Vacations and holidays have always been pesky for companies. There’s something embedded in the North American business ethos that says it’s a bad idea for the wheels to stop turning. The past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated that, for totally different reasons. Why go on vacation when your maximum distance is kitchen-table office to living room couch? With fewer options and nowhere to go, companies have accumulated suitcases full of unused vacation time on the books and holidays have been reduced to a seasonal Zoom background.
Ironically, how your company manages time away from work reveals just how good you are at building an invested, integrated culture, whether you have a one-location operation or employees around the world. Doing holidays and vacations well means creating space for time off, focusing on quality, not just quantity, developing resilience and building the skill of celebration.
For our company, our first European hires gave us a window into the world of protected, practically sacred vacations. At the same time, our co-workers around the world have taught us that more holidays and celebrations add a richness to the working year.
Good management = good vacations
Blocking weeks in the calendar is just part of the vacation equation. The other part is making sure employees have space to really enjoy not being at work. But this is where being a mid-sized company – fewer than 1,000 people – running a global business is harder than being a 10-person or 100,000-person company.
There is the tendency to stay connected because there aren’t 30 other people also doing that job. So it has become a test for our managers: Can anyone on your team leave for a couple of weeks without things breaking? Which processes require constant babysitting by that one particular employee? It shows whether we are growing talent, building solid automation, spreading out critical roles and identifying successors.
Think of it as a constantly running business continuity test. An organization that can sustain a robust vacation policy isn’t going to grind to a halt when a couple of key people leave for greener pastures. And a quick scan of “unused vacation days by team” is great at revealing leaders who need help with project planning, setting realistic expectations and potential talent flight risks, all of which might not otherwise show up in performance reviews.
Celebrate employees by letting employees celebrate
One of the wonderful things about Kobo is that we are a global business headquartered in Toronto. The city’s multiculturalism was the springboard that made it easier for us to make the leap to success in Asia and Europe. It also means many of us have had job experiences working at SomeCompany (Canada) Ltd. – the regional office, the branch plant – and did not want to inflict it on anyone else.
We wanted to make an international company that actually felt international. In doing so, we have learned that you can’t just observe holidays or vacations. You have to respect them. If they’re just a block of grey on a shared calendar, it doesn’t make an employee observing that date feel like the integral, valued part of an international team they are.
Foster a sharing community
Luckily for us, showing employees that what matters to them matters to us is one of those parts of work that doesn’t feel like work. Yes, we might need to take a little time at the companywide town hall to officially acknowledge that it’s Diwali, or Golden Week, or Thanksgiving, and maybe set aside a bit of that office budget for a party (online or off).
But bringing these events to life for everyone mainly means making space for people to bring their life into the office. The easiest way to make someone feel seen is to just see what they’re up to and let them share it with others, whether in a Slack channel, at our weekly international town hall or at our employee-led “cook my culture” cooking classes. Figuring out how to do it all remotely made it even easier for everyone around the world to get involved.
It turns out that celebration is a skill. And it is only wasted time if you believe that employees having a sense of belonging is a waste. Vacation too is its own skill – the skill of letting go – which reveals strengths and weaknesses of a team even as it recharges an individual.
As any European will tell you (especially in August), vacation is serious business. One of the best ways to show your employees how valuable they really are is to show how much you value them even when they aren’t doing any work.
Michael Tamblyn is the CEO of Rakuten Kobo. He is the leadership lab columnist for September, 2021. This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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