jade rubick

Use holiday focus days to increase company focus and honor your team's diversity


One of the challenges of dealing with a diverse workplace is that all of your employees have different vacation needs:

  • A Jewish employee may want Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur off.
  • A Muslim employee might want to take Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha off.
  • American employees might want to honor Juneteenth
  • And you may have different holidays between countries you’re operating in — a company with employees in Britain and the US has different holidays off.

Part of the problem with accommodating all of these diverse needs is it’s expensive to add new holidays. CEOs and executives are beholden to the needs of the business, so they may hesitate to offer additional holidays.

One way out of this conundrum is to align the needs of your employees with the needs of the business. When I was at Gremlin, we came up with a nice solution to holidays that more companies should adopt:

Make an annual list of “holiday focus days” to make it easy for people to take time off during their important holidays.

Holiday Focus Days

With Holiday Focus Days, you have a set of days each year that are specially laid aside, not as time off, but as Holiday Focus Days.

Many companies have adopted “unlimited time off” as a way to give their employees flexibility with their vacation schedules (and to incur financial benefits). By forbidding collaboration and meetings during Holiday Focus Days, you make it easier to actually take off the days they care about.

For people that work during Focus Days, they aren’t able to be in meetings, so they can use the time for focused work. That’s beneficial to the company because it not only offers some time for deep work, but it also provides a contrast to the daily way of operating, helping team members notice differences in the way they work and driving innovation in your work practices.

For people that want to take a Focus Day off, this gives them an easy way to do so. It makes it less of a burden for people from backgrounds that might want to take these holidays to do so (always be on the lookout for situations that increase the burden for the non-”dominant” culture at work). I can’t emphasize enough how meaningful this can be for people from other backgrounds — their entire work experience has been workplaces ignoring their needs. When you make it easy for them to take their important holidays, that is very significant!

How to implement Holiday Focus Days

Here’s how to implement this:

  • Decide what the parameters of the Holiday Focus Days are. You can make them pure focus days, where people are encouraged to focus on deep work and minimize collaboration between each other except by asynchronous means. Or you can just make it a typical “no-meeting day”.
  • Make a list of holidays you’d like to take off. You can be pretty liberal about it, since the days you’re adding are likely to be beneficial to the company. So make it a good list, and make sure there are at least a couple of days per month.
  • Decide if you want the “dominant” holidays to remain on the calendar or not. Some people may not want to take Christmas off, so you could decide to make this a more expansive holiday program that is culturally neutral.
  • Consider adding days like the anniversary of Stonewall or Trans visibility day.
  • Ask your employees what days they care about to add to the list.
  • Make sure you’re combining this with some way of encouraging or reinforcing people taking time off. Otherwise, people will see this as a cynical thing without any real teeth.
  • Also be sure to communicate that you’re doing this to make it easy to take those days off. This helps people from the backgrounds that would want to take those days know that it’s being done to honor their backgrounds.
  • You can also use the occasion to help educate people on the various holidays as they come up. Posting a link to an article a few weeks ahead of time is another way to honor the diversity of your team, and help people understand the significance of days like Juneteenth or Trans visibility day.

Some additional considerations

  • You might not have control over the whole company, but you can also implement this within your team or organization.
  • One thing to be sensitive to is that this can create tiers of cultural support if you’re not careful. Being on the list of approved holidays becomes a sign of whether the company is supportive of a group or not. The most ideal situation I can imagine is doing this within a larger strategy of moving a company to being fully asynchronous. Then, the bar for adding new holidays would be very low. Otherwise, you might want to just be really clear on what your approach is for adding new holidays. If you have one employee, is that enough? Define these things ahead of time, and communicate them so people know what the criteria are.

Let me know your experiences

This hasn’t been very widely adopted, so if you adopt it at your company, you’re going to be doing something new and innovative. Share your experiences with me, so we can learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t. And if you have critique or feedback, would love to hear it.

Thank you to Bailey Douglass for her warning about the dangers of creating tiers of cultural support. And thank you to Jim Lindley for pointing out this can be done locally, not just at a company level.

Image by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay

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