According to an article in The New York Times, I.B.M. has been trying out a new vacation policy, in which fixed vacation rules are replaced by informal agreements between employees and their immediate supervisor. The guiding principle is that the work must get done. As long as this is the case, employees can take as much vacation as they want, even on short notice.
Itís every workerís dream: take as much vacation time as you want, on short notice, and donít worry about your boss calling you on it. Cut out early, make it a long weekend, string two weeks together ó as you like. No need to call in sick on a Friday so you can disappear for a fishing trip. Just go; nobodyís keeping track.
The company does not keep track of who takes how much time or when, does not dole out choice vacation times by seniority and does not let people carry days off from year to year.
It’s not all peaches and cream and the article also mentions some downsides to this flexibility:
- Peer pressure to not take too much vacation
- Checking email and voice mail while on vacations
- Managers sometimes ask employees to cancel days off to meet deadlines
On the whole, I.B.M. employees like the arrangement and according to an internal survey, it is one of the top three reasons why employees choose to stay there.
This kind of arrangement is a sign of the times and we’ll be seeing much more of it. Just to mention a few examples, Californian software company Motek has done it for years, Best Buy are experimenting with ROWE, a Results Only Work Environment where only your results are measured – not the number of hours you work and the Brazilian company Semco let employees set their own working hours.
But is this much flexibility a good thing or a bad thing? Does it increase employees’ freedom or does it simply make it easier for bosses to manipulate and abuse their serfs?
That depends on who you ask. Richard Reeves in his book Happy Monday comes out completely in favor of it. Whereas Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character describes it as a terrible situation that is ruining our work lives.
Here’s my take: Happy companies naturally embrace this flexibility. In happy companies there is enough trust between managers and employees that it will the flexibility will be used to make people happy at work, and not to make them work more.
It’s true that it does put more responsibility on employees’ shoulders to actually take some vacation time, but seriously – we’re adults here, right? We should be able to tell when we need one/want one and do something about it.
Like I always say, if you want to be happy at work you must:
- Know yourself. If you don’t know yourself well enough to tell when it’s time for a vacation, then who will?
- Speak up. If there’s something you need, say so. Don’t passively wait for your boss to figure it out.
- Do something. Act on it!
In bad, abusive workplaces however, things are not that simple. Here it is normal to create all kinds of explicit and implicit pressures on people to work more and more, and in this case, flexibility simply becomes a license to abuse employees. Here, setting vacations according to contractual obligations or union rules offers way less flexibility, but it at least ensures that you get some vacation time at all.
It’s also true that different people like different levels of flexibility. Some people like to leave vacation planning completely open, others prefer to have it fixed years in advance. A truly flexible system accommodates both kinds of employees.
I do believe that flexibility is a good thing in and of itself and it’s a hallmark of all the happy companies I know that they offer very high levels of flexibility. I think flexibility comes from mutual trust and trust comes from being happy – as psychological studies confirm.
So if you want to have high levels of flexibility in a company, make sure you have high levels of happiness and trust first.
How much flexibility does your workplace give you? Is that a good or a bad thing? What makes it good or bad? Please write a comment, I’d really like to know.