It is becoming more common for tech companies to give all employees a Friday off periodically. These are referred to as “mental health days” or Flex Fridays. At my last company, this was once per quarter. Some do once a month or every other week. Some companies just make every week in summer a 4 day week.
This year, my current company changed the policy from one Flex Friday per month to no Flex Fridays at all. The reasoning is that sometimes these days are not actually “flexible” since they’re rigidly scheduled so may sometimes not work well for the release schedules of certain personnel or teams. They can also compress the rest of the week, piling up meetings that would usually be done on Fridays.
(There was also an undertone that Flex Fridays were an unfamiliar practice to some newer executives so therefore they are bad, but I won’t address that observation here.)
The benefits of frequent time off are clear to the company. But the alternative offered was to just take PTO whenever you need it because we have an unlimited PTO policy and that’s actually flexible. Based on over a decade of working remotely, here’s why that’s a naive decision and won’t prevent burnout as well as Flex Fridays.
People just won’t take time off
No matter how your company stresses it, most people will not take regular time off on their own. This is especially true of employees who are new to remote working.
There is always a guilt factor associated with taking off time that others are not taking. It is not a solution to tell people to stop feeling guilty. Human nature makes that impossible.
Theoretically cross training is a good way to ensure we’re all able to take some time with limited guilty feelings. In reality, we all have our own realm of ownership and even training others on what we do doesn’t mean they’ll have the time or area expertise to cover us the way we or others would prefer. Our coworkers have their own responsibilities, so even if they can technically do our job, we’re increasing their workload (and still, our own guilt) if we take a day off.
The beauty of Flex Fridays is that everyone’s off the same days. No guilt.
Meetings will wait till Monday
I’m not sure why you’d make sure you get a meeting in right before the company’s closed for a day. If the work associated with that meeting will wait, the meeting about it can wait.
If you’re increasing work on one day to cover for a different day, you’re mismanaging your team, project, etc. Be aware of the calendar and consider it in your planning.
This isn’t a serious conversation when planning around national holidays, so it feels disingenuous to reference it in a Flex Fridays discussion.
Make Flex Fridays actually flexible
If a team has a pressing deployment, let them move their Flex Friday to another day. That’s fine. The key is the people on that team know that they can take a guilt-free day to reset.
Flex Fridays aren’t enough
Once in a while, even with regular days that the company is closed for everyone, we still need to take extended time (vacation!) to step away, spend time with those we love, and explore our world and ourselves. That’s where whatever cross training we’ve done will kick in. And sure, we’ll have some guilt scheduling that 2 weeks for a trip.
Don’t be an asshole about it. Ensure your current projects are covered, the people you work with are aware of your status, and try to schedule around significant team pushes. But take that time at least once a year.
Bonus: winter break
My last two companies have closed the office for a time around Christmas and New Year’s. Two weeks is a good timeframe for this. It’s a vacation that everyone takes (so guilt-free), during a time when families are already together.
Don’t make your employees choose family or coworkers during the holidays. Heck, half your employees will just take PTO during that time anyway and productivity tanks. Just close the office, give everyone the time. Then benefit from happy, talented employees who stick around.
I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought my company had a questionable motive like cost-cutting or productivity boosting. On the contrary, they clearly care about employee mental health and about making the company a desirable place to work.
As I told the recruiter who hired me, Flex Fridays was a primary reason I joined the company. It showed that the company understood humans and how we need that time to work at our best. Sadly, the point of the benefit was lost somewhere. Hopefully this article helps others who are considering a policy change or whether to take a job.