The bottom line

What productivity?: If a third of the office is away during a holiday season, effectively the rest of the office might as well be on leave too, considering the amount of work done (or not done, as is the case). - file pic

During the holiday swing, it’s clearly inefficient for everybody to take leave at the same time.

Work and play don’t easily mix – so maybe it’s better to do it properly.

Part of the nature of working as a freelancer is that I can more or less organise my work as I see fit. Some say a job like this means “every day is a holiday”, but sometimes it’s like “no day is a holiday”.

Yet, I cannot deny that my efficiency drops dramatically during peak holiday periods. And Malaysia has quite a number of those. The recent week between Christmas and New Year’s day is one. The other two that come to mind are Chinese New Year and Hari Raya which each have two days off.

These obviously are popular periods for people to take vacations. In fact, international tourism websites advise that if you visit Malaysia in December and January, expect crowds at all destinations.

To me, it’s clearly inefficient for everybody to take leave at the same time. Overbooked hotels, overpriced foods and heavy traffic up and down the highways. Why would anybody choose to travel at that time?

(To those that say, “That’s the only time the kids are on leave”, a friend of mine knew of a family who would take their children out of school for a few weeks to go camping in national parks, on the grounds that whatever skills they would learn on a trip like that would far outweigh whatever was in the national curriculum. I think many parents would agree with that sentiment.)

There have been complaints in the past that Malaysians take a large number of holidays anyway, and that number must be even higher than expected because when more than a third of the office is away, effectively the rest of the office might as well be on leave too, considering the amount of work done (or not done, as is the case).

The whole country effectively becomes less productive during these periods. In Britain, it is estimated that a Bank Holiday (a national holiday usually held on Mondays) costs the nation nearly US$10bil (RM33bil) in lost productivity. And when Britain was given a Friday off to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate, it prompted the Financial Times to ask in an editorial, “While the prime minister is right to call on people to have fun, could he not have asked the royal betrothed to pick a Saturday?”

Given the number of festivals in a year, you now have a situation where a worker is possibly going to be unproductive for up to half a dozen weeks in a year, of which maybe only two of them are accounted for by annual leave. You are paying for people who are waiting through the various holiday seasons before they can start work again.

In fact, when you are project planning, you have to take account of these fallow periods and make sure the critical milestones appear before the holiday periods and not just after.

Of course this makes me wonder why companies don’t try to mitigate the effects of these holiday periods a little better sometimes.

The most obvious solution is to make sure not everybody takes leave at the same time. For example, perhaps you can take leave during one festive period only, and not the others. In the US, some companies have “floating” holidays, where you are entitiled to a few days holiday of your choosing each year (for example, if you wanted to celebrate Hari Raya, which isn’t an official public holiday in most Western countries).

But, it seems incongruent to say we are muhibbah, but each race or religion takes their days off only when it is relevant to them. And everybody would move their open houses to the weekends, increasing the likelihood of clashing dates.

Another strategy is to make everybody to take leave at the same time, but only for one of the holiday periods and no other. I suspect this is effectively true in companies where everybody is of the same race and religion, but I don’t like the idea of sacrificing diversity just for this convenience.

Perhaps incentives work better. You could give people bonuses for coming in to work near the holiday period, but then you would be making an assumption that people are working just because they are coming into the office. Which of course is patently untrue.

Because I work mostly by myself, and I know that come certain periods of the year, it becomes harder to focus. Not only is the problem that people take vacations at this time, it is because there is a festive spirit in the air. Or to paraphrase it, “takda mood, lah”.

Yet, although we all agree it may not be a good idea to mix holiday with work, perhaps the problem may be that it’s unstructured. Perhaps the solution is to mix holiday with work, in a clear and unambiguous way.

For example, many resorts offer conference facilities with an opportunity to extend your stay at a discount and relax and holiday immediately after the last day. So why can’t we consider holiday periods as an opportunity for people to do work in an innovative way?

You organise a retreat somewhere nice, allow people to bring their families, and tell them they can have fun as long as they put in five or six hours of work in between each day.

It would be ideal for creative-type work, such as brainstorming. I even know of a writing course organised in Italy, where the schedule is eat, write, eat, write, enjoy the view, eat and sleep.

And if you make it attractive enough, even those with religious obligations would cut their normal holidays short for a chance to experience this new work.

So one of my resolutions this new year is to understand that it’s not wrong to focus more on fun at some times of the year, as long as some space is kept clear for other obligations. To this end, I plan to insert an extra clause into any new contracts I get: If I have to do work in June or July during the World Cup, it has to be done from a site office in Brazil.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

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The bottom line


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