Optimising Working Hours And Holidays
In recent years, especially in the USA, a few leading companies have introduced a policy of offering their staff ‘unlimited’ vacation time. At first this new policy innovation seems to have been greeted with enthusiasm, but it’s not turned out as well as expected. The intent seems to have been to break the direct association between performance and hours worked, which is a good thing. The result though has left employees without the comfort of a norm to comply with. So rather than taking more time off; to recharge; to de-stress, they have taken less – given an increasing body of evidence that links more time off with improved productivity overall, this is bad for both employers and employees.
I’ve lived through eight major variations in flexible working and variable vacation times over my career and each has had it’s own foibles and benefits:
- In the early years I worked a fixed 37 hour week, 9-5, with paid over-time. Over-time had to be approved in advance so most of the time I worked my fixed hours and I took all of my vacation time. In many ways this working pattern provided the healthiest relationship with work. I knew exactly where I stood, I wasn’t expected to work more hours than I was paid for, In fact I was actively discouraged from working more. I was also young, enthusiastic and ambitious, with no kids, and so when I did work more than my 37 hours I worked hard. I always took my holidays.
- Then I was promoted into management and was paid a fixed salary regardless of hours I worked beyond a minimum of 37 hours. This ‘perk’ of success didn’t go down to well with me, I no longer had any framework with which to judge how much I was expected to work. I was just expected to “meet my objectives” which I’ve always found a ridiculous expectation; in 30 years I’ve never had a single objective that was expressed clearly enough to guide the number of hours I needed to work in any particular week. I always took my holidays.
- Then some enlightenment started to creep in with ‘flexi-time’. I was able to start and finish work within a flexible time window, for example start between 7-10am and finish between 3-6pm, in this scheme it was also possible to work extra hours Monday-Thursday and take Friday afternoon off. I loved this scheme, because it clearly set expectations that I was to work for 37 hours a week, if I worked more than this it was un-paid, but those unpaid hours earned me ‘time off in lieu’ that I was allowed, in fact expected, to take. I always took my holidays.
- Then I moved companies, got a laptop and started to travel and work a lot more. I still had minimum contracted hours, travelling time was now unpaid, the idea of ‘time off in lieu’ was no longer part of the culture. Flexi-time was more flexible, in that there was no fixed start and end times to the day, but the culture was to come in early and go home late, not everyone did this, but the expectation was clear. Although this was framed as “work as long as the job demands” in a job that demanded 24*7 this was of little help. I worked too much, I never took all of my holidays.
- Then in a very enlightened move we were allowed to buy and sell holidays. Still at the same company, still working too hard, I was offered the opportunity to buy extra holidays or sell some of them for extra cash. Given that I had failed to take all my holidays in previous years I sold the maximum holidays and enjoyed the windfall. After a couple of years though I started to realise that my free time had value again, it could be traded for money. I started to buy additional holidays, to manage my working hours better. I took all of my holidays because I’d paid for them!
- Unfortunately I became ill and could work as much or as little as I wanted. As part of my return to work agreement I was allowed to work as little or as much as I felt able. I was in ‘unlimited vacation’ land. Gradually I improved and my working hours crept up again, soon I was working more than my contracted hours. In a demanding job, wanting to do my best work, I had no framework to help to put limits on how many hours I worked. I stopped taking all of my holidays again, I reverted to the culture.
- Then I relapsed. I decided that I needed to put limits on my working time, 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, 3 weeks a month. I found it incredibly hard, every time I stopped working I was walking away from important work that needed to be done, from colleagues that were over-worked and struggling, from projects that were failing. Over many years I convinced myself that it was necessary for my health, but walking away was harder than staying and working in many ways.
- Finally I recognised that I had two important jobs. My most important job was to work hard on my physical and mental health, my second job was to be as effective as possible at work in the few hours I had available. As part of this deal I bought the maximum number of holidays, as a way to give myself permission to not work. I gradually broke the lifelong association between ‘hours worked’ and ‘value added’. I still find it very hard to walk away from work, but I’ve steeled myself to it. It means I can’t be as engaged in my work; can’t be as invested in success; I miss the buzz of pushing myself to achieve against the odds; It’s a price I’m willing to pay. I always take my holidays!
In all these years it’s proved difficult to achieve a sound framework for deciding how hard and how long to work and cultural expectations have been important. Having unlimited vacations wouldn’t have worked well for me. The following approach would have been ideal:
- Set a working week expectation, perhaps 35 hours
- Set a working day expectation, perhaps between 7-10am and 4-8pm
- Expect people to take lunch away from their desks
- Allow hours worked above 35 to be accumulated and taken as ‘time off in lieu’. Set limits to this accumulation at one day a month
- Include traveling time in hours worked, therefore dramatically increasing the business case for the company to provide high quality virtual working environments
- Allow additional holidays to be purchased and holidays surplus to requirements to be sold, within a range of 15-40 days/year
- Restrict meetings to 10am-4pm to get the balance right between focused work and collaboration
In my suggestion above I set expectations, rather than rigid rules. I think expectations, embedded in culture, allow for differences in individuals circumstances, ambition, engagement and health in a way that strict rules don’t. I think it’s critical to make clear that working hours are tradable, you can work hard one week and take some time off the next; you can buy extra holidays one year and sell them another to suit your finances. It’s also key to set boundaries; make sure people don’t work too late, that everyone will be in the office from 10-4 for meetings. Finally I’ve suggested a 35 hour week, from what I’ve seen much more than that and busy work expands to fill the extra hours. Limiting the time for meetings and the working week as a whole forces a company to focus on efficiency, on automation, on priorities, and on looking after it’s employees.