Workation Day - adapting Google's "20% free-time"

Which came first, the man or the mouse?At the end of last year, our team started trying something that we call an "Aarlaubstag". "Aarlaubstag" is a compound of the German words "Arbeit" (work), "Urlaub" (vacation) and "Tag" (day). (And, in fact, "Aar", which is a poetic word for "eagle". No deeper meaning here...) It has worked well, and we are now having one every month. But what is it? Read on...

The Context

As I wrote earlier, we had quite some laborious months at the end of last year. We were somewhat concerned about burnout and accumulating technical debt, so we discussed with our management about some compensation for the stressful work.
There were a number of proposals, such as a refactoring week, for example. Finally, we decided to have an Aarlaubstag - basically a full day of "do whatever you want".

How it works

At the Aarlaubstag, the whole developer team meets at 9 AM for a breakfast. Here we discuss what we want to do for the day, and whether we want to pair with someone.
After the breakfast, everyone goes to "work". There is literally no constraint at all on what you do (at least we haven't hit one yet).
At 12:30, we have lunch break for an hour. Typically, we eat lunch together and talk about what we experienced so far. (Sometimes, there even is some time left for my power nap.)
At 4:30 PM we meet again for a short closing. We tell each other how it went, and whoever wants to, demonstrates what they accomplished. Then we call it a day...


The most interesting observation from the first Aarlaubstag was that, according to our tracking, we weren't noticeably less productive in that week than the weeks before. Reasons probably include improved motivation for the rest of the week, and the desire to have less of other meetings. We also expect some positive long term effects, for example from improvements to our working environment that get done during the Aarlaubstag.
There is a wide range of different things that get done at this free working time:
  • experimentation with new techniques, such as AspectJ, Eclipse RCP or GWT,
  • improvements to our build system and our testing infrastructure
  • a tool to automate the distribution of our software to our customers (which beforehand needed a number of manual steps being executed on the command line)
  • usability improvements to our main product
  • etc. pp.

The future

The list of ideas for the Aarlaubstag is unlikely to run out any time soon. It's encouraging to see what ideas are emerging when there is time to implement them.
Currently, we use the stand up meeting at the first Tuesday of a month to decide when to have our next Aarlaubstag. Typically we choose one of the Wednesdays of the month. We also keep the option open to decide to skip one month, but didn't make use of it yet. In fact, I don't see why we ever would.


The way we implemented the Aarlaubstag, there are some considerable differences to Google's "20% free time" (at least from what I know about the latter). First, it's obviously only 5%, not 20% (which made it somewhat easier to convince management to try it). On the other hand, it is truly free - you don't need to get managements permission for the project you want to pursuit in that time (which I understand you need to do at Google). And it's a team effort - although we don't all work on the same thing during the day, we share our experience with each other, inspire each other - and share the fun (and sometimes some frustration)!
This practice has been immensely helpful for us - much more than I would have imagined beforehand. If it sounds interesting to you, I'd like to encourage you to try something similar, something that is adapted to your team's culture. It's simple, it's fun, and it's inexpensive to try. You might be surprised what you get out of it!

1 comment:

  1. Update: after almost two years, we are still practicing the Aarlaubstag. The only notable change we made is in scheduling - we simply declare every first Wednesday of a month to be our Aarlaubstag. Having to reschedule it again and again every month simply didn't provide any value.


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