Sunday, August 2, 2009

Unlimited Vacation Days, Dogs at Work and Pet Projects- Innovations in the Workplace

For those of you who follow my posts, I have been writing about vacations - and our attitudes about taking time off. Two weeks ago I explored America's poor report card on paid vacations (here) and last week I wrote about our personal challenges with being busy, and turning off the noise when we have a chance to get away. (here.)

The United States ranks far behind other countries in offering vacation time, and millions never use the time accrued. Taking off the month of August for "holiday," like the Europeans, will never fly in the US. Yet, leave it to Americans to come up with some interesting innovations in the work force that are redefining vacation time, as well as improving daily work environments.

At a hearing on July 23rd, the congressional Joint Economic Committee reported that among employers with more than 1,000 workers, there has been a 25 percent increase in flexibility programs. Clearly, in the recession, offering flextime, compressed work weeks, and telecommuting is the best way to save jobs. As the workforce continues to technologically evolve, more employees are able to complete their work from remote locations. The upside of this trend, is an increased flexibility to bring work home and not feel 'chained to a desk.' The downside of working from home, is finding the discipline to walk away now and then for a much needed break

Ultimately, how we take, and how we use our vacation time, is a matter of personal responsibility. Beyond the concept of flex time, some trendsetting companies are tossing out the HR manual altogether - eliminating any sort of set vacation days, sick days or personal days. Employees simply take off what they need, as long as their work is getting done. Sound crazy?

This innovative concept is being implemented quite successfully. Some of the leaders in this "open vacation policy" are Best Buy with their "ROWE" policy, which stands for "Results Only Work Environment" allowing their 4,000 staff to work anywhere, anytime - as long as their work is completed. Imagine the possibilities! To further inspire their staff, Best Buy has just started a "venture citizen fund." Employees are invited to submit social change ideas for creative and financial consideration by the company.

So smart. Let's face it, if you feel valued, are able to take time off, and are encouraged to serve the planet, why would you work anywhere else?

Netflix is another trendsetter, with an "unpolicy" that does not require staff to take allotted days off. Their HR department does not keep track of vacations, tardiness or sick days and still manages to be one of the most successful companies of the past few years. Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings, says traditional means of keeping track of employees time are "a relic of the industrial age."

"The worst thing is for a manager to come in and tell me: `Let's give Susie a huge raise because she's always in the office.' What do I care? I want managers to come to me and say: `Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done' - not because she's chained to her desk."

One in three Americans don't use all the vacation time they have earned, and barely one in 10 takes a break for two weeks straight, according to the non-profit research firm Families and Work Institute. But at Netflix, it's estimated that most employees take off about 25 to 30 days per year, using the time to stay at home, take a vacation, or work on pet projects.

Besides trends in time off, how about innovations in the quality of our time at work? With increased pressures, what can be done within the work environment to offset the daily grind? Google operates with the sound belief that individual passions can become a great asset to the company's growth. With this in mind, they offer all engineers a "20% policy", where employees can use 20% of their work week, (which is about one full work day) for special projects outside of everyday responsibilities. The new product Google News is a result of this 20% program.

Small businesses are under tremendous pressure, yet with creativity, they can also be wonderful places to work and grow. I spoke with Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True about some of her highly acclaimed, yet simple, management philosophies. Simon founded the company in 1985 with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. Starting out with an idea and a tape recorder, the company has grown into a multimedia publishing company with more than 80 employees, a library of more than 600 titles featuring some of the leading teachers and visionaries of our time, and customers from around the world.

Simon admits it is harder to create flexibility in the workplace for a smaller staff.
"As a for-profit company in today's economy, it is simply impractical for unlimited time off. However, I think the key is how we can work together to find creative solutions."

For example, one of the staff who had worked at Sounds True for seven years, wanted to take three months off for an extended maternity leave. Simon reflected on the dillema.
"I knew it would be hard for three months, then I realized: would I want to have a staff member in the office that is not present and available? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for them, so we made it work - with a combination of vacation time, unpaid leave time, and time she spent training a contract person to work in her place."

To increase daily "sanity," Simon has a meditation room on site for staff, and encourages dog owners to bring their pets to work. With a staff of 80, about 20 dogs are roaming the office at any given time.
"The dogs give us something to care for," Simon explained." They need to go out for a walk, which is kind of like an old fashioned equivalent to a smoking break!"

During staff meetings, everyone at Sounds True start with a moment of silence, followed by a short personal 'check in,' before starting the business at hand. Simon explained why this practice has made such a difference:
"People may think to themselves, 'taking a minute- what does that do?' But during that time of quiet, we can all become much more present, and we don't feel like the day is one long sentence. It provides a feeling of punctuation."

Simon concludes: "I want to make work life something that does not take the life out of us, but is a place that let's us take life back in."

Let's hear it readers! Do you have any innovative stories to tell from the workplace? How do you find the time to rejuvenate yourself- either on site or off? Always love to hear your comments. Be sure to hear more about this subject on Monday morning on NPR's "The Takeaway" radio show, where I will be a featured guest.

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