Why you should have ‘well days’ as well as ‘sick days’ – Colin Browne

A groundswell of innovation around employee timekeeping may be the new frontier in the battle to hire talent. But as ideas get bigger and bolder, perhaps it’s time for something more simple …

When Netflix pioneered unlimited leave, the thinking was that it is time consuming and expensive to keep track of the out-of-hours work employees do in a 24/7 environment, so it’s better not to measure it at all. Employees are therefore trusted to get their work done, and accountable only to their project or team mates for taking time off.

Google famously offers its people 20% of their time back, to work on personal projects, with two goals in mind: to prevent burnout by allowing them to refresh for a day per week, and to see what non-scripted projects the company might be able to benefit from.

Proponents of these ideas will praise them to the skies as important ways to attract talent and boost engagement, and they may be right. But crazy talk like this only makes most companies jittery about a loss of control.

The challenge for them is that autonomous use of time is starting to become a key differentiator. Employees largely accept working hours and the need to physically work together, but two of the most cherished desires remain as they always have: more free time and more power to decide how to use it.

Perhaps a more simple idea may allow balance: you already allow employees to call in sick, a certain number of days per year … why not allow them to occasionally call in well?

Since companies generally weather the random disruption of an employee pulling a sick day, you should be just as good at weathering them pulling a well day. In practice, it feels exactly the same.

The idea therefore might be to allow all employees to call in well five times per year, perhaps on merit, having achieved a specific result; perhaps with no more forethought than would be the case if they woke up on a Tuesday feeling sick.

The problem with sick days is that although they are an employee’s right, they are smeared in stigma. There is always the suspicion that the sick-caller is pulling a fast one, partly because we’ve all done it.

If they’re allowed to call in well, perhaps that challenge will go away.

I can already hear the objection that people will take time off when the going is getting tough at work, and there may be some truth to that. But great employees come to work on a deadline whether they have flu or not. That sounds to me like a reason not to try, rather than a smart prediction of an outcome.

Whether well days form part of the normal leave allocation that are allowed to be used tactically, without forewarning, or whether you allocate an extra number of days for employees to use, is a matter of your own preference.

If you’re wrestling with how to make a big idea like unlimited leave work in your organisation, know this: you don’t have to think big to be innovative.

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