Meet the company that punishes managers for bothering underlings on vacation

Leave your laptop behind.
Leave your laptop behind.
Image: Reuters/Alexander Hassenstein
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Getting remarkable results in business has everything to do with two very important, yet seemingly simple, things. First, you have to put your mission first. And second, you’ve got to be blessed in finding the most talented people to execute that mission. The biggest challenge, it may surprise you, often lies in coaching those remarkable and talented people to achieve the second goal without burning themselves out.

When employees at Bandwidth, the company I head, go on vacation, we want them to really go on vacation—and the reason is selfish. We want the best out of our people when they’re on the job. No one can create remarkable value from IP networks (our mission) when they’re feeling overworked, overstressed, overwhelmed and disconnected from the people that matter most in their lives.

Make no mistake about it—I want overachievers on my team. But who can overachieve for the long term when they’re working 80 hours a week, never seeing their families and ignoring their physical health? It’s easy to get lost in your job when working at a disruptive, high-growth company, but I make it part of my mission to not let the work get in the way of the living. That’s where Bandwidth’s vacation embargo comes in.

The way the embargo policy works is simple and informal. When an employee goes on vacation, their manager sends out a message to all the internal folks they work with letting them know that “Joe is on vacation embargo this week.” What’s that mean? Don’t call Joe. Don’t email Joe. Don’t even think about what Joe would do until Joe’s back in the office. We tell folks not to contact [Joe] under any circumstances and to report it back to Joe’s manager if he tries to contact them. We give employees another avenue for resolving issues and questions that would typically be handled by Joe. We make it easy to continue normal operations without Joe. So far, the place hasn’t come anywhere near to falling apart.

Being happy and successful at work means taking time off to recuperate. At Bandwidth, in addition to our embargo policy, we have a “use it” PTO policy meaning that every employee must use all of his or her PTO each calendar year—and we enforce it. My goal is to ensure that all management from the top down spends time planning ahead and encouraging their folks to take regular breaks throughout the year.

I know from my own personal experience with my wife  of 23 years and six kids that a person who’s constantly buried in a smartphone or tethered to their computer doesn’t make for a fun travel companion. Working through a vacation often leaves the employee, and their loved ones, feeling resentful, unmotivated and uninspired.

Taking the time and having the discipline—and it can take a lot of discipline—to completely disconnect can mean the difference between someone coming back from vacation and announcing their resignation and someone coming back from vacation and wowing us all with the next big idea. By the way, big ideas are really important at Bandwidth, and it’s our job to foster them in as many ways as we can.

We want folks to return from time off feeling refreshed and ready to do amazing things, not feeling guilty for what they didn’t accomplish during the week they were supposed to be “off” or feeling bad about letting their friends or family members down by ignoring them all week.

It’s been almost 15 years since we founded Bandwidth, and priorities like physical fitness, spiritual health, and family have helped us create a culture here that refuses to let folks fail in achieving their mission. So when people go on vacation, we’re here to back them up. I like to tell our leaders, if you can’t go away for a week and not have the place fall apart, then we’ve got a leadership—not workload—problem.

When employees are relaxed, healthy and invested, it’s evident in their work. The secret to disrupting a marketplace or running any successful company isn’t long-hours and stressed employees, but a workforce that is energetic, passionate and motivated to come to work every day. That means work-free vacations—without the guilt.