Mandatory Vacations

How our vacation policy is transforming our relationship with time off

At Civilla, we have a small team that shows up every day to tackle messy challenges that will surely take decades to solve. This work requires us to stay energized, healthy and motivated for the long haul. One of the most important strategies we have found to fuel our ongoing commitment is taking time off.

In our first year of operation, we had an “unlimited” open-ended vacation policy.

In theory, everyone at the studio was allowed to take as much vacation time as they wanted, whenever they wanted it. We liked this idea because it placed ownership in people’s hands and simplified administrative tracking. In practice, however, this policy fell short in two ways: 1) Not everyone at the organization felt equally empowered to take time off, even though it was available and 2) In the context of a small studio, taking time off placed an additional burden on teammates at home and made it difficult for travelers to feel that they could properly unplug.

The result? We were all over-worked, stressed, and at risk of burning out.

We aren’t the only team that finds it hard to step away from our work.

It turns out that most Americans are reluctant to take vacation — even though studies have shown that rest time improves productivity, creativity, and happiness. On average, American employees only take about half of the vacation they are entitled to. For those who do take time off, 61% report working while on vacation. In a culture that glorifies workaholics and undervalues R&R time, using an unlimited vacation policy is challenging — leaving people uncertain about how many days it’s truly okay to take.

Since our first year we have tried a bold, new experiment: recurring, scheduled, mandatory vacations. Here’s how it works:

Mandatory vacations are spaced across our team’s annual calendar — providing at least one scheduled week off every twelve weeks. When we are “on break” everyone is required to take time off — effectively closing the organization while we’re away. Mandatory vacations are complemented by a set of flexible personal days that people can use as they see fit. In total, the calendar guarantees over 48 days away from the office for everyone on our team.

Over the years, this vacation policy has transformed our relationship with time off in four primary ways:

  1. It equalizes access. Everyone feels permission to take the same amount of time off each year.
  2. It activates our bucket lists. When vacation is mandatory, the question shifts from “can I take time off?” to “what can I do with the time I have?!” Suddenly, dreams don’t feel like they have to sit on the shelf forever.
  3. It provides permission to truly unplug. When everyone has synchronized time off, work objectives, goals, and deadlines take the sidelines much more easily. Work is put on hold until we all return — contributing to a more well rested and happy team.
  4. It creates shared excitement. As a team that cares a lot about each other, we enjoy our trips more knowing that our teammates are all on adventures of their own. Stories abound when we come home.

We have found that mandatory vacations have resulted in renewed energy, restored commitment to our mission, and new ideas to fuel our work. With decades of hard work in front of us — we are certain that time off will be a key ingredient to health and success in the long run.