In our iPhone-typing, VPN-accessing, laptop-toting work world, a “snow day” just isn’t what it used to be.
Employers may tell us to stay off the roads. They may urge us to use our judgment about whether to trek to the office. But the expectation, of course, is that if we’re home on a snow day, we’re working, just as efficiently as we’d be on any of the other increasingly common days people spend working away from the office.
Of course, this is not actually how it works. When extreme weather hits, road warriors get trapped in airports, foiled by cancelled flights. Schools get cancelled, and parents have cabin-fever kids needing lunch made and snow men built and iPads charged and fights broken up. And all too often, those lucky enough to be sitting at a quiet desk in a home office actually spend the day worrying whether their boss really thinks they should have come in — or trying to locate all the other people coping with kids at home or travel chaos or snarled commutes.
So here’s an interesting — if improbable — proposal. What if, every once in a while, employers offered up a real snow day? A bona fide, morning surprise, get-out-of-jail-free-card snow day. Put away your laptops and go out and make that snow angel. Cancel the conference call and drink hot chocolate with your kids. Turn your phone off for a while and read a book by a roaring fire.
I know, I know, it’s about as likely as getting out of this weekend’s storm without it earning this year’s version of a #snowmaggedon hashtag. Even kids apparently aren’t getting real snow days anymore — sent home with packets of work to do when snow disrupts school.
“You’d see a loss of revenue, an increase in expenses and that all works to hit the bottom line,” says Bruce Elliott, the head of compensation and benefits for the Society for Human Resource Management. “O rganizations are going to be very, very reluctant to say ’snow day’ without any guidance from what other organizations or larger employers are doing.”
But I’m going to venture that it’s not entirely crazy — at least for employees who don’t have jobs that are mission-critical. Sure, it may hit the bottom line a bit, but it’s also likely to bring about a longer-term upside: loyalty to the company and good P.R. for the business. Imagine all the goodwill and free word-of-mouth a company would get for trying to revive the joy of our school-age selves, sending around a morning email with the subject line “SNOW DAY!”
Businesses, after all, are doling out all kinds of cushy perks these days, from unlimited vacation policies to extended family leaves. As benefits increasingly replace raises — which have grown more meager while companies use more perks to attract workers — why not offer a random, surprise snow day once or twice a year?
It could also help cut down on risk. After all, some employees do get real snow days: Some work can be done remotely, and some work cannot. Employers are increasingly cautious about severe weather days for people who work outside or have to commute to a location to do on-site work, said Mark Lies, a partner in the labor and employment practice of Seyfarth Shaw. They are driven by fear of safety hazards, road conditions and cold temperatures that could lead to lawsuits, higher health care costs and bad publicity.
In the past couple of years, he said, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has started focusing on making sure employers have programs for protecting workers against excessively hot or cold temperatures.
“An employer has an obligation to protect employees not only from extreme heat but extreme cold,” Lies said. “When there’s health hazards or safety hazards, employers are becoming much more attuned to that.”
Employers don’t have the obligation, however, to pay some of these workers if there’s a shut down for inclement weather. Salaried, professional workers generally are paid when a workplace closes for bad weather — though they may be docked a vacation or personal day. But hourly paid workers, or those who qualify for overtime, aren’t required to be paid if they’re told to stay home due to snow, even though many typically do.
So maybe working from home on a snowy day — even if kids are underfoot or half your colleagues can’t jump on the Skype call because their airport wifi isn’t working — isn’t so bad. Maybe the least we can ask for is an enlightened approach from employers when handling extreme weather.
At Alexandria, Va.-based The Motley Fool, that means telling workers early this week that they were strongly urged to work from home and setting aside time to make sure everyone’s remote access was working well. Since it offers an unlimited vacation policy, says Shannon McLendon, the company’s operations and events lead, there’s always flexibility for workers to take the day off if they need to. “If you can’t focus at home, we’re okay with that,” she said.
At other companies, a reasonable approach means not docking people a vacation or personal day if the workplace is shut down for inclement weather — even if it’s legally acceptable. It means giving out clear instructions for whether to come in, rather than taking the passive-aggressive approach and leaving it up to the employee to decide. Some will inevitably think they need to when they shouldn’t.
Most of all, it means being practical, patient and considerate about workers’ safety and needs. “Are you really going to make someone slog out in the middle of a snowstorm to balance a P&L for that day or that week?” Elliott says. Maybe in today’s work-anywhere world, hoping for a bona fide snow day is far-fetched. But we can at least hope for common sense.
Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.