A small startup forced its employees to take vacation time and forbid answering emails, and the results were astounding

Chilling was mandatory.

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Chilling was mandatory.
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  • Vacation time was mandatory during an experiment at a small startup called SimpliFlying.
  • Employees had to take one week off every seven weeks, and if they got in touch with the office while they were away, they weren’t paid for that vacation week.
  • Productivity and happiness increased afterward.
  • There’s evidence suggesting that unlimited vacation policies don’t necessarily encourage employees to take time off.

Work can be nerve-racking. So can taking a day off.

Which is why many modern employees are guilty of checking their email, Slack, and voice messages while they’re supposedly out of the office: What if something super urgent or important transpires and the only person on the planet who can deal with it is you?

At SimpliFlying, that attitude just isn’t acceptable. SimpliFlying is a global aviation strategy firm with about 10 remote employees. Recently, the company experimented with mandatory vacation time: one week off every seven weeks.

The really shocking bit? If an employee got in touch with the office while on vacation (say, through email or Slack), they didn’t get paid for that vacation week.

The results are described in a Harvard Business Review article by Neil Pasricha, director of the Institute for Global Happiness, and Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying. (They worked together to implement the new policy.)

After 12 weeks of experimentation, Pasricha and Nigam had managers rate employee productivity, creativity, and happiness levels. As it turns out, creativity rose 33%, happiness levels rose 25%, and productivity rose 13% from before the experiment.

Other companies have unconventional vacation policies to encourage their employees to recharge

SimpliFlying isn’t the only organization to implement policies that make it easier for employees to take time off.

Business Insider previously reported that the CEO of Steelhouse, a marketing and advertising company, gives employees $2,000 a year to use on a vacation. The company also takes a three-day weekend every month.

Why not just offer unlimited vacation time, and let employees use their own discretion? After all, that’s what big companies like Netflix and Twitter do.

Another article in the Harvard Business Review (which focuses specifically on the US) describes why that’s not always a viable alternative. Many workers are wary of taking time off, whether because they worry about how much work will be waiting from them when they return, or because they think they’re the only person who can do their job.

And, as Laura Roeder wrote for WeWork, having an open vacation policy can be confusing, because no one knows what an acceptable amount of vacation time is.

To be sure, the SimpliFlying experiment wasn’t without its drawbacks. Employees had two main complaints with the new system.

One week off every seven weeks was just too frequent, given that the company is so small. So Pasricha and Nigam tweaked it to one week off every eight weeks going forward. Employees will also need to stagger their vacation time so there aren’t back-to-back absences on a single team.

As Nigam wrote in a blog post on SimpliFlying’s website, “I have seen not only personal growth in each SimpliTeam member, but also development in each of their work. I dare say this experiment is a win-win.”