Vacation is great for you—you can sleep in, explore new cities, or spend time with friends and family—but it is also important for your company.
Taking time off has demonstrated near-term positive effects on health and well-being, and even a positive impact on productivity. Companies should, in other words, want their employees to take vacation. The dilemma is how to create policies that minimize vacation’s impact to business productivity.
Most companies offer a mix of flexible days off and set holidays. Set holidays have the advantage of synchronizing vacation: you can make plans far in advance that account for no work getting done by anyone during those days. The downside is that these holidays might not be desirable to employees. Some employees might not want to take off for a particular holiday or may want to plan a longer vacation later in the year instead. Flexible vacation solves this from the employee end, but comes with its own drawbacks. At my company, Humanyze, I noticed a few years ago that over the summer, at least one coworker was on vacation every week, but never more than two. That’s a slow drag on the business: if you need to get four people together for a meeting, for example, it could take a month to schedule.
I thought about other vacation models that effectively encourage vacation but also synchronize it such that it maximizes the degree of overlap between employees. Only one example came to mind: France. Companies in France follow the practice of allowing employees to take off an entire month (typically August) over the summer: les grandes vacances. French companies know that no work will get done this month, so they’re able to plan around it.
This model inspired me to design a vacation experiment for Humanyze: In January, every employee was asked to vote for a week that they’d like to take off over the summer. The hypothesis was that many people are flexible about when they take a summer vacation, so if we were to incentivize them to take a particular week, they would be likely to schedule around it. After tallying the votes, we picked the two most popular weeks and assigned half the company one week and half the other week, with priority given to people who had a preference. If you took off the entire week you were assigned, it only counted as three vacation days.
A few months after the experiment, I can say without hesitation that it was phenomenally successful. Almost all of our employees took time off during their assigned week. Vacation during other parts of the summer was kept to a minimum: only 46% of other weeks had partial coverage compared to 100% last year.
The experiment was so successful that next year we’ll be expanding on it by incentivizing employees to take a few Fridays off over the summer. If we can encourage maximum synchronization, people will get the rest they need and deserve, and at the same time, we will make sure that Humanyze is operating as effectively as possible.
Ben Waber is the president and CEO of Humanyze.