A few weeks ago during my negotiations for potentially closing a deal with one airline company I ran across a company called SimplyFlying. The passion for planes of Shashank Nigam, who started blogging about the industry a decade ago turned out into one of the largest airline branding consultancy firms working with over 80 airline companies today. Despite they are celebrating 10 years now, the CEO says they still behave as an agile startup. At first what caught my attention on their website was the “About You” section which you don’t get to see very often on company’s pages despite it is the basic principle of sales “Focus on your client, not yourself”. If I was an executive of an airline company after a few clicks on their website I would definitely give them a call. But since I am not, something else was worthy of my attention—the so-called “forced leave policy”.
In April 2016 Shashank Nigam decided to try a bold experiment in work culture. If you were an employee at SimpliFlying it meant that every seventh week you have to take one week vacation and completely disconnect from work. No Slack, no emails, no phone calls. If employees don’t respect the rules, they don’t get paid for that week. This simple experiment brought a 13% increase in productivity, happiness level went up 25% and creativity 33%. After two and a half years with some tweaks and adjustments such as changing the frequency to eight instead of seven weeks, this became one of the official company policies.
Here are a few points on the policy and Nigam’s perspective on culture and employee engagement from which everyone can learn something:
Putting “The Happiness Equation” in practice
Everybody watches inspirational videos and gets to hear interesting ideas but not everyone is doing something about that right away. If we get a great idea and we don’t give it a try it is likely that it will fade away quickly. Nigam got an idea during listening to Neil Pasricha discuss his latest book, The Happiness Equation, where he mentions the need to find “space” and he put it to practice right away. It’s the state when we do absolutely nothing–no thinking, no working.
“Highly productive people go between periods of “space” and high-doing to ensure they don’t get burnt out. For the smart, agile team at SimpliFlying, I wanted to ensure that my top performers don’t face burn out too. I liked Neil’s idea of space but we weren’t able to replicate it in the initial week offs – so we decided to suggest that people travel or do something very relaxing that puts them in the mode. Nothing beats the productivity of rejuvenated employees! ”, Nigam explains
The CEO has to lead by example even if it means to “switch off work” for a week
Nigam also takes 1 week off every 8 weeks. His team forced him to switch to a “dumb” phone for a week during his last vacation so that he can completely practice what he preaches. He says if the expectations of his clients are well set and managed ahead of time his absence is not an issue. “I believe there’s a misguided feeling that executives need to work 24/7. But I believe those who do are setting the wrong example. In fact, glorifying working on weekends or late nights on a regular basis sets a very wrong example for employees. It is not sustainable. CEOs need to be efficient, not just hard working. ”
Despite the mandatory vacation policy, the team gathers a few times a year for team building activities like cooking, playing games and working together. As the team is not located in one place, Nigam says that spending time together can help build long-lasting bonds. During these retreats, they share frank feedback on post-it notes, both positive and negative about their teammates.
Internship programs are a very successful strategy for hiring talent
The most successful hiring practice for SimpliFlying so far has proved to be their internship program. Three potential full-time candidates intern with them for 6 weeks, shadowing different members of the SimpliFlying team for two weeks each. In the end, they hire one person full time. In fact, this is how he hired some of their most successful team members started as interns. Shashank believes that a company’s name and reputation attracts the best while the culture retains them.
Outsourcing can add value by having the wind at the back of the core team
The core team of the company is small but they also do outsource talent. “We work with a number of partners who help us deliver the best work possible for our clients. In fact, we’re strong advocates for outsourcing. We have worked with infographic designers in Spain, proofreaders in the US, magazine layout designers in Poland and video editors in India. These people give us the “wings” to SOAR higher. We’re only as good as the extended team that supports us. ”, Shashank explains