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Tradeoff 101 - Take As Much Vacation As You Want, But Be Accessible and Connected

How connected you are during your vacation?  A while back I asked "Is The Out Of Office Reply Hurting Your Career?" and got aggressively handled by some of the commenters.   Ouch!!

But the question is inherently linked to a recent article in the New York Times outlining IBM's innovative policy on letting knowledge workers take vacation anytime they want to, with no record keeping.  A summary of the NYT article to frame the discussion:

"IBM grants each of its 355,000 employees three or more weeks of vacation each year. But theIbm_vacation  company does not keep track of who takes what and when. The company does not dole out choice vacation days to the favored or based on seniority, nor does it let people carry days over from one year to the next. No record keeping. Employees have the flexibility to make their own decision. They know their jobs and what is expected of them and work within that framework. So, they can cut out early, take off Friday to make it a long weekend, or string two weeks together. Several other companies, including Best Buy, Motley Fool, and Netflix, have also adopted the hand-off approach to vacation time for some or all of their employees."

Over the weekend, John Hollon from Workforce and Michael Wolfe at The Career Revolution checked in with positive reviews of the practice.  I agree with their takes - it's a good thing, and long overdue. 

Of course, the world is full of tradeoffs, and this practice is no different.   To put the IBM policy in the right context, you first have to understand that IBM is managing a very distributed workforce (i.e. working from home or remote).  From Wolfe's take at The Career Revolution:

"After reading the article I see how they do it... First, unlike most companies, they don't mandate how many hours you work in a day or work week. And second, they don't mandate which days of the week you decide to work. Third, they don't mandate where you get the work done - at home, Starbucks, or in one of the "e-mobility centers" around the world. Check this out...Aided by broadband connections, cellphones and video conferencing software, 40 percent of I.B.M.’s employees have no dedicated offices, working instead at home, at a client’s site, or at one of the company’s hundreds of “e-mobility centers” around the world, where workers drop in to use phones, Internet connections and other resources."

So what's it all mean for employers?  I love the IBM model in this area, but you can't apply it to your workforce unless you are willing to follow the Best Buy model and not mandate hard office hours or location designations.  You have to be comfortable with employees not only making decisions about when to take vacation, but also choosing their own physical location when they are working and the actual office hours they keep.  You won't be able to be "old-school" on these items and make the vacation thing work.  Most companies aren't ready yet, especially if they put a premium on face time.

What about employees?  If you want the old model where you show up 8 to 5 for a solid 40 per week and no one dares to call you when you are on vacation or even sick, this model isn't for you.  Period.  You won't be able to handle it.  Why?  In the true distributed workforce model, no one knows where you are.  When you are on vacation, no one will really know you are on vacation - or care.  If they need you, they'll call you.    Bank on that...

For me, I love it.  I would rather work where I feel I can be most productive and creative, without being tied to a single location.  As for being called or emailed on vacation, I'm cool with keeping the ball bouncing when I am out.  One last cite from Wolfe's clips from the NYT article that captures why I like the entire IBM model, not just the vacation part:

"[An employee] said that in six years at I.B.M. he can recall only one time when he asked a co-worker not to take a long weekend off — when their group was about to buy another company — and that calling colleagues or checking e-mail while visiting relatives in Texas or Illinois is a fair trade for being able to work from home so he can spend more time with his children, Alec, 5, and Evia, 2.

“I get an incredible amount of flexibility from the company, but it cuts both ways,” he said. “Because people’s schedules and needs are so structured, you need flexibility at work.”

I like the ENTIRE model, but that's just me.  If you don't like the expectation you'll be called and emailed during vacation, don't cheer the IBM model on vacation scheduling.  It's just one part of a bigger package.

RELATED LINKS:  See Jason Averbrook's Blackberry Nation entry at Knowledge Infuser to better understand why IBM can play with such a distributed workforce, and Evil HR Lady's Q&A with a manager wanting to lay IBM-type expectations on a direct report with a sick child


Wally Bock

Great post. And the best part of it is the paragraph on how you can't have it both ways.

I've noticed that there's a human tendency to adopt the parts we like of someone else's idea or initiative and let the rest go. Way back a century ago managers did that to Frederick Taylor. They took the parts of the shovel study about placement of the coal pile and design of the shovel. They left out the part about giving workers regular breaks. Same with Deming. Keep the statistical techniques and ignore the admonishment to "drive out fear."

Evil HR Lady

Excellent post. I'm also in favor of the IBM type model--as long as there are occasions where it's okay to be unreachable. (Otherwise, how could you ever take that fabulous foreign vacation?)

I think the key point is hiring good people to begin with and trusting them to do their jobs right.

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