Sunday, June 27, 2010

Mandatory summer vacations for all employees

This week marked the end of the school year for my two daughters. It was an especially meaningful time for my oldest daughter Nadia who is heading off to university next year and was saying a fond farewell to teachers and friends who have been part of her journey for the last six years.

Schools organized shows and concerts, art exhibits, special outings and graduation ceremonies to mark the end of the school year. These events underline the accomplishments of both teachers and students throughout the year. As parents, we are invited to get a taste of our children's school experiences and appreciate all the hard work that they invested to succeed. More than one tear was shed as I listened to Nadia playing her flute in the final school band concert and when my youngest daughter Maya, handed me in an impassive manner not one but two Achievement Awards for courses that she was failing just four short months ago.

I really like the end of school year ritual of celebrating successes. As one year closes, people's spirits are elevated with pride and the slate is wiped clean, ready to greet the experiences of the coming year.

What would happen if workplaces borrowed from the school model? Can you imagine it? Just take this little walk with me in an alternate world where workplaces operate like schools.

To start with, bosses, like teachers, would have 6 to 8 Professional Development days (P.D. days) dedicated to deepening their knowledge and skills in a learning setting with other colleagues. Bosses would have been taking courses throughout the year to better understand how to teach to others what they know. Bosses would have also been receiving training on how to instil a desire of learning in their employees (a.k.a students) and bring out the best in them.

The employee's school would be the workplace. The workplace would be a Learning Organization. Employees are encouraged to learn from each other, to innovate, to take calculated risks, and to learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.

Employees are regularly evaluated on their ability to accomplish tasks. They are not given tests or exams per say but in the course of their work they face complex problems or difficult situations which they try to resolve. Their bosses observe their performances and give them timely advice as to how improve. (This is in sharp contrast to the yearly Performance Appraisal discussions between bosses and staff which is for most a perfunctory one time only half hour conversation aimed at filling in blanks and checking boxes on a form.) At least three times a year (much like the parent-teacher meetings for our kids) the boss has conversations with the employee's significant others (spouse, colleagues and friends) to gain a better understanding of what other aspects of his life might affect his performance positively or negatively) and to ensure that there is a solid social network to help the employee succeed.

Throughout the year, and especially at the end of the work year, there are opportunities to show case the accomplishments of each employees and their teams. There are "Show and Tell's", poster presentations, talent shows and storytelling and speeches. To top off the year, many celebrations are organized where the successful Treasury Board Submissions or bids for work are showcased along with the innovative programs and products that were realized. The employees are the centre of attention in these celebrations but everyone recognizes the important role their bosses have played in creating the space for them to emerge as leaders in their own field. (Who knows, maybe people would make a point to thank the bosses for being good bosses and bring them "teacher gifts" like apples, mugs and cute figurines to show their appreciation at the end of the school year much like I made a point to personally thank Nadia's music teacher for being such an inspiring mentor to her through her high school years)

During those celebrations, all staff takes stock of the positive foundation they have laid down during the year on which they will be able to build an even more impressive edifice in the year to come. And then, the best part, everyone leaves on well-deserved vacation where they reconnect with friends and family and more importantly, with themselves.

I can hear you saying, "I am an adult, I want to take my vacation when I want to. Plus, I only have 3 weeks of vacation per year!" (That last one is a totally different problematic but let me just say that in Europe, employees have double that amount of vacation time because the European culture puts a higher value on family time and play.)

By definition, vacation means a period of rest from work. Well don't get me started about Blackberries and laptop computers which means that if we so choose, (and surprisingly many of us do) we are never truly disconnected from our work. In the North American culture work and business is overvalued in my opinion.

People have a hard time letting go of the rat race even when they are on "vacation". Poll your acquaintances and ask them what their vacation plans are. In my circle of family and friends, many will use some vacation time to catch up with chores around the house: doing renovations, building decks, sealing the driveway or painting rooms. Others will use vacation days to schedule medical, professional and legal appointments that they can't fit into their usual work weeks. Some lucky ones will go up to the cottage where there will be some relaxing times but undoubtedly there will also be some fixing up to do. Families are lucky if they have a full week of vacation together. In our case, it will be impossible to schedule a week when we will be all together between my eldest daughter's part time job and outings with friends and my youngest daughter's weeks at theatre camp and babysitting commitments. We will be lucky if we can plan a long weekend together... Often one parent takes one week to stay with the kids and the other takes the following week to optimize their limited vacation time to cover off the many weeks that the kids are off school.

What we do during our vacation determines how much rest we will get or not. Another factor that affects the quality of rest we get on vacation is the number of days we take off. In my circle of family and friends rare are those who take more than one or two weeks of vacation at a time. I don't know if you have experienced this yourself but in the last few years I have worked at such an intense pace that it takes several days of "vacation" before I can truly stop and relax. Often in the first few days of vacation I become sick: a flu bug, a sore back or just general fatigue. I think it is because I finally let myself stop and become aware of how exhausted I was all along. My body finally lets up and crashes for a few days no longer fed by the constant adrenaline rush. My husband and I were reflecting on this phenomenon last March while lounging by the pool in a resort in Cuba (our first family vacation down south in many many years). The first few days of our vacation, we felt just like zombies. No energy or will to do anything requiring much effort. Towards the end of our week-long trip we started to feel like our old selves again and we remarked wistfully that a second week away would have allowed us to truly take advantage of all the activities and sights this little paradise provided. See, in North America we even rush through our vacations!

So if you are still dreaming along with me in this alternate world, consider just for a moment what it would be like to be let off work for at least a month just to laze around in the summer sun. You would return to work feeling refreshed and invigorated. That would change your mindset wouldn't it? Your performance would be enhanced if you returned to work excited about reconnecting with your colleagues and looking forward to a whole new year of learning and accomplishments (much like your kids returning to school in September).

Wouldn't it be great if everybody returned to work from summer vacation at the same time in a better state of mind, and with new ideas and resolve? That time would mark officially the start of a new year for all staff. It would be the ideal time to sit together and do some visioning and strategic planning. It would be the ideal time to rethink how we used to do things and how we can further improve. It would create a positive momentum forward. What grade will we all graduate from in a year's time?

I know, maybe this idea is too far fetched... But I still think there are important lessons to learn from the school model. Let me know what you think.

Are you taking summer vacations this year? Will you be relaxing? How?


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