Keeping track of vacation days ensures workers get enough time off at this company

It’s smart HR management to give your employees paid time off. It’s pretty great to make it flexible time off so people can use their vacation days when they want.

But it’s another level to give them financial incentives to use that vacation time. Take Navigate Research, a Chicago-based sports and entertainment advisory firm that specializes in research, measurement and analysis. At five and 10 years of service, employees receive a sabbatical and $5,000 or $10,000 toward a vacation, respectively.

You can save the money, sure. But founder and CEO AJ Maestas would rather see the 22 full-time employees of his company use that money to live out their dreams, said Julie Angell, senior director of communications.

Truly, the United States lags in employees taking their all-important vacation time, according to the Project: Time Off Coalition. From 2000 to 2014, U.S. workers went from taking 20.3 days per year to 16. It’s slowly going up, reaching 16.8 days in 2016, according to a Project report.

So how does this all work in helping boost the work-life balance at Navigate? Angell offered these answers.

Q: How do you handle getting your hard-working employees out of the office to take vacation days?
A: We overall don’t have set vacation days; it’s flexible. You take what you need. We’ve learned over the years that can lead to people not taking vacation. So we started keeping track – we keep tabs on who isn’t taking vacation. We encourage those people to take vacations or time off. To promote that, we often time after five years force people to take a sabbatical and $5,000 toward a trip. That’s their five-year anniversary gift. It ranges between two and four weeks for that sabbatical. You can save the money, but you must take the time off. At 10 years, it’s $10,000. You can save that money, but you have to take the time off. We announce it companywide and let people talk about what they’re going to do.

Q: That’s a generous offer! How do you do it and enforce its use?
A: We strictly enforce it – and that encourages people to do the same. You can stay home or you can get out and do something. It makes all the difference – if you don’t give that incentive (of money) then sometimes people may not have the funds to do the kinds of vacations or sabbaticals we’d like them to do. We budget for these expenses, so we know they’re coming.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: Our founder (AJ Maestas Founder & CEO). He takes a lot of vacation. So he sets a really great example. He’ll do a rundown during our staff meetings about where he’s been and asks others to share what they’re doing or have done. It makes it contagious – people see others taking vacations and not getting scolded. It encourages people to get out there – we don’t want to have this flexible policy and not encourage it.

Q: How do you manage it and other events, such as company retreats?
A: For our company retreats, we usually take them twice a year, usually with our whole team. It’s time to team build but also for people to get away from typical workloads. You cannot take meetings! Two years ago, we went to Croatia and rented a boat. Everyone could bring their spouse or significant other. It’s practicing what we preach as a leadership team. We also encouraged people to stay a couple of days extra. We have 22 full-time people at the company, so we can coordinate. We stagger it so certain people go on the front half to go explore or on the back half. I’ve been at the company for eight years, and I’m already thinking about my 10-year anniversary. When I hit five years, I spent three weeks in Argentina. My friends joined me, my husband joined me, (and my) extended family joined me. It helps with retention as well and shows our appreciation and commitment to the company.

Q: What else do you do to support work-life balance?
A: Our founder also is big on meditation. We’ve done training sessions with professionals that conducted meditation courses; these are optional. We also give them access to the Headspace app to meditate on their own. Another option is called Transformational body work. We have a professional massage therapist who is also a career coach. Through massage and through identifying tension areas in your body, he’ll talk to you about anything you want to talk about. It’s up to you to choose your path of what you want to talk about. Or you can have just a massage. All of us have access to him. We even brought him to Croatia with us!