At the moment, it's in vogue for employers to either help or force their employees to unplug. For example, a BBC article suggests that an agreement between employers and unions in France would pressure workers to turn off their phones after 6 p.m., while employers would be asked to resist the urge to tap at their employees when the sun goes down. Meanwhile, a software company on this side of the pond announced that employees would have paid vacation, and they'd be given money that could fund the vacation if they agreed to totally unplug during that time. (The blog post that features this idea was written several years ago, and yet, it's still being passed around today.)
All of this leaves me feeling a little left out. Why? Because I don't force my employees to shut down and turn off. And I don't try to bribe them to take vacations, either. Here's why, and here's what I do instead.
The Value in Self-Determination
Managers are expected to set policy. It would be easy enough for me to create a set of rules and regulations about hours and vacation time, and when I did that, I could take steps to make sure my policy decision was enforced.
But there's value in respecting the decisions an individual worker wants to make. And often decisions involving hours and vacations get to the crux of why people work, and what they're trying to accomplish with their lives.
For example, some of my staff members have important personal tasks to handle on a daily basis. They might want to attend a child's basketball game, assist a close friend, or take a beloved pet to the veterinarian. These workers might prefer to take a smattering of vacation hours here and there, rather than taking all of the time off in one big block. That's a choice I should respect.
In addition, some of my staff members are night owls who do their best thinking when they aren't faced with constant distraction from other co-workers, social media friends, and loud neighbors. These workers enjoy answering thorny e-mail messages late at night, when their thoughts are clear. They tell me it takes them less time to craft a message late at night, and they enjoy the freedom to do so. Banning that work wouldn't respect their choices.
A significant amount of research, including a new study in American Sociological Review, suggests that workers are happiest when they're given a modicum of control over when and where they work. The freedom involved with setting your own hours and working as you see fit seems to correlate with a greater sense of job satisfaction, which might mean that we employers who are flexible hang onto our talented employees just a little longer than those who rule with an iron fist. If that's true, than my flexibility makes good business sense.
Obviously, I don't force my employees to take time off, and I don't have draconian rules about when my employees should and should not work. But there are some things I do that help my employees to understand the importance of work/life balance.
1. Push for a flexible, but consistent, schedule
My Denver office is open during regular business hours, and when I hire new staff, I let them know what our hours of operation are. But when all of the facts and figures are on the table, I ask them to tell me how they'd like to structure their workdays. Some like to come in a little later. Some choose to come in early. Some like to leave early and answer e-mail at night. Some like to do all of the work in the office. I ask them to sketch me out a rough schedule for their day-to-day work, and I ask them to stick to that plan if they can.
This approach allows me to know (roughly) when my employees will be actively working, and when they might not be open to chatting about work. They set the schedule, and I respect it.
2. Allow for full breaks, as needed
During that orientation, I also outline the steps I ask employees to take when they need to schedule a vacation. When those vacation days are approved, I've got them on the company calendar so everyone knows that these workers are out, and not to be disturbed. I also know just who should be covering for the vacationer, so there's no need for interruptive e-mail or phone calls.
I should add that I do have vacationing staff that prefers to check e-mail while they're away. I don't block their accounts or otherwise keep them from staying connected, should they choose to do so. But I make sure that the company infrastructure, including covering staff, could support a full break, should employees choose to take that step.
3. Keep lines of communication open
The schedules and plans people set up when they first start working with my company may need to change with time. And sometimes shifting projects and new responsibilities can add to worker stress, and bump up time commitments. That's why I ask my employees to chat with supervisors if they feel as though they need to shift their hours. I also ask them to speak up if they're feeling overwhelmed or just burned out. Dealing with a workplace problem at its source seems more effective, to me, than forcing a worker to take a break and then return to the same problems when the break is over.
4. Mandate performance, not free time
I ask big things of my employees, and they're all aware of the performance standards they're expected to meet as part of my team. I'm a stickler about those standards, and I expect everyone I work with to meet the challenges I set up for them. But it's the performance of those workers that I monitor. I'm not at all interested in monitoring how they spend their free time. I respect their choices, and I trust their instincts.
To me, this is just a more reasonable way to manage employees.