Would you give your employees an extra week of vacation? 

This year, the 40 employees at Alexander Interactive (Ai), a $10-million digital marketing agency based in Manhattan, are getting those extra days off, and not during the somewhat-expected week between Christmas and New Year's. They already have that week for vacation, plus another three weeks they can take during the rest of the year. But this year, founders Alex Schmelkin and Josh Levine decided to tack on the week of June 29 to July 3.

"We were thinking for some time about something special we could do this summer to reward the staff for how hard everyone is working," says Schmelkin.

Schmelkin and Levine got the idea from Andy Fletcher, CEO of Bailey Lauerman, an ad agency based in Omaha, Nebraska. In a speech Fletcher gave in May at the Mirren New Business Conference in New York City, he mentioned how Bailey Lauerman had closed its doors during the July 4th week for years now. After he mentioned it, the founders looked at each other. They knew it was something to strongly consider at Ai, which they founded in 2002.

"When we got back from the conference, we told the leadership team," says Schmelkin. "There was universal support, except from the VP of project management and operations." This VP reminded the other leaders that Ai had five large client engagements over the summer. Since it was already May, that gave Ai only six weeks to notify these and other clients about the vacation week.

The founders acknowledged this pushback, and decided to take the week off anyway. They told their project managers to reach out by phone to clients, believing that six weeks notice was adequate. "Do it unapologetically, don't hide, come right out and say it," is how Schmelkin says he urged them to deliver the message.

"We wanted to be certain it wasn't perfunctory or lost in the shuffle. It is a hard close. We will be unavailable. We didn't want that to just be casual," he says.

The Preparation

Because Ai, whose client list includes Lowe's and Saks Fifth Avenue, closes for Christmas week every year, it already had a few boilerplate scripts the project managers could use to explain what closing would mean. In addition, the company revised the email auto-responder employees deploy during Christmas week. At the bottom of this auto-response is an emergency contact number, which clients can use in case the unthinkable happens (a website or some part of it goes down) while the employees are away.

Another point of emphasis in the communication was to remind clients that the week off would not affect their project deadlines. It would only affect their ability to reach Ai staff during one week in late June and early July.

If anything, the timing of the week off was excellent: Late summer and early fall are generally much tenser times for Ai, since the agency is often on tight deadlines to roll out new websites for its clients at the start of October. A July vacation week gives the staff a chance to truly get away without worrying about falling irrevocably behind on one project or another.

For this reason, the only schedule-shifting that had to take place involved a few mid-project review meetings which had been scheduled for June 29 or June 30. "These are often six-month projects, so shifting a few days here or there can happen. And we weren't having meetings on July 1, 2, or 3 anyway," says Schmelkin. So far, he says, the clients have been receptive.

Like most service firms, Ai builds some slack into its schedules anyway, given how any project has the potential to get derailed by "scope creep" or uncontrollable external factors. Specifically, Ai's schedules give clients several days to respond with formal comments at various stages of completion. Clients are often eager to respond and don't need that much time. Likewise, Schmelkin says that on most projects, Ai's teams gain speed at the tail end, when the work has reached the phase of quality assurance testing. For these reasons, he was confident the week off wouldn't derail the company's work schedules. 

Though keeping clients happy during the week of closing is the topmost concern, it's not the only thing the founders have to plan for. The checklist also includes many day-to-day logistics:

  • Putting mail on hold. That means chatting with the postman, the UPS guy, and the FedEx guy. 
  • Locking the front door all week. "It's as much a deterrent for our employees as a security thing," Schmelkin says. 
  • Calling the bagel and milk vendors to halt the weekly deliveries.  
  • Telling the cleaning crew (which normally comes nightly) not to come in. 
  • Reminding the office manager to set the air conditioning and thermostats. 
  • Cleaning out the office fridge.

On top of all this, the week off means the company's systems administrator has to test out Ai's servers and infrastructure for every contingency. The goal is to make sure the company is ready for a week where the staff won't have physical access to the systems. That means all of the virtual access better be working. The last thing the company wants is to be unable to help a client who calls with an emergency, just because the office doors are locked.

The average tenure of a full-time employee at Ai is more than five years. "That's two lifetimes at most agencies," notes Schmelkin. That long tenure is one reason Ai always picks up speed on the tail end of projects: The employees have worked together for years, and have developed chemistry. 

In giving their employees the July 4th week off, Schmelkin and Levine are doing one more thing to keep their employees happy--and to keep them at the company, in the long term.