Why I gave my entire agency one month off – no strings attached

Michael Watts, CEO, Hook
Michael Watts, CEO, Hook

Burnout is real, but it’s also avoidable.

Do you want to know why I gave my entire 100-person agency a month off for a mental reset? Because they needed it. I needed it. We needed it. It’s been a hell of a year and then some.

We called it a Ctrl-Alt-Retreat. We closed down from mid-December to mid-January and gave everyone the one thing we can never get back — time. Four weeks of uninterrupted time. Time to do anything they wanted. Time to travel, time to binge that series they’d been holding off on. Time to read. Time to rest. Time for themselves and their loved ones.

To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what to expect going into that month. Would it inspire epiphanies? Would it result in a well-rested team? Would nothing change? 

In reality, the break meant something different to each of my colleagues. For some, it created creative breathing room; for others, just some time to simply breathe.

We work hard year-round for our clients, forever focused on creating things which ladder up to their needs, solve complex problems and create impact. Projects come and go, but for the most part, there’s always that next campaign. 

When we take time away, the work remains and our innate drive sometimes means that even when we’re “off,” we feel drawn to our inboxes and our projects. Left unmanaged, all of that creates a ripe environment for burnout. But when we all take time away at the same time, it becomes far more impactful.

Let’s face facts: The national average of ten days annual paid leave is the lowest of any developed country. It’s also bad for creativity, bad for families and bad for business. To give staff an extra block of 20 days paid is unheard of, and dare I say, bold. It’s also something I feel fortunate to have been able to do because of our amazing team and clients. None of us had embarked on something quite like this before.

Our clients were immensely supportive. In fact, most told us they wished that their own companies would do something similar. It certainly helped that we were transparent about our intentions and communicated early on what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. We also detailed the steps we were taking to ensure that they wouldn’t feel our absence. 

We planned and worked ahead, frontloading our schedules as much as possible and working with our clients to ensure they were comfortable and had everything they needed.

By assembling a “go-to team” including myself, a few other c-suite colleagues and some freelancers familiar to our client work, we were able to guarantee our support in case of an emergency. 

But you know what? No emergencies arose. Yes, a couple of copy edit change requests or adjustments here and there, but work-wise things were calm—just as I had hoped they would be. We truly did disconnect. 

Four weeks later, we were back at it. Each of us felt something different in our own way and time, but we all realized how important it is for work to revolve around life, and not vice versa.

As far as what the time away meant for me personally, that’s a bit more complicated. Before Hook, I spent my days as a carpenter. I used the time off to rekindle my passion for the craft, working with my hands and restoring a historic building that will soon be our new flex office. It was incredibly fun and fulfilling...except for a small mishap and a broken thumb. 

Michael Watts is the CEO of Hook.

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