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August 31, 2007

Vacation Time Unplugged

The New York Times has an interesting article on vacation time practices at IBM. The company doesn't track vacation. Every worker gets three weeks, but they don't have to submit requests to use them, plan them in advance, or keep track of how much they've taken. They make informal arrangements with supervisors, leave some contact info, and jet.

Netflix is even better. They don't offer a set number of vacation days. You can take as many as you need, so long as you're getting your work done. "When you have a work force of fully formed professionals who have been working for much of their life,” Patty McCord, the chief talent officer of Netflix, said, “you have a connection between the work you do and how long it takes to do it, so you don’t need to have the clock-in and clock-out mentality.”

But there's a dark side here too. Having a set or tracked number of vacation days meant the company would encourage you to take them, or cash them out. If don't have a set number and they're not tracked, you're not encouraged, nor can you transform them into salary:

Frances Schneider, who retired from an I.B.M. sales division last year, after 34 years, said one thing never changed; there was not one year in which she took all her allotted time off.

“It wasn’t seven days a week, but people ended up putting in longer hours because of all the flexibility, without really thinking about it,” Ms. Schneider said. “Although you had this wonderful freedom to take days when you want, you really couldn’t.

Since IBM doesn't track the days, we don't know if Schneider's experience is representative. According to Netflix, most of their employees take three or four weeks a year, so maybe it's not a big problem.

This, too, was striking: "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."

Currently, I'm typing from my couch. This makes me feel lazy. But it also ensures I get much more done. I occasionally work from home in the mornings, but only when I have a mid-day event or a piece due. Otherwise, guilt propels me into the office. This is very stupid. On an average day, I wake up at 8, spend a bit of time not wanting to get out of bed, leave for the office around 9:20, spend about 45 minutes walking to/waiting for/taking/walking from the bus, get to the office, spend some time settling in and getting into work mode, and then begin blogging, sometime in the 10 o' clock hour.

If I'm working from home, I roll over, look at my computer, and begin writing by 8:30. Time wasted? Almost none. Productivity difference? High, particularly considering that there's no machinery or infrastructure that makes the office a more efficient spot from which to work. And my guess is that my experience is in no way rare. Yet few folks work from home. For a culture as obsessed with productivity as ours, it's strange we haven't embraced this near-costless way of boosting it.

August 31, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

When you have kids working from home isn't much of an option. You either have to get them to a daycare, at which point you might as well go into an office, or they'll distract you too much to get any work done - unless you can set up a sound-proof and locked area of your house to do work and you have either a spouse or nanny to take care of the kids.

My unscientific opinion is that the above reason is why more people don't work at home.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 31, 2007 11:15:30 AM

It depends on the nature of the work, Ezra. A job that is performed primarily by oneself, like blogging, is much better suited for work at home than a job that involves spending a lot of time talking to or coordinating with other workers.

Yes, there is the phone/email/IM/skype/web ex/etc, but nothing beats looking someone in the eye when you're brainstorming solutions to a problem or trying to hash out a plan.

Posted by: fiat lux | Aug 31, 2007 11:20:49 AM

Borjas' blog has a post on this today. He said he'd be interested to see research on how working from home affects employees' productivity, wages, and job satisfaction. So would I -- I don't know of any (though I should check).

For a journalist like Ezra, working from home likely to be a net plus. But other occupations, which depend more on team projects and group interaction, might benefit from more office face-time. Though of course a lot of those interactions can also take place via email, conference call, etc.

I work from home and mostly I really like it. The one downside that I can see is that I feel like I'm on call 24/7. My bosses have emailed me on weekends and at all hours and I feel obligated to respond ASAP. They don't do it a whole lot but at times it feels like an imposition. In the past, I felt like, though my boss owned my time while I was at the office, the rest of my life was my own. It's not quite the same when you work from home.

Overall, though I like it. Love having control over my time and avoiding the hassle of a commute.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Aug 31, 2007 11:24:07 AM

It is true that modern technology makes it possible for millions of jobs to be done remotely, at least some of the time. Moreover, there are added benefits from reduced energy consumption and commuting expenses, unclogged roads, and less wear and tear on the body (and the family car).

While the issue of small children at home makes working at home more difficult, if not impossible for some, another problem relates to longstanding biases against the practice among many old line companies and bosses. There is a mentality that if you are not physically present in the office, you must be goofing off. At a prior employer, I would sometimes work from home when I had to write a report, and found that I could write it 3 to 4 times faster at home (with no distractions) than at the office (with distractions). However, the corporate culture always made me feel guilty about it, though nobody ever actually said anything. You just knew that the practice was generally frowned upon at that firm.

I think some of these biases may eventually break down, especially if we legislate significantly higher taxes on gasoline which would have numerous other benefits as well. While the longstanding bias against work at home may still be there, the cost of sustaining such stupidity would rise sharply and might just be enough of an incentive to start to change the culture in these workplaces.

Posted by: BC | Aug 31, 2007 11:31:25 AM

I think working from home is probably great if one has a dedicated home office or something of the sort. But I find that if I'm sitting on the same couch I sit on to watch television, I can be extremely unproductive. Or if I'm sitting in the same room I sleep in, I can be extremely unproductive. Generally, I'm fine for a bit, but if it gets routinized, it blends into the same pattern I usually engage in when I'm in that spot. I get lazy, so I constantly need to find a new place in the home to work.

When I lived in a fairly big place in suburban DC, this was doable. In my current, tiny Brooklyn apartment, it is not. The one day I had to work from home, when the subways were rained out, my roommate who actually has an A/C unit was out of the country, so his room became my office. And it was great. Had it been my own room, with my own clutter and toys to play with, I suspect it would not have gone so well.

Posted by: jhupp | Aug 31, 2007 12:00:13 PM

There is a mentality that if you are not physically present in the office, you must be goofing off.

To be fair, that's not entirely unfounded. In theory, I could work from home... not most of the time, but some time, say five or 10 hours a week. As it is, I only do when there are technical difficulties at the office for some reason. For me, the difference is procrastination. It tends to be a problem for me, and I think there are more outlets for it at my apartment. There are my own computer games, a ton of stuff to read, stuff to do online I wouldn't want to do at work, chores to do and errands to run, etc. Here, there are fewer distractions, and I have bosses walking around all the time, so I can't be too obvious about my wasting time. I've never put this to the test — maybe if I really had no choice but to get to work, I'd find I can do it at home just fine — but I doubt it.

Although, heh, here I am reading and commenting on blogs, so it's not exactly foolproof.

Posted by: Cyrus | Aug 31, 2007 12:11:12 PM

I think BC has his/her finger on it; often it's a culture issue, not an efficiency issue. If your butt is not in the seat, your boss can't be sure you're working. And it also threatens bosses another way; if they aren't needed to stay on top of you by stopping by your desk x times a day...they become less necessary.

Extremely deadline-driven tasks that need more than 2 people, though, really do better in a centralized location. No matter how convenient IM is or how much someone checks their Blackberry, it takes longer to coordinate with them remotely than to run down the hall and ask them a question. And a scary amount of remote officing involves people driving around talking on their car phones, which isn't making life better for anyone, frankly.

If I had an employer who had an agreement with a nearby daycare, or one in the building, to get a space for my son, then I wouldn't mind my office hours nearly as much.

Posted by: emjaybee | Aug 31, 2007 12:13:16 PM

"For a culture as obsessed with productivity as ours, it's strange we haven't embraced this near-costless way of boosting it."

You're seen those studies that show offices with a dress code have higher productivity than offices without one, with the conjecture being that the cause is it instills a certain amount of discipline? Same thing with working from the office. You're probably two or three sigmas more self-motivated than the mean, plus you have a job you really enjoy and get to focus on almost exactly what you want. This is not true for even every office professional in the country.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 31, 2007 12:14:29 PM

I've pointed this out before but it bears repeating - one other thing to remember about "working from home" is that it also serves as way to bleed work time into leisure time. Yes, you set your own hours, but when linked to an office - for conference calls, meetings, etc - you work the normal business hours, and quite possibly earlier in the morning, later in the evening and into the weekends. I'm not arguing against flex scheduling and working from home. But in this discussion of vacation, I always want to reiterate that it's the fact that people who have time available to them not taking it that has everything to do with people who want the time also being in a bind. When the expectation is set that you will be available early, late, weekends, whenever, it's hard to carve out leisure time. I write from home now; I love it, and it's why I left the corporate world, even for a significant reduction in income (which may not be sustainable much longer term). But the net effect on my time is that I am working longer hours and more hours because I am at home, and it's easy to do, with the illusion that I have more "balance". As we advocate all these work alternatives (and I think a lot of offices are deciding that there is a demonstrable need to have people physically present together for collaborative work), I think we should keep in mind that with these innovations come additional trade-offs. And not all of them are necessarily playing out the way we think they would.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 31, 2007 12:15:58 PM

I had a sweet gig working from home a few years back, and it was great. I had my coffee maker on a timer, I'd get up and 7 and be working by 7:15; then I'd take a long mid-morning break and enjoy the city, or go to a coffeehouse and work there. The thing I loved the most was that as long as I did the daily quota I set for myself, I could work whenever it suited me--not within the office hours straitjacket.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Aug 31, 2007 12:23:18 PM

"This, too, was striking: "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."

IBM is more of a services company now then a product company now days.

Working from home is great for individual contributors. It allows them to work in isolation and really churn out work without the distractions inherent to office life. It’s more difficult in a collaborative environment when many people need to work together. As well, some of the life gets sucked out of the office when a significant portion of the organization is out.

I work from home and I love the fact that I don’t commute. But there are times when it is a pain. A couple interesting side effects: my wife assumes that since I work from home, I’m available to do things around the house during the work day; also, in a work from home environment, it’s almost expected that people are available during off hours via cell phone and IM.

Overall, I think this is a great culture change if managed properly. I think companies are smart to offer the flexibility to work from home a few days a week.

Posted by: DM | Aug 31, 2007 12:28:42 PM

My company's policy: no sick time; no vacation time. Instead we have up to 157.5 hours, with pay, off a year for whatever reason; carry over allowed from last year to this year: up to 75 hours.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 31, 2007 12:30:54 PM

DM is correct. So it's not like IBM has a kind of loosey-goosey new age way of thinking about where its employees can be productive. It's because they are acting as a consultant for their clients, their employees are often either on the road or semi-permanently attached to a particular client.

This is an outgrowth of the way they used to operate when they were primarily a builder of mainframes. Their machines were so large and complex that a buyer would actually have an IBM tech on site full time. My first summer job as an employee (as opposed to being a self-employed lawn boy) was working in an oil services company's huge computer room. We were all grungy young guys and gals in jeans and t-shirts, except for the IBM tech, who was a grungy young guy in a white button-down shirt and tie (the required IBM uniform at the time). As DM suggests, IBM leveraged this service competency into a new business for themselves (also acquiring the consulting and services part of PricewaterhouseCoopers) away from manufacturing as their primary business. So like any consultant/service company, many of its employees work at the client's site, not in some IBM office building.

Posted by: RWB | Aug 31, 2007 12:41:01 PM

I have a buddy whose job is to work from home. The company he works for has no satelite office in this state. So he spends all his time running QA tests remotely and conferencing with people on the West Coast or abroad. He used to travel probably 2 weeks out of 6, but now...he's got a set of twins at home to accompany his other older daughter, so working from home even though is wife is also there, has proved challenging since they were born. Not much he can do about it though.

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 31, 2007 12:56:24 PM

This reminds of something I read by an economist describing "discretionary labor" (a term unfortunately used for some forms of flex time) as work that people do above and beyond the amount needed to keep their jobs. The economist's thesis was that American productivity in particular depended on this gift of free labor to businesses.

Posted by: justawriter | Aug 31, 2007 1:03:58 PM

Emjaybee has right.

The same manager who would outsource a job to China or India in a heartbeat would be extremely reluctant to allow a worker to work from home.

The difference lies in the perceived value of the manager, not the worker. A worker who is productive without supervision makes the manager superfluous...which many of them are. I mean, what parasitic creature would want evidence of their life cycle on daily display, without some camouflage provided by workers?

Posted by: S Brennan | Aug 31, 2007 1:14:49 PM

I read this with quite a bit of interest because my wife in fact works from home for IBM no less. It has some definite advantages. For one thing, it gets rid of a lot of office politics. Not completely, but a lot of them. Secondly, I thinkg workers get judged a lot more on the merits and quality of the work rather than whether the boss likes them, since the interaction is more related to work rather than who you like to eat lunch with etc. I think we have all worked in offices where promotions are based on who has the best figure or most hair rather than merit, and work at home helps eliminate that a lot. Also, you can live anywhere, as long as you have a high-speed internet connection.

That said, she does actually work the whole time and is in constant touch with colleages via IM, conference calls and email. And she gets an unconsciousable amount of vacation--4 weeks plus 8 personal choice days I think I'd trade places with her in a heartbeat. She is at this very moment "flexing" her time and driving to Virginia so we can win $333 million in the megamillions.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 31, 2007 2:02:12 PM

I work from home: I love the way that I can, as above, be working first thing then take time off during the day (say, take a bike ride, long walk with the dogs). As long as the work gets done then no one can or should complain.

Although I will admit that I take it rather further than just not having a commute. I live in southern Portugal while running a small business in Moscow and writing for sites and newspapers in the UK and the US.

Working over the net frees you just not from a commute but from almost any geographical restrictions (I've found, in the decade and more that I've been doing this that time zones are really the only one left).

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Sep 1, 2007 5:37:19 AM

I thought this was interesting:
http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2007/08/31/labor-day-some-willing-to-trade-money-for-time-off/
The trade of time off for less money. Ezra keeps telling us that we're stuck in a trap, one that can only be got out of by legislation to mandate more time off.

"Among men, for instance, 7.4% of the 55- to 64-year-olds said they would like to work less and make less, but only 3.9% of the 20-24 year-olds."

Hmm. The idea that we should legislate the preferred option of only one in fourteen of the working population doesn't sound all that attractive, really.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Sep 1, 2007 6:57:09 AM

I have worked at IBM for 17 years, there has never been a year where my vacation was not tracked, but there have been a few where i was not able to take all my vacation which we are not allowed to carry over year to year. Obviously there are a few execs who have liberal vacation time, but they also earn 100X more than I.

Posted by: john pryce | Sep 1, 2007 3:57:33 PM

When you have kids working from home isn't much of an option.

Total BS, dude. I work at home all the time, and I have four kids. I'm working at home now, while my wife is out of town covering a film festival for work. You get around the distraction and business by stretching your work hours throughout the day and into the evening. Simple as pie.

Posted by: Jay Andrew Allen | Sep 1, 2007 5:22:30 PM

" For a culture as obsessed with productivity as ours, it's strange we haven't embraced this near-costless way of boosting it."

One reason for this, in my entirely anecdotal and unscientific rationale, is a matter of control. Bosses like to have some say of what an employee can and cannot do.

I work as a teacher overseas, and at my first job we had to clock in and out, nevermind that they would obviously know if we failed to show up, because there wouldn't be anyone teaching.

On a related note, one of my friends was able to travel to New Zealand for 6 months and still continue to do his job via the internet. Talk about making you more mobile...

Posted by: Jeremy | Sep 2, 2007 4:47:53 AM

It ain't about productivity, it's about control. Frankly I could do 99% of my job from home, but because my boss couldn't check on when I was working & when goofing off, he doesn't approve of me doing any of my work from home, except for out-of-hours callouts.

And yeah, I -am- looking for another job, how did you know?

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 6:36:25 AM

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