Why Aren’t There More Schelling Holidays?

A common pattern when working in teams: when one person is out on vacation, there’s a disproportionate drop in productivity for the team as a whole. Lots of things end up blocked on the person who’s out. For instance, in a small software team, maybe the developer who owns a particular API is out, and nobody else knows that API well enough to confidently make changes, so anything involving changes in that API ends up blocked until the owner is back. Or, even if someone else steps in to handle changes to the API, they’re much more likely to introduce bugs.

To some extent, we can structure teams to mitigate that kind of problem. “Everyone does everything” is very costly, but underrated. Weaker versions like “At least three people can cover any given thing” are also costly, but underutilized.

But there’s a much less costly strategy which gains a decent chunk of the same benefits: coordinate vacation. If everyone goes on vacation 3 weeks per year on the same 3 weeks, then that’s only 3 weeks of nonproductivity for the team; the other 49 weeks are full steam. If everyone on a 10-person team goes on vacation 3 weeks per year at different times, then that’s 30 weeks per year of disproportionate productivity-loss; the team is at full steam less than half the time.

Thus the case for national holidays: it’s not like everyone is required to get the day off (at least in the US), but it’s a Schelling point for lots of people to take a vacation at the same time. People get their much-needed recovery time simultaneously, so teams can spend more time working at full capacity.

But in practice, most people take a lot more vacation days than there are national holidays—which suggests that the current number of holidays is too small.

It seems like companies (or nonprofit orgs) could profit by filling that gap at the company level: declare official “company holiday” weeks, and offer incentives for employees to take their vacations during those weeks. Unlike national holidays, the company holidays won’t necessarily line up neatly with good vacation times for spouses/​children/​parents/​friends. But on the upside, since a company holiday need not be at the same time as the rest of the country, traveling should be easier.

Expanding from there, one could imagine a few companies/​orgs which need to interface with each other a lot coordinating their Schelling holidays. For instance, when I worked at a trading company, the usual rule was “if the markets aren’t open today, we’re not working today”.