Friends, lets slow down and take breaks
I am writing this post for my Indian friends in particular, but this is applicable for anyone, you just might relate to it less. I rage tweeted earlier in the week when I found out one of my closest friends was badly burnt out. This was because of largely systemic and cultural issues and it generated a lot of interesting discussions. I am going to share some of the discussions and why we should encourage more people to take breaks and holidays. And why companies should have a minimum vacation days policy.
Overworker to chronic vacationer
So I've had the opportunity to work at 3 different companies so far, twice as intern and now as an early employee at a fast growing company. And all three experiences were delightful and different. The first was right after my sophomore year at a startup called Boomerang Commerce in Bangalore. I moved to Bangalore for the summer and started working from the office. My first day, at my first ever company, I ended up at the office at 8:30 AM in a button up shirt. To my surprise, there was nobody in the office, except the guard at the front.
People slowly started shuffling in at 10AM, typical for an Indian software engineering company. And they kept coming till like 3PM, and as it happened my team and the people I hung out with were the ones who shuffled in after 1PM and stayed till late, like 12 - 2 AM. Yes, we spent horrendous amounts of time in the office but we had a lot of fun. We played atleast 2hrs of ping-pong everyday. I went from never having held a ping-pong bat to being pretty good at it in 3 months. I learnt a massive fuck-ton, and even started out with Prometheus there. I absolutely loved it, and hell, I even wrote a blog about how great it was! In retrospect, I love the people there, and would work with them again in split second, but I would never go back to a culture like that. Let's see why (and no this has nothing to do with all the hairfall I had during the internship).
The year after, I started contributing to Prometheus and got an internship at CoreOS, with their Berlin team. I was working remote from home, but I had sane-ish work timings, and this was because most German's log off by 5-6PM and that roughly translated to 9PM. So after 9PM the slack chatter died down and everything went eerily quiet and that made me not want to work. Sometimes I did hang out until late chatting with Fabian, my mentor and the Prometheus community, but it was the rare exception to my schedule. This was all unsettling to me, someone who liked working insanely long hours, especially late into the night. And then came the weekend, and as was customary, I was working. Not on my project directly, but exploring something interesting and tangential. And I posted about it on Slack on Monday (Berlin slack is a ghost town on weekends) and Frederic replied telling me not to work on weekends and that "burnout" is a real problem. And it felt like a stern warning, it didn't offend me but rather made me take it extra seriously. Also, I had to Google what burnout was (In my defense, I was very naive).
Coming from my previous experiences, I remember thinking, "ugh Europeans, I wonder if they ever get work done". Heh, in hindsight, we got a lot more work done and I am now in Berlin, on Frederic's side championing taking breaks and not working on weekends. Ironically, this blog post is being written from a cafe on a Saturday, but oh well. Coming back to the point, that experience was certainly unique, I even spent 3 weeks with the team in Berlin and atleast one person in the office was on vacation when I was there (European summer), office was empty by 6PM and people were heads down working most of the time in the office. Yes there was small chat, but it was very little compared to my Indian office experience. It was a little unsettling tbh, but I realised how we got work done: By actually working for the 6+hrs we're supposed to be working!
And then comes my Grafana Labs experience. I joined as one of the early employees right out of college and worked closely with my manager at the time, and VP Product Tom Wilkie. We launched the hosted Prometheus offering and were working heads down shipping and talking to customers and iterating. I'd like to think we worked hard during the time, but Tom set the culture for me. He'd just casually be like "Oh I worked too much this week, I'm taking Friday off. You should do the same". And this wasn't just once, it was once a month or so. And I'm thinking like, wut. Our customers aren't happy yet, and this man is just taking a random day off, just like that? It was my first company and I was learning a ton, I didn't feel like taking any time off. Also, I was working from home, so I was infront of my computer all the time. Either I was working, or I was watching Netflix. And even while watching Netflix, I was waiting for notifications and would instantly reply to messages and questions. People started wondering which timezone I was working.
And then Tom pulled his biggest trick. He asked me about my hobbies. I'm like, ummm working and Netflix? And he told me to get a hobby that didn't involve a screen and he was serious. He told he'd stop reviewing my PRs and stop giving me work until I did. So I went and bought a cycle. And it literally changed my world. I can write an entire blogpost on how cycling had a huge impact on all parts of my life, including my work. I started biking 30KM everyday, and 100KM+ on weekends and even did a bikepacking tour from Berlin to Stockholm last summer. But anyways, I didn't take many holidays that year (started working full time in June 2018), so I remember him forcing me to take 2 weeks off in December that year. And I had no clue what to do, so I cycled a lot and watched Netflix the rest of the time. It was glorious!
The real change in my attitude towards holidays came when I took a long 3 week break from work in the summer of 2019. I was juggling too many things, working a lot and I was tired. Only I didn't realise I was tired, I thought it was the normal way to feel. By now I was biking a lot at home, and wanted to do a bike trip in Europe so I was saving up for a big holiday which ended up being 3 weeks, with me biking from Berlin to Stockholm and then from Prague to Dresden on my bike. I even biked the segment from Copenhagen to Stockholm alone. 3 glorious, glorious weeks of no work, no internet and no computer. Maybe a little internet in the middle but largely devoid of actual work.
When I finally got back, I had a magnitude more energy, enthusiasm and ideas. I was energised and I realised how tired I was before the trip. And I realised that I felt the same way after my college trip where we were trekking in the Himalayas for two weeks! After the bikpacking tour, I was deliberate about taking breaks more regularly and was always encouraging people to take more breaks! And quoting my friends:
"honestly everytime I talk to Goutham, he's either on vacation or going on vacation"
This is a cultural problem
I think this is a largely cultural problem. I am going to make generalised statements here, and I think they apply to the majority but I'd love to be proven wrong.
We don't see enough people take holidays around us and we hoard them as if we'll use them and they expire. I think it starts at home. I haven't seen my dad take time-off, we have gone on maybe 2 or 3 family vacations that lasted more than a week in my life. The first international family trip we had was last year when we all went to Malaysia. I'm not sure if my dad even took a 2week+ break in his entire career. He runs a business and was very stressed a lot of the time and he just powered through all of it. I've got a lot of respect for him but he set the wrong example.
And then we enter college, and one of the quirky things is that most of the longer assignments have deadlines of Monday or Sunday night. Yes, they gave us ample time to finish them without involving weekends, but the implicit assumption to work on the weekends was clear. And oh boy did we work through the weekends. And then we get a job and we don't see our peers taking holidays and everyone is just powering through all the time.
In an environment like that, most people don't even realise that they can take week+ off, much less have the courage to ask for one. And when you build your career in an environment like that, it becomes the normal you propagate as your grow as a leader. I have heard of several managers who work through the weekend and expect their reports to do so. I'm going to highlight some conversations I came across that highlight this issue:
When juniors see this, they will emulate this, and later take this culture with them to wherever they go. They won't even realise that it's a problem because they don't know any different. One interesting conversation I had was with a friend from a US based company which setup an office in India. The seeded culture was great, greatly influenced by the international roots, but as more and more Indian managers joined, things started changing. Now the Indian employees are seeing their US and other counterparts take 10 days off every 4 months while they struggle to get a week off, and it's very unsettling to say the least.
For a lot of people, they don't know what they'd do with a week of no work. Before Grafana Labs, my identity was very closely tied to my work and I was in the same boat. Funnily enough, I thought it was a strength to not have a life beyond work!
I have taken long breaks, and folks, the reason I bang on about 2 weeks of holidays is because it takes a week to disconnect from work. We think about work all the time everyday, that it takes our brain a week to stop thinking about it. And then you can enjoy another week of blissful vacations.
Lets fix it!
Okay that last section got a little depressing. But seriously, lets fix it! There are many advantages to taking breaks, disconnecting and just not working! You come back with fresh ideas, energy and your morale will be much higher! But the change has to come from leadership.
Seriously managers and leaders, do a simple Google search on the benefits of taking vacations. I know with all the cultural baggage, more vacations seem counter-intuitive but seriously, just do some research and better yet, disconnect from work for 10days, and you'll be a convert. And when I say disconnect, actually take a break, no sneaky checking of email. The science for more vacations is solid! Even more radical, see Cockroach Labs' "4 day work-week" experiment and the results of that.
And speak to your peers in India and abroad! There are some interesting companies in India that are getting holidays right, for example: InfraCloud and GoJek. Please do encourage your reports to go on more holidays, and see their productivity, happiness and your retention go up! It helps you hire better talent, seriously in the holiday starved Indian market, a good holiday policy is a huge differentiator. When Grafana Labs' 30 days no-questions-asked holiday policy is presented to candidates in the US, their jaws drop. Funnily, its the standard in Europe, fuck yeah to socialism!
Lead by example! You could have an amazing vacation policy but if you don't take holidays and don't talk about it proudly, you won't see your reports use their holidays. We do a good job of it at Grafana Labs (Dee is my and Marco's manager):
Track and ensure people take their vacation! minimum vacation policy While you and most of the team might be taking vacation, there might still be people who are not taking enough or any. Make sure you track all of those and make it part of their OKRs. Ensure people take atleast 20 days off every year. I for one know that my manager is on the hook if I don't use up my holidays.
Make it generous, and remove carry over! At Grafana Labs everyone gets 30 days off, and we still are performing really well and shipping software at ⚡ speed! And we don't do accruals and people lose any holidays they don't take! Okay, they can carry over 5 holidays to the next year, but they expire March 31st of the next year. This means people don't have any excuse to not take holidays and our policy is quite generous in the first place that there are no complaints either.
Unlimited PTO is a scam. When I joined Grafana Labs, we had "unlimited PTO" as a perk. And we noticed that the number of holidays taken varied wildly within the company and people never knew if they'd be "asking for too much". I don't have the numbers, but I am pretty sure the amount of vacation taken has shot up. I am convinced unlimited PTO without a generous minimum vacation days just exists to exploit employees. If your company has this policy, please speak to the leadership and run the numbers. If you see everyone taking 20 days off and everyone is taking ~equal number of vacations, then I'd love to talk to you. You're the exception and I'd love to see how you're doing it. But if you notice the opposite, it's time to change the policy.
Get and encourage hobbies. Seriously, get a life. And then encourage others to do the same. You'll notice your work throughput and quality increase and you'll meet some wonderful people that you otherwise wouldn't have. And finally if you're encouraging people to take time off or get hobbies beyond work, you show that you care about your employees and not just your bottomline. Hang out with people who're not in tech, this is hard specially in cities packed with techies, but try. You'll see your perspectives and world open up, by a ton!
Bring on the revolution
And finally, talk to your friends, your manager and your team. Encourage them to take time-off. Show them the science, show them the examples and show them it's possible! This is not going to change anytime soon. But we need to keep on chipping at it.
Go read this thread, and write more like those!
You know, writing this blogpost and speaking to all these people, I realised how privileged I am. I have amazing leadership and at a company with really good culture. And here I am telling and encouraging people to take time off, against the wishes of their managers and companies. Whenever I have this conversation, I wonder if I am setting people up for failure in their company: What if people are passed over promotion because they are the only one who took time off in the team, what if management penalises my friends to discourage others from taking long breaks, etc.?
But I saw a close friend of mine burn out. He then went and asked his manager for a week off because he was feeling quite stressed. The manager instead of approving it right away, had to go his manager and approved it only after a ton of back and forth. None of this process encourages more people to ask for holidays, even if stressed. Seriously, fuck this system. Let's burn this system down! Companies are serious about hiring the best talent, I know because I see it at Grafana Labs. And when the candidates they're trying to recruit are passing on them because of the culture and policies, they'll notice and automatically change. And always remember, sane companies based outside Indian are hiring remote, Grafana Labs being one of them.
And finally friends, I've asked this on Twitter, and only got back a few Indian companies that have good vacation policy. I'd love to find out more, and maybe even create a list of companies that have generous vacation policy and execution (making sure people are actually taking time off). I'd love to talk to founders and leaders on what they think about a minimum vacation requirement for every employee. Reach out to me on Twitter @putadent.