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Pay Your Employees to Work Less. Huh?

One company gives its team hefty bonuses...for getting away from the office and unplugging. How did we ever reach this point?
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Much of traditional management theory, organizational psychology, and plain old boss-folk wisdom is dedicated to the question of how to get employees to work more, but at contact management company FullContact co-founder Bart Larong feels he has a very different issue. His employees work too much.

And, as he announced on the company blog this week, he's doing something fairly radical about it. Aside from the 15 days of paid vacation the company already gives employees, it's now offering an extra $7,500 to each team member who agrees to not just go on vacation, but also to not work while he or she is away, and to completely disconnect for the duration of the holiday. That means no email, no smart phone, no social media.

What is Larong thinking? In the post, he gives three reasons for taking the unusual step of paying his employees to not work, the first of which he explains with a personal anecdote about planning his honeymoon:

As I started thinking about the upcoming two weeks off the grid, I started to mildly panic. I was worried that I'd break down. I was worried that my new bride would find me in the hotel business center cranking through emails like some crazed addict. I've tried to go off the grid for extended periods of time before, but have failed frequently.

"It's super important for people to disconnect," he concludes, offering the first and simplest explanation for the company's new policy. He then goes on to elaborate on the other two principles underlying his decision:

We'll Be A Better Company if Employees Disconnect. Perhaps it is a sense of ownership or desire to feel needed, but in many company cultures (especially startups), there is often a misguided hero syndrome that encourages an "I'm the only one who can do this" mentality.

That's not heroic. That's a single point of failure. It's not good for the employee or the company. But here's the thing: If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company. For example:

  • They might empower direct reports to make more decisions.
  • They might document their code a bit better.
  • They might contribute to the Company Wiki and share knowledge.

At the end of the day, the company will improve. As an added bonus, everyone will be happier and more relaxed knowing that they aren't the last line of defense.

Everyone at FullContact Deserves a Nice Vacation. We felt that everyone should have the opportunity to take a nice vacation without constantly worrying about how much money they’re spending while on vacation.

With this new policy, FullContact joins the currently trendy backlash against our machine-enabled ability to always be running on the work hamster wheel. 37signals, for example, also recently announced on its company blog that it is giving each employee "a free month" to dream up and pursue whatever side project he or she desires.  A new survey found that, on average, Americans work a full extra day each week after hours. And here on Inc.com a series of posts urging entrepreneurs and their employees to actually clock off at reasonable hours prompted a flurry of reader response.

The media has picked up on the business community's sense that constant connectivity has gone too far as well. Newsweek's The Daily Beast recently asked in all seriousness, "Is the Web Driving Us Mad?" It might be an extreme headline, but the article itself is actually a sober round-up of research showing how our constant connectivity is bad for our mental health. A column in the New York Times also plugged into the zeitgeist, dubbing the always-on phenomenon "The Busy Trap." and musing that "busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy."

Taken together, these anecdotes and articles paint a picture of a self-reinforcing cycle where we keep ourselves incredibly busy to distract ourselves from gnawing anxieties about life satisfaction, meaning, and purpose. Busyness then, in turn, keeps up from having the time and space to reflect on these deeper issues and accomplish the sorts of tasks that would give us more fulfillment.

What's driving this cycle: economic anxiety? Extreme individualism and loneliness? Technology? How did we ever get to the point where we need to pay people to go on vacation? (Or do we?)

 

Last updated: Jul 17, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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