Designing Work Hours and Vacation Benefits to Maximize Productivity

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Don’t Undermine Productivity

How have you established your company’s work hours and vacation benefits? If you’re like the vast majority of organizations, you have set work hours and defined vacation benefits which cover all of your employees, unless you have union members whose hours and vacation benefits are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. But for knowledge workers in particular, who typically work in an office environment, does this traditional ‘one size fits all’ approach represent the best solution for your company and its employees? Or, is it one of the greatest hindrances to boosting productivity, morale and a positive organizational culture.

Ennable Productivity Enhancement

Generally accepted business paradigms for office hours and vacation benefits are so ingrained that many executives rarely give them a thought in regard to being a ready means to boosting productivity. If you are located in New York city or Washington, DC, your office hours are likely 9-5. For the rest of the country, 8-5 is more the norm, however today, many employees are being pushed to work far longer hours, representing another far too common practice that ultimately proves to be counterproductive, but I’ll leave that issue for another time.

Focusing for the moment on office hours, why are we so obsessed with the specific hours worked or even how many hours are worked by individual employees. Certainly, most organizations need the majority of their personnel who work in an office to be there during overlapping periods for coordination of work and meetings, however, in most cases this requirement can easily be met without insisting upon hard and fast starting and quitting times. Retail settings obviously need people to be in the store whenever customers are present, but even in store settings, this can be accomplished while providing employees with a high level of flexibility.

A colleague of mine and fellow consultant, Scott Degraffenreid, was approached by a fast food chain client that was experiencing such high staff turnover, it threatened the business. His solution was to stop scheduling employees work times altogether. Sounds crazy? It worked wonderfully, greatly reducing turnover, improving morale and eliminating the greatest management headache in running the business. How did he accomplish all this by ending employee scheduling? Simple. He gave each employee a listing of the restaurant’s hours of operation, the number of personnel needed for each shift and the mobile phone numbers of employees. Then he told them that they could work whatever days and times they wanted within an eight hour day/forty hour week maximum, as long as all shifts were covered. If someone wanted to come in at 6 am when they opened and work until 8 am and then go to the beach, returning to work at 5 pm, that was perfectly fine. Split shifts, sharing partial shifts…they could enjoy this scheduling freedom as long as all shifts were fully staffed. The employees loved it and ensured that no shifts lacked personnel and turnover plummeted. These mostly Millennial employees went from being the ‘problem’ to becoming the ‘solution’ when they were empowered to do so.

Understanding the Difference Between Command and Control

For many years I consulted on defense ‘black’ weapons projects and thereby spent a good deal of time with the military. There I learned the principle of ‘in Command, but out of Control.’ In wartime, commanders simply cannot micromanage their troops and succeed. Battles unfold too quickly and are too fluid and lines of communication frequently are inadequate for moment by moment control. Furthermore, the officer or NCO on the battlefield at the moment usually has a better grasp of the situation than a commander who is removed from the action. Command means making the strategic decisions, whereas control is the tactical maneuvering ability. These two are vastly different and should never be confused.

In the instance of the fast food chain, Command meant having all shifts adequately covered and control meant who were the individuals that were working those shifts. The individual ‘who’s’ didn’t matter to the success of the operation, only that there were the right number of ‘who’s’ there, when needed.

As leaders and managers of organizations, we need to focus on the strategic issues and let go of the tactical by empowering our people to handle that. Last month I was speaking with a lady who is the head of a chamber of commerce. She told me about a recent meeting of the CEO’s of the member companies. During an open discussion, one of the CEO’s asked his peers for advice regarding a problem he faced. His top engineer, he said, was fully twice as productive as any one else on his engineering staff, but he came to work late every morning, 8:20 vs. 8:00 am and left at 4 pm instead of 5. He explained that he had spoken to this employee about this on multiple occasions, but without any change. He was thinking that he should fire him.

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

To the chagrin of the head of the chamber, all of the the CEO’s in the room agreed. She was incredulous! But they were determined. The company CEO needed to make a negative example of this 2X productive employee.

What example? That strictly observing starting and stopping times is vastly more important than what you produce during those eight hours? Instead, why not make a positive example of him. Hold up his performance as ‘exemplary’ and a challenge to everyone else. They can enjoy the same freedom he does, if they produce for the company as he does. Think of it. What if you could reduce the work hours of every employee in your company from eight to six and a half hours per day and at the same time double their productive output! Is that not a huge WIN for the company and the employees?

Now I hear what you are thinking. Not every employee with respond by doubling their output or even has that capacity to do so, but that is immaterial. Some will and even if this individual were the only one, better one than none. And yes, this type of flexibility requires managers to exercise more discretion, forethought and courage in dealing with the individuals they supervise. Some people will be jealous, but isn’t rewarding people based upon performance the foundation of our free enterprise system. The entrepreneurs who start companies do so based upon this reward, why shouldn’t the people who work for the company enjoy a modicum of the same benefits?

Most people would welcome this freedom and Millennials in particular, that group so many companies are having trouble retaining, view this flexibility as highly beneficial. The majority of offices with knowledge workers can function just fine with a flexible schedule for starting and ending times and those workers who produce far and above should be rewarded with shorter hours. Today, burnout is a problem affecting many organizations, as workers at all levels are being pushed to work ever longer hours and those in management and leadership positions are expected to be ‘available’ 24/7 by text and phone. Burnout destroys creativity and innovation! The cost may not be readily apparent, but do not deceive yourself, if you are pushing your people too hard, you are paying a hidden cost and it may be much higher than you realize.

I REALLY NEED a Vacation!

This brings us to the second portion of the title to this blog post, namely, vacation benefits. The U.S. is one of the only first world countries where two weeks of vacation is the starting norm for new employees. In other industrialized western nations, four weeks is the typical starting vacation and it increases from there. Work in the 21st century may have become less physically taxing, but it has certainly become far more stress inducing and today, stress is a far greater health problem than physical labor. Between work, which in families now includes two people in the workforce in most cases, the hectic pace of life and the falling real wages since the beginning of the new millennium, adequate vacation time is more important than ever. Your people NEED REST, a BREAK and a CHANCE to UNWIND and RECHARGE! And not once a year!

Leading and Managing for SUCCESS!

What are you leading and managing your business to achieve? That is the question each executive leader and manager needs to ask them self each morning before entering the office. Is it to achieve strict compliance with a set of outdated RULES? To micromanage everyone to adhere to some pointless standard that was instituted in a different era? Or, is your goal to profitably grow the organization to the maximum extent possible?

If it is the latter, then throw out the rule book and start leading and managing for success. Focus on results, not micromanagement. Adopt the military’s paradigm of operating in Command, but out of Control. Encourage productivity, not slavish devotion to appearances.

In my first job out of college, there was an Office Manager who would stand at the front door and make snide little comments to anyone who came to work even a minute or two after 8 am. He was the MOST HATED person in the company. He would regularly extoll the virtues of one woman who worked there who always arrived a few minutes early and left a few minutes after 5 pm. The two of them were the least productive people in that office and the greatest source of negativity.

Your organization does not need small minded, petty people. It needs people who are excited about what is possible and making that possibility a reality. Throw out the ‘rules’ and focus on what makes people excited and wanting to come to work and engage in making positive results happen. A great place to start which will have an immediate positive impact is work schedule and vacations.

by John Di Frances

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