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Be More Productive. Take Time Off. (nytimes.com)
203 points by sathishmanohar on Aug 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments


They tried increasing light. Result: increased productivity. They tried decreasing light. Result: increased productivity. Eventually they worked out that any change increased productivity. (reminds me of teleported Arthur Dent cautiously checking his body for injury, and encountering pain wherever he felt. Eventually he realized it was his finger that hurt)

I'm not sure if it's a real trend, but I do seem to be hearing more stories of companies worried about employees not taking enough vacation, whereas the traditional concern is the opposite. I'm not 100% sure of the motivation, either. Some could be what this suggests, that employees who take some time off are happier and more productive. Some could be trying to minimize actual burn-out (which is different from just lower productivity). Perhaps other reasons, though. One possibility is that if nobody in a group is taking time off, that may be a proxy for something else, possibly management problems (e.g. a particular group creating a culture of fear), so worth looking into as a kind of institutional debugging. And some could be recruiting, trying to project an image that not only do we give you N weeks of vacation on paper, but we really mean it and expect you to take it.

Where I live you generally get 30 paid days off per year (10 national holidays, 20 discretionary).

Most large companies I've worked for require that you take one contiguous break of at least 2 weeks at some point during the year. Long enough that someone else will have to take over your day-to-day duties.

This is good for the employee (to have a proper holiday, and avoid the pressure of being the only one who can do something), and good for the company (it gives time for fraud and cover-ups to surface, and forces the spreading of information within the teams).

it gives time for fraud and cover-ups to surface

This is very interesting (and clever). Mind telling us more? :)

This is a common accounting control practice. Generally speaking, most accounting fraud is still manually performed and has to be done in person, and relies upon frequent tampering of normal accounting controls and procedures, often monthly, sometimes weekly and even in some cases daily. See the stories on PFGBest for an example.

The idea of enforced contiguous vacation time is that this kind of fraud is revealed when at least someone else has to step in and fill in for the time the fraudster is away. Even if someone doesn't backfill the position during the vacation time, surrounding processes and controls are supposed to pick up evidence of the fraud now that the tampering cannot be engaged.

Basically, no one with control over finance and accounting functions is supposed to be so indispensible that they can only take a few days here and there off. In fact, someone in those roles that makes a big deal out of being able to be away for long is usually a red flag for auditors.

All the investment banks I have worked in have enforced this to greater or lesser degrees. i.e. always for the front office, and varies whether it applies to Technology or not.

Fascinating, did not know this. Thanks!

A friend of mine works for a large investment bank and this is the stated reason for their mandatory 2 week continuous holiday.

If vacation time rolls over rather than disappearing at the end of the year, its advantageous to the employer for people to take it sooner rather than later for simple financial reasons. As you gain experience, time off costs them more, so they want you to take it when its as inexpensive as possible. I'd guess that if there is a trend, its one of more employers allowing time off to roll over to the next year.

Interesting thought. I'd also add bus factor to possible management problems. Often smooth project operation depends on few individuals (who may well seem to be ‘just’ developers), and mandatory time off for all employees may help obviate that.

The concept is really easy to implement with smaller teams. But look at Google.

Their "20% time" policy has become 120% time.

Scaling these highly creative, productivity inducing policies simply doesn't scale when you reach a certain size. The teams are too large, the goals are too vague, and there's a vacuum of consistency/systematization necessary to keep predictable metrics flowing.

I love the idea for smaller, highly profitable per-employee companies, but the big guys, whether through their own ignorance or inability, can't effectively institute something like "take a month off to do whatever project you think is cool."

Where have you heard that about Google? I've heard good things about their (current) culture, especially in regards to 20% time. Have I been misinformed?

1st hand from engineers.

I don't think you've been misinformed, I personally think the marketing of the 20% time idea is better than its actual implementation.

Pitching the 20% time ideas to management is kinda killing the concept. Managers aren't particularly inclined to incorporate hours into your schedule, especially if that time could be used boosting their metrics.

The implementation of 20% time is incredibly variable across teams, and even across individuals. I've never had to pitch a 20% project to my manager, or even notify them that I'm working on it. For many past ideas I ran it by them just because they might be aware of people that can help me or related projects I might want to look at, but for my current 20% project (an eventually open-sourced library), I didn't even mention it to him until I went up for promotion, when a peer wrote "Oh, by the way, his 20% project will have a big impact both on our team and on the world at large", at which point my manager was like "Maybe we should make this an official OKR and part of your regular job duties." That actually happens a lot - I've had a bunch of 20% projects that I mention to management and they're like "Oh, you should feel free to take some 80% time to finish that."

I also find that the definition of 20% time varies a lot between individuals. For me, it's "All that time when I have nothing better to do, when I get to work on whatever I want" - in some weeks, that can be 80%, in other weeks it's 0%. I have a friend who spends one morning a week working at Google Research, and that's his 20% project. I have another friend that taught Lego Mindstorms to 5th graders one day a week, and that was her 20% project. I have another coworker that started working on a new project (sponsored by a different VP), and that was his 20% time. I have a few coworkers that basically do whatever they want - actually, my job description is pretty much like this now - and so it's all 20% time.

Actually, for a lot of my coworkers, the reality is probably much like it is in many other large organizations with decent management: "As long as you get your work done and are aware of the organization's priorities, you can do whatever you want." I know someone who moved to Uganda without telling his manager and regularly works from Paris, Thailand, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, etc. - his manager doesn't care, because he's responsive to e-mail and gets his work done quickly.

The culture can vary some team to team. Sometimes the project workload takes up 100% of your time and there is no room for the 20%.

Same here, I have never heard these 20% had been added on top of a full week of work. I think Google is trying to get back to their roots nowadays.

Regarding the idea, I think it is brilliant. We all know that we are stuck on a problem, going away from it for a while is healthy and productive. I do think it works on a bigger scale.

The funny thing is I think this is a great idea for employees and I'd encourage things like this even amongst my own (though it's just contractors for now!) But for me? I'd always choose to work longer and I love it. Maybe there are key differences between growth stage, finding-their-feet businesses and those comfortably bringing in 6/7 figures a month though ;-)

"I'd always choose to work longer and I love it."

From my own experience I find that this possibly comes from the knowledge that you set your own hours and aren't trapped. I work all the time, but I've noticed a few times that when I am stuck working (say I have to stay until 9pm and know it rather than I choose to stay until 9pm) the experience becomes different for me at least. It's the feeling that I control all that work that seems to help in the "work all the time and love it" appeal for me.

Another example. I normally always drive to work. But just the thought that I don't have my car and therefore can't leave until the car is returned makes the experience different for me.

This applies to many things. We write on HN not because we are told do. But because we decide we want to. I don't know that I'd like someone telling me to sit up late at night with the laptop and write comments on HN.

You have the choice to work longer. An employee must do as told. Such is the importance of giving the person a reasonable period of rest. If not, then the person will feel like a slave and just do the absolute minimum to get by. Ive tried both approaches and the one that treats people like (surprise!) people works better than the one that treats them like robotic slaves.

OT: Love the shows. Regular listener here.

OT: Love the shows. Regular listener here.

Thanks. Sorry we have fallen behind lately. A whole myriad of reasons. I hope we get back on track soon!

Yes. They have their product/market fit and can comfortably delay features and defects for another release cycle while they experiment for a month. Depending on the start-up and their capitalization and runway I think a start-up may be able to execute something like this and if they are in a position to have the resources to delay product/market fit for a month they may even find a great idea to pivot off if what they are working on day-to-day isn't working.

Eh, that assumes work volume directly correlates to getting closer to product to market fit. There is plenty of research within the study of behavioral economics at that shows when people get to close to their products they tend to become blind to much easier solutions. Taking time off in a very early stage company especially after a less than successful launch can be equally efficient.

There is an interesting article about productivity vs. hours worked here: http://www.alternet.org/story/154518/why_we_have_to_go_back_... The thesis (IIRC) is that 40 hours a week is optimal from a productivity point of view.

Insert obligatory "No one will tell me what to do! They're not the boss of me! I love working 15 hour days and why would they want to stop me!" comment, here.

Insert snarky euro-centric reply about how some people in the "more enlightened" parts of the world already do this and enjoy seven week vacations every summer.

Thanks for getting those out of the way guys, both were getting tiresome.

It is good idea but it won't fit all companies. Specially larger companies with more work than the people of 37 Signals. I however think it is important for all companies to celebrate their successes. At SpaceX, Elon gave us a a week off after a successful lunch. This was two years ago. The employees came back refreshed. Celebrating successes is something all companies can do.

  > Specially larger companies with more work than the people
  > of 37 Signals.
Assuming that more hours equal to more work done. Which is very shaky assumption.

That must have been one hell of a lunch for everyone to deserve a week off!

It's been busy of late and I don't even bother taking in lunch anymore. A complete absence of successful lunches is a bad thing.

*launch :)

Taking time off kind of by definition increases your productivity per hour. I want to hear a case of time off actually increasing total output.

Europe has known this for many many years. A 35 hour work-week and several weeks of vacation time (e.g. in France and The Netherlands) not only creates more jobs, but also results in happier people and additional productivity.

I'm having trouble finding support for your assertion.

Some quick googling seems to indicate that France has a higher unemployment rate than the US and lower GDP per capita. Same for Spain. Same for the EU overall.

The Netherlands seems to be in better shape but it's a much smaller economy, so it's not really comparable.

The Netherlands doesn't have significantly more vacation days than other EU countries. Looking at this table: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922052.html it seems that we're even on the low side, since the legal minimum is 21 but most people get a few more, so I estimate the average at around 25. Which would put us at the same amount as Japan, of all places.

(The link's methodology isn't explained though, and maybe it includes public holidays, which would boost .nl with something like 10 days into the same magnitude as Germany and France)

Would be interesting to see numbers of time actually taken. It is my understanding that in Japan it isn't unusual for an employee to not take so much as a sick day for years - and don't even mention vacation. The corporate culture is so "dedicated" that's it's really unhealthy.

Wow. SO now Europe is a hotbed of productivity? Not the image I call up when I think of overseas Engineers I have worked with (American talking here). I've had a hard time getting anything out of Japanese, French, German colleagues. Everybody wants to manage the process; nobody wants to actually do the process.

What are these jobs in France you speak of?

This is essentially the luxury of a successful company. I think they take time off because they are successful. They are not successful because they take time off.

A follow-up post on why the article was in the NY Times: "Connecting the dots: How my opinion made it into the New York Times today" http://37signals.com/svn/posts/3234-connecting-the-dots-how-...

Here's a reference to a Mumbai(India)-based startup trying the same approach. http://erpnext.com/open-source-work-culture.html

I will just note the irony of the NYT posting some 37 Signals propaganda on the same day as they posted "Skilled Work, Without the Worker" http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept...

Radical concepts that sound really good. Unfortunately, productivity is very difficult to measure. Isn't it possible that productivity would have been higher if the 37signals team were working 5 days a week instead of 4? How does one measure this?

That's precisely why it only makes sense to measure results not individual productivity.


How exactly are you unclear at what 37signals does? Go to their website and see all the products they've created. Read their blog and you will see how they make their products, how they make their decisions and how many customers they serve. They've opened their working process through recent blog posts, which I've found to be very interesting - especially reading how team member communicate and the types of language they use while working remotely.

And with two books under his belt dozens of blog posts, and a column in Inc. I surely don't think this was ghost-written, which seem to be insinuating.

37 signals is best known for Basecamp, a piece of immensely popular project management software. They also make Campfire which is team chat software, and Highrise, a CRM system for small companies. All of these products have been extremely successful.

They've also written a couple of books on their approach to work. About open source: 37 signals' products is not open source. But David Hansson, one of the co-founders, built the Ruby on Rails framework, which is.

They really aren't all-talk, no-walk kind of guys.

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