istock/istock
istock/istock

For the overworked modern American employee, the policies and perks offered by some of the most generous companies sound like manna from the corporate gods. Onsite climbing walls. Free housekeeping. Chef-catered meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Yet however nice such benefits may be, they can also end up acting as subtle ways to get employees to work more. It saves time and stress to have a company dry cleaner, free gourmet snacks and made-to-order mochas down the hall or access to a health clinic on the corporate campus. Still, there's an implied message: "We'll provide you everything here onsite, so you never really have to leave."

A few companies, however, have policies, perks and even office designs that say the opposite: Get out of here. As the evidence piles up that people need time off to be more productive, some employers — particularly smaller ones — are finding clever ways to actually suggest employees stop working. Here are a few of the boldest workplace moves:

Paying people to take vacations

It's one thing to get vacation days as part of your salary. It's quite another to be paid extra to take them. That's exactly what a few companies — especially those trying to lure hard-working (and hard-to-recruit) tech employees — have been doing.

The software company Evernote offers employees an extra $1000 stipend if they take a full week away from work. The company, which also has an unlimited vacation policy, added the stipend as a way of signaling to employees that it really wants people to take that time off.

Meanwhile, the startup FullContact began offering what it calls "paid, paid vacation." It gives employees $7,500 a year if they take time off from work. No surprise, use of vacation time reportedly went up after it introduced that policy. As CEO Brad Lorang wrote in a blog post, there's often a hero syndrome in startups where employees think they're the last line of defense. "That's not heroic. That's a single point of failure. It's not good for the employee or the company," he writes. "If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company."

Making the desks disappear

Someone who wants to work late at the Amsterdam offices of Dutch design firm Heldergroen will have to do so without a desk. At 6 p.m. every day, the company's desks are lifted via steel cables to the ceiling and the floor is cleared of other furniture. In the evening, the space is rented for free to the community to be used as a dance floor, reception space or yoga studio. The transition is made using a cable system for theatrical productions that's operated by the turn of a key.

The firm's retractable office made the rounds online recently after the publication TrendHunter featured the innovative office space, and it's easy to see why the idea of a forced quit time went viral. Heldergroen creative director Sander Veenendaal told Fast Company it's helping the firm build its brand, establish its culture and improve workers' lives. "We think that doing activities like this makes it easier for people to work here," he told the publication. "You know when it is time to relax or do something else that inspires you."

Enforcing rest time

During past recessions, some companies shut their doors over the holidays or for part of the summer to help save on cash, forcing employees to use vacation days or take unpaid time off. But enforced breaks can also be designed another way: as a perk, rather than a stopgap.

For instance, TED, the conference and media company, shuts down for a two-week break in the summer and a one-week break during the holidays, then gives employees a fourth paid week of vacation to use as they wish. The coordinated vacation time makes the company more efficient, and also better rested. "Most of us would feel too guilty to even take two weeks off, if it weren't pre-planned for us," TED Media executive producer June Cohen told Fast Company. "This creates an enforced rest period, which is so important for both productivity and happiness."

Crowd-sourced consumer products maker Quirky, meanwhile, started shutting things down four weeks a year in early 2013. Because of its quarterly business cycle, which builds toward a stressful final few weeks, founder Ben Kaufman wrote in a blog post that the company would be closed the first week of every new quarter. "This is a full, mandatory shutdown of all internal activities," he wrote. "Lights out. Deep breath. Time for us to explore other creative interests. Relax without worrying what we're missing." The weeks off, Kaufman wrote, would be a supplement to Quirky's existing vacation policy and the company reserved the right to "go back to our old ways" if the policy didn't work. (The company, for example, shut down three weeks this year instead of four.)

Reducing off-hours email

For years, companies have tried to make it easier for workers to send and receive emails at all hours. Now, a growing number are discouraging the practice. About 25 percent of companies, one study reports, have created some kind of formal or informal rule to discourage off-hours emails. Some companies set time limits (such as not sending email between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.), some offer pledges from management that nighttime email isn't expected, and some actually silence email servers once the workday ends.

It's a tricky issue, as some people have reason to stay in contact after hours, and what works for one group of employees won't work for another. But finding a way to send some kind of signal that people aren't expected to respond when the boss writes a note after midnight seems a good first step to helping tech-tethered employees actually unplug.

Keeping tech in the office

Richard Sheridan, the CEO of a small software design firm called Menlo Innovations, tries to keep his employees' work week at the increasingly rare 40 hours in part by limiting work-related technology outside the office. "You can't take work home with you," Sheridan, who wrote a book about his company's culture last year, explained in an email. The company intentionally does not offer tech tools for remote work, such as employer-provided laptops, virtual private networks (VPNs), or remote access software. The company also forbids employees from checking email on vacation and had to have a sit-down with one worker who kept working 60-hour weeks.

Sheridan says there are ways for people to get email from browsers or mobile devices, and that there are "rare and notable" exceptions to the rule. But he thinks there's a real business advantage to people working more efficiently and predictably. "There are very specific business purposes behind all of this," he writes. "We are in an industry that has come to accept missed deadlines, serious budget overruns, and poor quality as 'normal.' "

Read also:

The catch of having an unlimited vacation policy

The greatest memo about work-life balance ever?

Richard Branson: Virgin's stunt man

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