Why TED Has Given All Of Its Employees A Mandatory Two-Week Summer Vacation

Here's an idea worth spreading: Enforced time off. Now, go share this with your boss.

There are two times of year when people tend to go on vacation: the weeks around Christmas and New Year's, and late summer. But while many offices shut down during the holiday week, few close their doors in the summer, even though employee productivity often dwindles.

TED is one of the few organizations that grants employees the gift of a forced two-week summer break. Visit TED.com and you'll see no new TED talks until August 4. Try getting in touch with employees this week, via email, phone, or carrier pigeon. You'll have some trouble.

It's not like TED's schedule revolves entirely around its conferences—it did once upon a time, before TED became the media juggernaut it is today (and before the Internet forced all media companies to be "on" every day of the year). Now, TED has a constantly updated site full of stories and new talks. The work never ends, unless someone mandates otherwise.

The New York City nonprofit has been doing its two-week summer shutdown since 2009 (it also takes off the week between Christmas and New Year's). The other week, I caught up with June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media right before she took off on a cell phone service-free trip to a rainforest. "We all know how hard it is to plan a vacation. Most of us would feel too guilty to even take two weeks off, if it weren't pre-planned for us. And we'd be likely to cancel when something inevitably came up. This creates an enforced rest period, which is so important for both productivity and happiness," she dashed off in an email.

As Cohen notes, employees at most companies take staggered vacations in the summer, so that someone is always around. But because the entire staff is never quite available, things don't get done as efficiently as they should. When everyone leaves at the same time, productivity remains at a high level before and after vacation. "A group vacation is so efficient. We're all on the same schedule. We all return feeling rested and invigorated. What's good for the team is good for business," she writes. Besides the two-week break, employees get a week between Christmas and New Year's, plus an extra week of vacation to take when they want.

Admittedly, a couple people need to stick around at TED during the break to make sure that tech issues don't take the site down. The partnership team is also working over the break (contract deadlines happen to linger over the vacation this year). Those are the exceptions.

It is a uniquely American tradition for employees to overwork themselves so much in the first place. In most other wealthy countries, employees naturally take large chunks of vacation time.

Cohen says she'd recommend the TED policy to other companies. "The impact on morale, productivity, and overall happiness is stunning. Plus . . . imagine how relieving it is to take a two-week vacation when all your work email stops."

[Image: Hammock via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • ocscout

    Dear R.Zeitler-

    I think you missed the point. Which is totally normal in our Western culture. Americans vacation less than any other industrialized nation in the world. Less than one week on average. Our society has lost focus on the things which are most important in life. At the end of your life when you are breathing your last breaths, what will you be thinking about? Will you be wishing that you had spent more time at the office? Probably if you're like most people, you will be thinking about all the memories in your life that you had with those you loved the most. Think of those who you have already lost. If you have lost a parent, sibling, spouse or a child.....how much would you pay just to spend one more week with that person? What would you give? Most people would say; I would pay everything, give everything I own to see them again. We can never regain the time we have lost but we can choose how we spend the time we have left. Chose wisely.

  • r.zeitler

    This "forced leave" benefits the company more than the employee. Those who'd rather have the company buy back vacation time lose two weeks' pay all because the company doesn't want to pay out a penny more salary than it budgeted for.

    If I were employed at TED, I'd spend my vacation time on a two-week consulting gig with another company. I do ideas, and they come regardless of whether I'm on vacation, so I might as well get paid for them.

  • dcp

    This sounds awesome! Any tips on how to make it happen for my air conditioning business in NC? Thanks.

  • Jean Paul Gorrichátegui Torres

    Having always thought to myself.... " There is no 'U' nor 'I' in the COMPOUND word: 'TeamWork' ", reading this article really motivates any employee to feel appreciated. I think most of the situations in where I have quitted to a job, ok there are not so many as it sounds, had to do not with the work itself, but dealing with stress and fatigue.

    This line, Ariel Schwartz.. this very line: "What's good for the team is good for business"

    Your business is your team. There is no single effort that will succeed without the support of at least a few great minds pushing the cogwheels forward. Unfortunately, those minds as any HUMAN mind is unique, and a whole multi-universe of its own is not exempt from ending like the Professor Nash's one (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268978/?ref_=nv_sr_1)

  • Shawn Coombs

    I love this article! It really brings home what my business does for our corporate clients and validates what we provide as a company. As a corporate incentive provider we believe that by offering incredible employee incentives such as vacations at cost it really strengthens a company from the top to the bottom by giving your employees great value so they can be more productive, create a positive work environment, improve health, lower the risk of on the job accidents, and create loyalty. It really is a win win for both employers and employees. Employers save thousand on turn over and get a happier, healthier more productive employee! Cudos to TED and other companies that recognize this.

  • Forced closure of an office is not my idea of a vacation. I have been employed in places that have a forced shut-down over Christmas - that comes out of my annual leave. So at the most expensive time of the year and the most crowded, I have no choice. Be careful what you wish for. Just encourage people to take their leave at a time they want.

  • prince0907

    I like what Cohen said " What's good for the team is good for business ". No wonder TED is great company and which is so important for both productivity and happiness. If it's available, I'd like to join the TED team, thanks.

  • admin

    'Group Vacations' as they call it in the article have been around for decades in industrial factories. These are called 'Factory Shutdown' or 'Retooling' periods where the whole factory is on vacation for a week or two. The reasons it works in a factory setting are the same reasons it works for TED.

  • I began reading this by thinking how wonderful an idea it was, but the more I read and thought about it, this is actually a very clever and slightly underhanded way of controlling employee time off. The article states that employees get the identical 3 weeks off and an additional 1 discretionary week. What if I were getting married in March and wanted to take 2 weeks for the wedding and honeymoon? What is someone dies in October and I want 2 weeks off to grieve? It seems like a generous gift, but the true gift would be 4 weeks of mandatory vacation that could be taken ANYTIME. Yes, it's better than no time off...but it's not the "perk" they make it out to be.

  • Eric David Greenspan

    When you work as hard as these people do and have some an amazing model, it makes sense. It doesn't alway, but here it does. They really deserve it. I've been to TED twice and all I can say is "they deserve it."

  • r.zeitler

    Scott has a point. If an employee has no travel budget and no A/C at home, getting shut out of the office for two weeks in the summer is nearly torture.