Why You Should Pay Your Employees to 'Study Abroad'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because adventure — and crushing loads of work — await you.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
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Kimberly Gerhart is compiling spreadsheets and tending to clients via email, but this is no ordinary work trip. Just in front of her sits a margarita; a little farther away, the Pacific Ocean shimmers. Gerhart’s employer, back in Indianapolis, has footed the bill for her “work” abroad trip in Malibu — not that there’s a client, prospect or branch office there.
By now, much of the professional world has dispensed with the 9-to-5 workday, and while death by overwork is rife in Japan and China, the always-on culture has spread around the world. Our vacation policies have not kept pace. The International Labor Organization reports that Americans who rack up 50 or more work hours per week are less likely than ever to take their piddling 10-day vacation. Clearly, it’s time our corporate overlords mandated a downshifting: Bosses should pay for an all-expense-paid “work” trip to an exotic locale of your choice.
We’re not talking about tedious conferences in Scottsdale or presentations in Akron. Rather, we’re imagining a yearly stipend to take a weeklong, nonmeeting trip anywhere in the world, one that allows for a major change of scenery and an opportunity to answer those emails on some beach far, far away from your drab desk. Ahhhh. Employees are handed $1,500 to jet off to wherever they please for one whole week. The only caveat: You still must work during that time, but in a place that will “inspire” you.
The biggest benefit is loyalty: Over the past two years, the team has experienced zero turnover …
Fizziology, a social media research firm in Indianapolis, already treats their workers to this sweet perk through what the company calls the “Find Your Inspiration Trip.” Toronto, Mexico and New Orleans are just a few destination examples from the program’s first year; meanwhile, trips to Poland and Iceland are currently in the works for this year.
Employees use this “solo exploration trip” to “break out of their daily routine,” says Fizziology co-founder Jen Handley. “They come back with so much gratitude and goodwill.” For Handley, the biggest benefit is loyalty: Over the past two years, the team has experienced zero turnover inside the 20-person company. A small size, for sure, but significant results.
Flexible work is definitely on the rise, as a growing crop of companies continues to experiment with unlimited vacation policies and work-from-anywhere benefits. However, in recent years many of these employee wellness schemes have all but flopped, with few taking advantage of them. For one, not all companies can remain productive with an entirely remote workforce; face-to-face time is often critical for ease of communication and, for lack of a better term, getting shit done. Moreover, “endless summer” vacation policies like Netflix’s and Virgin America’s have been met with flak for their unstructured, ambiguous nature. In fact, employees end up taking off fewer days than they would have with a more formal two-week vacation policy. (Both companies declined to comment, but a Virgin America rep did point us to his CEO’s company-wide letter.)
The problem is a culture of “vacation shaming” in which people feel deep shame about letting their work pile up, even if just for a few days, says Katie Denis, a senior director at Project: Time Off (or P:TO for short, so clever). And if you’re gunning for a promotion, just how many days can you take off before the Boss hands the job to Suzie Schmoozy over there? “People like boundaries. People need to know the speed limit of the road they’re driving on. They want to know what’s appropriate,” Denis adds. At the very least, a yearly “Work Abroad” program gives employees the structure, incentive and money to get some much-needed perspective, outside the office.
Such a policy can backfire though, warns Denis, “especially if you’re not tracking or paying attention to what employees are doing.” Employers might worry that implementing such a policy could invite abuse — with workers who might use the perk to get some gambling done in Las Vegas, or fly to Atlanta for a cousin’s wedding — thereby harming the company’s productivity. For her part, Handley says her employees must justify the trip’s location and clarify their aims before taking off. But for those who don’t comply, Denis has harsher words: Just as you have a generous vacation policy, also “have a generous severance policy” for people who miss deadlines or do poor-quality work.
As for us, we’re pitching a trip to Cancún as we speak.