Sitting on the beach while scrolling through work emails isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Neither is skipping out on a family hike to squeeze in a few urgent calls from a vacation cabin. But many people find it difficult to unplug from their jobs when they take holidays, and wind up with a dreaded “workcation” instead.
Others may be loath to take time off at all—whether because the Covid-19 pandemic has limited their travel options (why take time off to sit around at home?), or because they fear the pileup of work they’ll face when they get back.
So how are employers supposed to get people to actually take a break?
One solution, embraced by companies including LinkedIn, Mozilla, PwC, and The New York Times, is to shut down the company entirely for some collective paid time off.
Fighting burnout with time off
The concept of a “global day off” (or, even better, a “global week off”) existed before the pandemic. But it’s emerged as a particularly appealing idea in the pandemic as employers confront the problem of rampant burnout among their ranks.
Teuila Hanson, the chief people officer at LinkedIn, says that the company’s staff surveys showed a clear rise in burnout over the past year, with manager burnout soaring 78% between the first and fourth quarters of 2020.
“We definitely heard from everyone how they felt that they were working hard. They were having trouble finding that line of demarcation between work and home,” says Hanson. So LinkedIn decided it would give a week off in April to its more than 16,000 global employees, in addition to the annual shutdown that occurs at the end of each year during the holiday season.
Avoiding a flood of internal messages
A company shutdown can be an appealing option because it acknowledges the reality that employees at any organization create work (and, by extension, stress) for one another. Just as it’s hard to take a nap in a room filled with bright lights and the chaotic din of other people shouting at one another, it’s hard for some people to truly relax when they know their boss and teammates are still plugging away, cc’ing them on messages and awaiting their feedback on projects with tight deadlines.
“We don’t want that added stress of flooded inboxes, or people returning Monday and all the goodness from the vacation is gone because you’re now working three times as hard,” Hanson says.
LinkedIn’s global week off in April also took into consideration people who were feeling isolated during the pandemic, for whom work might play an important social role. Each day, the company offered entirely optional virtual activities with the goal of providing “an opportunity for people who were by themselves to just be in the community with other LinkedIn employees during that time,” Hansen says. Several hundred people, including members of the skeleton crew who stayed back to keep the place running, logged on for a cooking class, a talent show, a meditation class, and a magic show.
Planning ahead for company shutdowns
At Mozilla, the idea of a global week off came about due to the popularity of the days off the company began offering once a month in 2021 as a way to fight burnout and fatigue among its more than 700 employees.
Mardi Douglass, senior director of culture and engagement at Mozilla, recalls that the company was contemplating what to do about its annual all-hands event in June. Typically, it flies employees out to a single location for a “super-intensive work week.” This year, it decided to do the opposite, “knowing how well received the one-days are, and that folks continue to say they’re tired and the pressures of Covid are still there.”
How to shut down a whole company for a week
Shutting a company down for a week requires some coordination. Both LinkedIn and Mozilla maintained a small staff to keep things running during the week off, and allowed those people to schedule their own equivalent time off later on.
Picking the date for a shutdown also requires balancing a number of considerations. “The biggest one was product delivery,” says Douglass. “Our flagship product is a Firefox browser, and it’s on a set release schedule.”
Since Mozilla has employees around the world, particularly concentrated in North America and Europe, the company also had to spend some time scrutinizing the calendar for different countries’ public holidays. “We did our best to avoid those to make sure everyone got the same number of days,” Douglass says, but wound up scheduling the week off during Canada Day, on July 1. The Canadians were told to work with their manager to figure out how to schedule an extra day off to compensate.
Then there’s the matter of how to offset the impact of the shutdown, so that people don’t wind up with an avalanche of work when they return. LinkedIn’s Hansen says communicating with leaders at the company well in advance was key. “Everybody was just great about saying, okay, we’ll move some dates, we’ll move some deadlines, let’s make this happen.”
Taking inspiration from Europeans
The idea of pressing pause on work this way might not seem so novel to Europeans. In France, for example, it’s still common for businesses to close for a week or more in August, allowing Aoûtiens to vacation in peace. The European tradition can be traced back to the rise of factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution. As The Economist notes, “an assembly line does not function very well without a full complement of workers, so it makes sense for them to all take time off together.”
Hansen says she’d never really thought about the parallel between LinkedIn’s week off and the European summer holiday tradition. “But there’s value to the collective when everyone agrees taking time off as a priority to do together,” she says. “It just deepens the benefits.”
Is this a new tradition or just a pandemic stopgap?
Neither LinkedIn nor Mozilla are ready to commit to making a collective week off in the spring or summer a permanent addition to their paid time off policies, but they’re not ruling it out, either.
One thing the pandemic has shown employers, according to Hansen, is the power of surprising employees with benefits they don’t expect.