Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Everyone should take vacation at the same time

Throughout my career I’ve always seen people struggle with taking vacation. People are too wrapped up in what they’re doing. Managers can’t allow critical people to go missing. There are weeks of trepidation and handover and “I don’t know how to fix that” emails. To a large extent, this can be fixed with shared code ownership, comprehensive automated testing, and all those types of good development practices. I have a better idea, which I saw in great use at CCP (which for a long time did not have those good development practices):

Everyone vacations at the same time.

In Iceland, this was a cultural thing. From what I understand, employers aren’t allowed to deny you vacation between May and September. Everyone goes on vacation in July. The office is empty. Things just go relatively smoothly as no one expects anything to get done during July (its a great time for side projects). This “July slowdown” wasn’t limited to CCP, as people who need visa renewals in the summer no doubt learn.

In Atlanta, the studio just closed down for two weeks in July.

In both cases, there may be a skeleton crew to keep things running, people on call, etc. Its just that no one expects anything non-immediate to get done. This has many benefits: its easier to plan for, office costs are cheaper, there’s a single silent period rather than months of rolling disruption, everyone takes a refreshing vacation, and much more. It’s pretty much the only vacation policy I’ve seen that was largely resilient to the pressures that keep people from taking vacation. To be sure, some people were screwed over by bad managers, but (in contrast to most other management offenses) this was largely due to particular managers and not underlying cultural causes.

If you see the people around you failing to take the proper vacations everyone needs to keep going, I’d encourage you to try having everyone go on vacation at the same time.

7 thoughts on “Everyone should take vacation at the same time

  1. Tom H. says:

    My current employer encourages something like this – our division cancels all meetings (and all planned releases) during the first two weeks of July, and we’re reminded that it’s a great time to go on vacation or work on side projects.

    But it seems to assume a completely work-centric employee? My wife wants to go up to the mountains with 1200 other people the *last* week of July, just when all my coworkers are back and up to speed. I want to go camping with 10000 other people the second week of *August*, when work has a critical release scheduled. Those trips are good to great for our kids. First two weeks of July, though? Nothing.

    1. Hi Tom, well that’s unfortunate and your criticism is, of course, valid. One other benefit I saw was the warm up and cool down time around the ‘vacation period’. No critical release is going to be scheduled directly before or after vacation. This makes it easier for a smaller amount of people (20%-35%?) to take vacation during those times without much impact.

      And of course, people still need to be able to take vacation whenever (a South African gentleman took off for about 5 weeks each winter to visit home, which is not just Christmas time but the southern hemisphere’s summer).

      But either way, your point is well noted, and it’d take some polling and experimentation to figure out what adjustments would need to be made.

  2. Charles Palmer says:

    Unless of course you want to take vacation due to a pressing need to do something in winter… :D

    Also the latest and reasonably big EVE release just happened in the middle of July when lots of people were off, so a pinch of salt and all that.

    It’s also a very dev centric viewpoint, CS for example has no such luxury, and in my anecdotal experience one that customers don’t like at all.

    Further it has a negative effect on the cost of holidays if everyone does it. For example take a look at school holiday markups. This might be more of a European problem though. There’s a lot of complaints in the UK at the moment because the government toughened up the rules about taking kids out of school during term time for holidays.

    It’s an interesting cultural oddity but I’m not sure it’s genuinely an ideal apart from the point of view of the business.

    1. A policy wouldn’t solve all ills but it would solve the most abusive ones I’ve seen, that implicitly and explicitly cause people to not take vacation and then burn out.
      I hope I’ve addressed some of the points you brought up in my last comment. A few other ones:

      Yes my post is aimed primarily at development. This is intentional: good CS (and NOC) departments have built the ability to deal with rotation. After all, handling a customer issues across shift boundaries should be part of the job. If CS people are denied vacation, it’s because policies or culture are broken. In fact I’d say this ‘close down for two weeks’ policy would likely help a vacation-troubled CS department by highlighting the fact that they don’t vacation (which means they build better policies, or recognize what management thinks of CS).

      As for customers not liking it, we can agree to disagree. Of course customers aren’t going to like “not getting updates” (hey remember when a release took 6 months?). But IMO if we can get the organization to work more effectively, there’s a bigger payoff. Customers also don’t like when you rework legacy systems. Should EVE still have Nasty because customers saw no direct benefit?

      Ultimately not taking vacation is endemic in America, and it was to America (and American managers of foreign companies that may not understand the culture, *cough* your previous EPs *cough*) that my post was aimed. Keep in mind that 10-15 days vacation days per year is generous, *and that often includes sick days*. Employees only take half their days, more than an eighth take no time off, and only a quarter take all their days (many surveys have worse statistics than these!). More vacation days or empty encouragement by HR is not enough. I think fixing this problem requires sending a clear message, and management taking action. It certainly creates new problems, but I feel it solves more fundamental ones.

  3. Chris says:

    Everyone should of course also get ill and take their sick days, bereavement days/compassionate leave and religious holidays at the same time just so it’s easier to plan.

    Also everyone should book holidays when flights and hotels are at their most expensive during the summer because that’s the only time to take holidays and there’s no point going to any other countries at any point during the year simply because it’s ‘inconvenient’.

    I’m sorry but this is ludicrous. In terms of business planning capacity in agile capacity is measured on a sprint by sprint basis, holiday is taken out of the capacity due to the flexibility of that.

    1. Chris, you forgot having a child.

      You are right that good agile practices can “build in” capacity changes. You’ll notice I said *exactly that* in my first paragraph!

      My point with proposing this policy is 1) recognizing that the unhealthy relationship of American business to vacation days needs to be addressed and 2) putting forward something that can make a profound difference, whether you’re Agile or not, or in software development or not. No policy is going to be perfect, because the best it can do is to paper over severe systematic deficiencies. A healthy culture and set of processes negates the need for something like this. Great! You’ve solved the underlying, systematic problem. Short of that, though, it may be worth a targeted policy to change how people use vacation. And perhaps that can even change culture.

  4. […] two weeks is a really long time to shut down. In some ways, shutting down is great, as I’ve written about before. But it sucks not having a good way to get fixes and improvements out to customers. There are a lot […]

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