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Give Workers More Vacation--But Only if You Do This Too

If you want to reward your people, time off will work better than more money. But you can't stop there.

Money can't buy love or, apparently, better job performance.

A article reported yesterday on a growing body of research about the efficacy of financial rewards. The authors--Elizabeth Dunn, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School--described the kinds of behavioral finance experiments that have become de rigueur in management writing. In the predictably counter-intuitive results, kids paid to improve their grades exhibited decreased motivation. People paid more to do well in an electronic memory game performed worse than those who were paid less.

Given the wan allure of money, the authors suggested rewarding workers instead with the gift of time--chiefly in the form of flex-time and sabbaticals. They cited an experiment at Boston Consulting Group in which consultants who gave up work-related emails and phone calls one night a week reported improved satisfaction with their jobs. 

I agree that motivating employees with time rather than money is a sensible idea--but with one caveat. You can lavish all the sabbaticals and vacations and half days on people that you want. But if you don't reduce their workloads commensurately you're not doing them any favors. Rewarding someone with a long weekend means nothing when they still have six deliverables on Tuesday. The boss must redistribute the work, pick up some herself, extend the favored employee's deadlines, or just accept that something won't get done, and that the company must soldier on without it. 

If the person taking time off is in a leadership position, I'd recommend the redistribution option. Small companies have a tough time developing leaders because they don't have a lot of stretch positions. The marketing manager's six-week cycling tour of Europe is the perfect opportunity for one or more underlings to take an extended turn in her shoes. 

So by all means, give the gift of time. Just be sure it's genuinely time off.

Last updated: May 16, 2013

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.

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