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."