wellness | May 11, 2023 |
How this designer settled on the right amount of time off for her team

Bay Area designer Noz Nozawa despised the corporate culture she encountered early in her career—inflexibility, an always-on-call mentality, or simple indignities like having to ask for permission to go to the doctor. As her team has grown, Nozawa has developed her firm’s values around the inalienable right to take a break.

How this designer settled on the right amount of time off for her team
Noz NozawaChristopher Stark

What shaped your approach to PTO at your firm?
I had no idea if I would ever have employees when I set out to build this business, but I knew that I hated the way that I was working when I worked for other people. I believe in work—I think we would all atrophy if we didn’t have something that we worked toward—but it’s only a part of our lives. I make a lot of mistakes as an employer, but I’m very protective of [my staff’s] time off, and I am very proud of that.

In the winter of 2015, I was in the Arctic Circle for the holidays, but I was scrambling to meet a made-up deadline. I had put pressure on myself to respond to an architect because it was the biggest job opportunity I’d had to date, so I was sitting in the hotel lobby trying to do these drawings and feeling like a hostage to my job while my husband was waiting to go snowshoeing together to see the Northern Lights. That’s when I was like, “Never again.” When I hired my first employee in 2019, I implemented the firm’s holiday break. It started as a week and a half and grew to almost three weeks, which frankly was a little too long. This year, we’ve settled on slightly over two weeks.

By mid-summer 2022, I realized that the team was feeling stressed and morale was lower. I thought about the way we all look forward to our winter break and how [it feels better] if we have something to gun for, so we started taking a week off around the Fourth of July. If it feels like there’s never a good time to take vacation, then the entire team taking off at the same time makes it very easy.

Do you feel the difference when you come back?
Yes. A lot of my team members have been traumatized by previous employers. They took vacations, but they had to keep their phones on. When someone [at my firm has] their first vacation and realizes it’s real—that no one is bothering you while you’re away, or if you see emails come through, you don’t have to respond—they realize that it’s actually safe to turn off.

What kind of preparation does that require from you?
One thing I really hated as an employee was that even when you take a vacation, the longer you’re gone, the more your emails build up and then the more stress you come back to, and everyone seems to expect you to be fully caught up the day you come back. So one of the things I stress repeatedly is that your first day back in the office after vacation is just for catching up on email. We establish that with the whole team so that there’s no resentment.

I also acknowledge that the days before someone leaves for a vacation, or before we take a holiday break, are going to be more intense than usual, in order to make sure we have what we need. It’s just a couple of additional meetings explicitly in place to make sure that if I need something while they’re away, I can either figure it out myself, or that nothing is so time-sensitive that it can’t wait for them to get back. 

How have you adjusted for the skill-specific parts of an employee’s job? 
Honestly, it may mean that things take longer. For example, we have one person on the team who does all of our Revit drawings. She does other things too, but that’s one thing where there is only one computer in our company that does that. If we need something when that person is away, I just say, “OK, we’ll get it done when they return.”

Something similar happened recently. We had a client doing a stunning stair runner, and every stitch of it is custom, custom, custom. It was supposed to be installed in November, then December, and the client was very unhappy about the whole thing. It arrived just as I was preparing to leave for vacation, so I told them, “Someone needs to be on site. If it happens before I leave for Japan, fabulous. Otherwise, it’ll have to happen after I’m back.” I had thought that maybe my project manager could do it, and I said, “If you can be there, I trust you to carry it out.” He was like, “I’m supposed to be on vacation next week, but I can make myself available” and I said, “Absolutely not.” It’s just a fact that when people take time off, things take longer, and that’s OK. The stair runner was installed at the end of the month, and the client loves it.

Are clients receptive to that? 
Look, they definitely have never expressed that they thought this was great for them. But I have a very clear hierarchy of who I belong to and who I answer to, and for me, it’s my team first. It’s my extended team of vendors and suppliers and partners second and then it’s my client. That’s probably not what clients want to hear because they’re the ones who are paying us. But the thing is that clients are fungible. If you disrespect my team—which I’ve had happen—you’re fired as a client. No one should feel as though their job is worth more than their respect.

We earn our time off. My god, my team works so hard—they’re so responsive, so buttoned up, and they care so much, and I think that shows in our work. Breaks are a necessity to [maintain] that level of creativity, commitment and not making mistakes. I would much rather my client be upset that something’s not getting done until my team member is back in the office than for them to be upset because my burned-out team member made a mistake. That’s something that I can say to my client straight-faced: It’s a lot easier to recover from them having some time off than from a major error happening on a project.

What other shifts have you made in your office that might not be typical? 
When I was an employee, I hated that I was only ever allowed to have a doctor’s appointment at 8:00 a.m. or 6:00 p.m., and even then, I’d have to ask. So I don’t make anyone ask for permission—for things like doctor’s appointments, workout classes, pet drop-off, hair appointments. As long as you block your calendar off, I know that you’re not available. The team does have to ask to take meaningful time off or if they want to work remotely, but that’s really more to make sure that I’m prepared for it, not an actual “permission” thing. For me, it’s more about expectation setting and making sure that everyone’s clear on who’s where.

It only became a thing once, when one of my team members had taken off about three weeks of time in eight months, plus a holiday break. I was like, “All right, we need to pump the brakes a little bit, because I’m not seeing the work.” You can take every Friday off if you really need to—if the work is there. We needed to realign on the fact that it is a privilege to take time off and enjoy it without harming the team, but [in that case] her actions were starting to have negative consequences.

How did you handle that situation? 
I always start by acknowledging my own feelings about it. This is so therapy talk, but I acknowledge that I’m totally right to be frustrated that this is having an impact on me. The fact that I have to have a conversation about something like that is stressful and difficult, and coming to terms with my own feelings about it before I come to the person on my team is so important. Otherwise, I’m going to start saying things that I don’t mean.

The second thing that I have tried to do whenever I’ve had to have a difficult conversation is to remember that people are human, and that their behavior is not necessarily about me. So often, we think that it’s about us when something affects us—that’s why it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the employee is taking advantage of our policy. But she might not be. It might be that she’s trying to solve something with time off, and it’s actually about something bigger. Those are some of the things I thought about to prepare for our conversation.

It wasn’t a performance thing—she’s really talented—and it wasn’t about her being in trouble. It was a bigger conversation about whether there were things about the job or her projects that were causing this desire to be out of the office. It was like, “Hey, this isn’t working for me, because sometimes things come up and if I can’t get ahold of you this often, that’s a problem. I want you to be successful, and I want that to happen here at my firm. But I understand that people can be successful at other firms, and that sometimes there’s an employer or a team misfit with someone who’s otherwise deeply talented, and I want to be supportive of that.” I realized that she was taking time off to try to find more balance in her month because she was having a hard time achieving that on a daily or weekly level—and I don’t know if it was that conversation, or if the conversation was just one small piece of what was going on, but she really turned it around. I’ve felt her energy lift since then, and I’m super proud of her.

What does it take to apply some of these values and principles to yourself, as well?
There are things that I always make time for—like, I won’t cancel therapy. But I had to put that boundary in place for myself, because otherwise I would cancel everything to focus on work.

Are boundaries important for you? 
At one point before the pandemic, I realized that I was working way too much and I needed a break, so I decided that I would no longer respond to emails or text messages after 6:30 p.m. But what happened was that clients would come home from work and finally have a chance to see things that came in, and they’d message me in the evening. And even if it was a happy message—“Oh, my god, I love the paint color,” or whatever—the hair on my neck would stiffen, my shoulders would come up, I would start breathing differently. I realized that my own boundary was becoming a trigger and I needed to work toward relaxing instead of being so rigid.

I’ve gradually come to realize that my work is the architecture and the scaffolding around which I can be my best self, have my best friends, live my best life and have all of my dreams come true. The fact that my career is enmeshed with so many other parts of my life—that my travels are enabled because of what I do, and that my husband can join me so that we have time together, and I can have so many of these work trips because I don’t need to be so detached from work and I don’t need to have a completely rigid break—I have discovered that this is what works for me. Because that’s where I’m coming from, I don’t really have the same boundaries and I don’t really do time off the way that my team may need to do time off. I also understand that I feel differently about the work [now] as a business owner than I did when I worked for other people.

I think that’s huge—to not expect your feelings about it to be the same as your team’s.
I’ve heard designers complain that their team doesn’t care the way that they do. And I’m like, “Of course they don’t.” There can be that old-fashioned idea that people should be grateful to have employment, or that they should be grateful to work for you: “You get to go to Paris with me; you’re so lucky to have this job.” And they might be, but not when you put it that way. If you tell me I have to be grateful to have this job, then I definitely don’t feel grateful now. So the way that I’ve always approached those beliefs is to say, “I’m lucky to have my life, and a huge part of why I have the life I have is the team that I built to support my dream.” If it’s also their dream, I’m thrilled. But it doesn’t have to be their dream for me to be incredibly lucky, or for them to do the work that they do for our clients and our projects. I’m not here to instruct somebody on what should be important to them. For the ones who do see this as part of their dream, then I hope building this firm alongside me is something that gives them a lot of purpose. If I’m lucky enough to find those people and to cultivate that kind of ambition and passion for the work that we’re doing, then I’ll be lucky to keep them too.

Homepage image: Raw, textural elements like a sculptural cement bathtub, cedar slats and a plaster wall treatment transform this primary bathroom by Noz Nozawa into a restorative sanctuary | Christopher Stark

This article originally appeared in Spring 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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