Published: 18th April 2021
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Hi and welcome to Creating Cadence – a podcast for life and work in motion. I’m your host, Mish Bondesio, a writer, business coach, consultant and the founder of Growth Sessions.
The aim of my work is to help people to develop better work life-cadence and more mindful approaches to work. So that they can support their creativity, productivity and wellbeing, and help them manage their time, attention and stress better. You can find out more about me and what I do at growthsessions.co.
In the last episode of Creating Cadence, the focus was on time and team management in a distributed workplace. I looked at the idea of creating time and space for deep work, centred around enabling people to be more autonomous in how they work, and how and when they communicate.
I mentioned the issue with Zoom fatigue and how certain companies were making space for their employees to have more time offline.
In this episode, I’m looking more specifically at a trend that has gained momentum especially in the past year of enforced remote working.
It’s the concept of company-wide time-off days, where a business may introduce mandatory shut down days once a week or month, or announce a week off for the whole team.
The aim? To help give people breathing room from the relentless pace of online working, in the hopes of and, with the intention of, preventing burnout.
This practice overlaps with that of 4 day work weeks and reduced hour working. In particular, it seems to have become common in large SaaS companies and tech startups, but there’s no reason why smaller businesses can’t consider this too.
My inspiration for this episode is a Twitter thread I came across recently from Lara Hogan, a leadership coach and founder of a company in the States called Wherewithall. Prior to that, she was the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy.
In her tweet, Lara asked her followers about how people were responding to company-wide time-off days. The answers to her question were both enlightening and encouraging. And they sparked my thoughts for this podcast episode.
So let’s take a little look at this company phenomenon of offering extra days for rest and recovery, beyond your official paid time off.
Gitlab calls it “family and friends day”. At Headspace, every second Friday is called MINDay.
Companies like Twitter, Salesforce, Mozilla are doing this once a month. And Basecamp aka 37Signals have mandated 4 day work weeks during the summer months. Incidentally, they’ve been doing this for years.
Some companies introduced company down days specifically because of the pandemic, but have decided to keep up with the practice as they can see the benefits it has had on team morale, wellbeing and performance.
It can actually become one of the reasons someone wants to work for your company. Because they know you value your staff’s wellbeing.
When everyone in the company takes time off at the same time, it creates breathing space in a number of ways.
For those of you who work in businesses where they shut down over the Christmas period, you know how beneficial that total break can be.
Some companies are initiating a week long break (outside of normal paid leave) at other times of the year too. From the accounts I’ve seen, their teams are loving it and it’s proving beneficial for those businesses too.
For some companies, they’ve opted for surprise days, announced not too far in advance. This can feel like an unexpected bonus, both spontaneous and rejuvenating.
But an occasional long weekend is insufficient to restore people’s health and wellbeing, if they are coming back to a massive backlog and unrealistic workload.
You may also have a support element to your business which means that perhaps not everyone can take time off at the same time. But if the bulk of the team is, that means they are not generating work for other team members to come back to, in addition to what they’re expecting.
I love this framing of taking time out so you are purposefully not generating work for other people. Unfortunately in traditional working styles this is not very common, and that’s a missed opportunity.
If you work with a team, tell me if this sounds familiar?
How often when you take a holiday, do you have to work extra hard in the days leading up to the break to ensure everything is order for those who need to cover for you while you’re away. Then it can be hard to get work off your mind while you are meant to be relaxing. And when you return to work afterwards, that wonderful holiday feeling swiftly dissipates under the mountain of backlog you need to catch up on.
It’s almost as if taking time off becomes a punishment. No wonder so many of us feel so overworked.
It means we’re working in a way that encourages extra stress and burnout. That’s no good for morale or performance.
In a high-pressure, deadline driven environment where things are moving fast all the time, taking time away can cause guilt and anxiety because people are afraid they will drop the ball because they’ve missed out on something important while away.
The difference with company-wide time off at the same or similar times, is that people don’t have to catch up. They’re not coming back to a bursting inbox and clamouring overdue tasks. And they don’t feel like they’ve missed out on anything.
People also don’t feel like they’ve let down any of their team mates for not being available when they might need something urgently.
So there’s no feeling of pressure or guilt at having this kind of time off. Imagine what a weight off your mind that would be?
I am wholeheartedly advocating for these types of practices, but before we get all loved up on extra time off, I have few warnings for you…
If you want to support your team’s mental health and performance with mandatory days off, then leadership needs to lead on this. If your team comes back from this extra time off to a shed load of emails from you, when you should have been taking time away too, then that’s not setting the good example.
If you’re introducing this concept into your business, but you’re siphoning the days from people’s existing paid time off, then you’re doing it wrong.
Docking people’s holiday allowance usurps their autonomy over how and when they use their paid leave days, and you’ll probably find you will have a rebellion on your hands. This needs to be something different, novel and extra. It should be an incentive, not a punishment.
I’ve also read that some companies are reducing mandated working hours to 32 hours per week, but they are also reducing everyone’s salary to match those hours.
In my view, this is an incredibly detrimental approach for two reasons.
People will feel like you are penalising them, which in turn may mean they are less likely to want to work as well as they did before. As my mum says, you will always attract more bees with honey than vinegar.
They may also be reliant on that higher level of income, which means you’re putting them in a position of scarcity and fear, if they find they can’t make ends meet like they previously did. Money worries increases anxiety and stress and affects productivity and performance.
If you’re reducing the work week to four days or reducing overall hours worked, you also need to absorb that difference in cost. The payback, from the research out there so far, is that with more time for rest and recovery, your team’s productivity will improve, so it all works out in the wash.
If you’re a business owner wanting to help your team work better, by giving them the space for rejuvenation, there’s a fundamental element you need to consider BEFORE you implement extra days off.
This is around workload and delivery expectations. Are they aligned with what’s reasonable and possible within existing parameters?
Occasional days off won’t help in the long term if your existing expectations are unrealistic in the first place. Then people will just use that day off to catch up on work, so there’s no restorative benefit.
If your team are already overworked, this needs to be sorted out before you reduce the time available for them to deliver on those expectations. For example: You cannot try to squeeze five days of meetings into 4 days. You need to have less meetings and slow down the overall pace of work. You have to adjust your workflow and your processes accordingly.
So consider, what is a realistically sustainable pace for your business, both before introducing reduced days and after. Do get your team’s input on this too, as they are going to be the guinea pigs. They can help you co-design how this might look for your company.
You can also start small. You don’t have to jump into a mandatory 4 day work week, or introduce reduced core hours across the week right from the start.
It could be a half day on Fridays or a rotating day once a month. The point is to experiment. Making something mandatory without testing it out first could end in disaster.
You also need to consider the neurodiversity aspects of your team, so it’s important that you consult with them and enable them to feed back on what is working or not from a stimulatory input perspective too. For example, some people really struggle with a condensed work day (e.g trying to fit everything into 6 core hours in a work day).
If your experiment is well received and productivity and output isn’t affected negatively, or it improves, then consider how you can do more. And don’t just consider it, actually do it. Constant innovation is a requirement of a thriving business in this day and age.
If your support team need to keep working while everyone else takes time, can you manage the volume of work coming at them, so they’re not overworked? Can you remunerate them with extra holiday pay or give them extra leave days for having to work when everyone else is off.
And if you just can’t reasonably introduce extra days off, then can you at least introduce more company-wide initiatives that enable people to be “unavailable” for fair amounts of time while they’re working. So that they can protect their focus and attention better. That means more time for calm, deep work getting things done and staying on top of their workload, and less time in unnecessary meetings or being contactable all the time.
I spoke about key elements of autonomous and asynchronous working styles in episode 14, so have a listen if you want to find out more about that.
Now there may be operational challenges in initiating these types of change, but most, if not all, are surmountable. It’s totally doable, and in my opinion, it’s going to become a more acceptable and more necessary way for all of us to work.
The first change required is a change in mindset. We need to recognise that recovery is an essential part of supporting good work. We need to accept that recovery is part of the work. So, how can you make adequate recovery time part of your company processes and workflows?
The “future of work” necessitates that we are more purpose-driven and intentional in how we operate. This way of working is going to become a crucial differentiator for your company’s sustainability and success.
One of my Growth Sessions mantras is that “better selves are better for business”.
This is because it has been proven across many research studies that supporting your team to thrive, enables your business to thrive.
It’s a win win.
If you have thoughts about this episode or you have a question relating to productivity, wellbeing or remote work, then I’d love to hear from you. Can you share the challenges you’re experiencing with your focus, work performance or culture? Or have you found interesting solutions to support your work better in current times?
You can write to: hello at growthsessions.co
Thanks for listening. If you’re liking the Creating Cadence podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you could please leave a review, it helps others who might need to hear this find the podcast. Head to: https://ratethispodcast.com/creatingcadence
Until next time, please take care out there. Be brave, experiment and remember to take a day off, so that you can keep moving forwards, one step at a time.
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