The American vacation has been around for well over a hundred years. As the Smithsonian Magazine recounts, the word's origin dates back to the 1900s when New York City's upper class would "vacate" their city homes and travel to their lakeside summer retreats. 

Fast-forward to today and we have a problem. Vacation--with its etymology based on the practice of moving from one location to another--doesn't encapsulate what employees need from their vacation time. Vacations should be about recharging and digitally detoxing, not just vacating one place and retreating to another. In a new world of work, where traveling to different locations is stock-in-trade and working on vacation is the norm, the term "vacation" seems out of date. 

But the problem, of course, is much deeper.

The coordination cost of taking a vacation

The problem starts with the steep coordination cost of clocking vacation time--a cost that often sandwiches the vacation. The time leading up to vacations is often jam-packed with meetings as employees try to coordinate work that needs to happen during their time off.  Then, at the other end, when employees return, they and others flood their calendars with meetings to catch up on missed work. Research shows that vacation benefits dissipate relatively soon after an employee's return--even during the first week back.  

So what's the solution? 

At Asana Labs, a think tank for future work research, where I work, we recently conducted research with Stanford University professor Bob Sutton to understand how the time employees spend in meetings changes before and after a vacation. We wanted to study if--and how--employees could unseat this hefty coordination cost. 

Employees told us how much time they took off and how much time they spent in meetings before and after this time off.

We looked at three different groups of employees:

  1. Employees who took an extended vacation (a week or more off per month). 

  2. Employees who took moderate amounts of time off (2 to 4 days off per month).

  3. Employees who took no, or very minimal, time off (0 to 1 day off per month). 

Which group do you think spent the least time in meetings before and after their time off? 

The virtues of moderate time off each month

Somewhat counterintuitively, employees who took moderate amounts of time off spent the least amount of time in meetings before and after their time off--even as compared with employees who took no or minimal time off! 

Why was this the case? One explanation is that when people take moderate amounts of time off, it's easier for them to adjust their workloads (such as by delegating or prioritizing) to accommodate their shorter absences. In contrast, when employees are about to take extended time off, it can be cognitively taxing for them to figure out how to adjust their workloads for this prolonged time off. A common knee-jerk reaction is to schedule a slew of meetings before and after their scheduled vacation. 

Our research suggests that, as a leader, encouraging moderate amounts of time off each month can be an effective way to help your employees defeat the coordination cost of vacationing. 

Synchronized and semi-synchronized time off  

Encouraging moderate time off isn't a complete solution, though. Another tactic involves synchronizing time off.

During the pandemic, several companies implemented synchronized holidays. HubSpot introduced a Global Week of Rest in 2021 to "prevent and battle burnout." Fashion retailer Zalando  introduced a "zacation" as a "collective break" that spanned five days at the start of August. And the list goes on

Yet businesses--especially in today's economic climate--are more and more reluctant to completely shut things down for companywide holidays. Another solution is what I call semi-synchronized time off. 

Workplace analytics company Humanyze--born in MIT's Media Lab--introduced semi-synchronized time off back in 2017. Each employee was asked to vote for a week that they'd like to take off during the summer. The votes were tallied and the two most popular weeks were identified. Half the company was assigned one week and half the other week (with preference given to people who preferred one week over the other). Co-founder Ben Waber reflects that the "experiment" was "phenomenally successful." 

Name it to claim it

Regardless of the solution you implement, merely offering your employees vacation time is no longer enough. The onus is on you as a leader to build processes, practices, and norms that help employees reduce the coordination costs of vacations. Semi- or fully synchronized time off might be a great solution for your organization.

And while you're updating your vacation practices, perhaps consider replacing the term "vacation" with a term like "recharge time off" or "week of rest" to encourage the outcomes that you as a leader should be helping your employees achieve. Sometimes you have to name it for your employees to be empowered to claim it.