take it. No problem.
That sounds great, until you realize that these experiments mostly failed.4
Don’t get me wrong. This sounds great in practice. And hopefully this increases these American companies’ average vacation days given from the pathetic 10 to something closer to 20. But in practice what happened is that as people weren’t tracking how many days they were taking, they just stopped going on holidays altogether. Even with bosses taking time off, the team members were afraid to take the same number of days away. After all, they keep having all these important projects, goals and deadlines. Work life is busy!
That’s why I strongly suggest to let go of this notion of unlimited vacation days and stick with a number. Be it 20, 27 like us, or even more if you can. But stick to it and track it for everyone on the team and make sure they take it!
Holidays in the times of a global pandemic - staycation!
Which brings me to one of the worst years of recent history, the 2020. Starting from March, the entire world was on a semi-permanent lock-down. This is not conducive to taking time off. After all, where will you go? You cannot travel, you cannot socialize, you should just stay at home and keep a healthy distance from everyone.
This happened to us as well. We were all busy with work and handling of the pandemic that we didn’t realize that many of our team members didn’t take much of their days off that year. So in October as we discovered that we took action and started planning their days off.
There was reluctance and push back. What am I going to do? I’m gonna be at home anyway so I might at least work? No way. We told them to plan a staycation, a vacation while staying at home. Play board games, watch movies, read books, do some sports in a safe way, turn off computer. Or maybe build something, do the long-awaited renovation at home. Whatever you want to do, besides work.
The result was that starting from mid-December, more than half of our company was on mandatory vacation until the beginning of January of 2021. And it was fine. People disconnected, relaxed and started the year with more energy than ever.
How about sabbaticals?
Another perk that’s sometimes offered by companies are month-long paid sabbaticals after a few years of working with the company. Typically these are 30 calendar days to take off when you’re working 3 or more years at the same company.
I must admit this is something we haven’t done officially in our team yet. I’ve taken my first sabbatical in 2018 and a semi-sabbatical in 2020 (when I decided not to work on Nozbe stuff but just focus on writing this book). Now that I’ve done that I’m more tempted than ever to start introducing this policy in our team.
However, before any business starts giving away sabbaticals, I’d encourage them to first make sure they have generous enough paid vacations days in place. As mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, more than 20 paid days is a must. And this doesn’t include the official free days set by the government.
In our case it’s 27 paid vacation days plus 13 days off from work set by the government. This makes a generous 40-day time off policy. In each week we have 5 workdays so the total is 8 full weeks off or 15% of the year free. Not bad, right?
The one thing: take time off!
Encourage everyone on your team to take time off. Really disconnect from work even if you have no plans of traveling and you’ll stay at home. A generous vacations policy that’s really tracked and used makes for a healthy work environment for everyone involved and makes your business more resilient.
And as further reading on the subject I encourage you to get Jonathan Heidt’s book1.