Decision-Making on Autopilot
“Best practices” are like habits. They allow us to put some decision-making on autopilot so we can focus on solving new problems that don't have obvious or readymade solutions. And that's a good thing.
But habituation is also a form of blindness. It's a failure to notice problems because they become normalized. You can't solve what you can't see. This is the story of how we almost failed to see a problem at Marrow.
The Standard Vacation Policy
By many standards our paid time off policy was fair: 15 days, plus the typical paid holidays. When you consider that the United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that does not mandate paid vacation, it was maybe even generous.
The plan made sense - it was a “best practice.” Our team could use their 15 days however they liked.
Personal day? You do you.
Kids out of school? Be a parent.
Sick? Please, stay home.
There were no restrictions. Use the days to achieve your optimal work-life balance. It was an item checked off the list, until it wasn’t.
The best practice was a shortcut, not a solution. And we failed to notice. Comments led to conversations. We learned that our team was anxious about budgeting their paid time off. Like 43 percent of American workers, we didn’t look forward to taking time away from the office due to the backlog of work generated in our absence. Our policy wasn’t accomplishing what we intended. In fact, it was doing the opposite.
Everyone at Marrow is incredibly fortunate to follow their passion, earn a living, and advance their careers at the same time. We get to solve problems, think creatively, and make beautiful things for people making the world better. But as Stefan Sagmeister points out in his TED Talk “The Power of Time Off”: “Just like with many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to it. And I get, over time, bored by them. And for sure, in our case, our work started to look the same.”
Creativity is a fatigable resource. Add to that the stress of seeking a perfect work-life balance, and no one’s happy. Our team wasn’t able to reach its potential because the problems we were solving were about budgeting time, not creating something new.
We asked ourselves, “How can we create an environment that promotes respect and trust, that emboldens our team to take time off without anxiety, and allows us to do our best work?”
And then it hit us: the nostalgia of watching a clock at the front of a classroom tick off the final seconds before a break. We missed the anticipation and fulfillment of a no-school day. We remembered waiting for (with crossed fingers) the announcement of school closures on a snowy night. These moments that once brought us joy were no longer relevant. And for those of us with school aged children, they brought the stress of organizing childcare.
We Had Our Solution
We adopted the local school calendar, recognized all school closings, and provided fifteen additional days of paid leave to be used in the summer (or however needed). We now empower each other to take the spring break vacation, visit family during the holidays, and relax over the long fall break weekend. It takes a little planning, but the work will be right where we left it when we return: when we're refreshed and ready to commit fully to our jobs, our careers, and our passions.
How you measure success is the defining factor in whether or not you’re successful. We chose to stop measuring time and instead consider the quality of our lives. We stopped focusing on inputs and started measuring outputs.
But more importantly, we committed to the exploration of something new. It may not work in the long run; we accept failure as a potential byproduct of innovation. But if that happens, we’ll iterate and try again, guided by our values.
We give a damn. Because if we don’t, we’ll burn out; we’ll fatigue, and our creativity will die. We owe ourselves and our clients more than that.