To Retain Employees, Support Their Passions Outside Work


With more and more people quitting, leaders need to find new ways to boost retention. One under-recognized way to keep employees on board is to give them the flexibility and resources they need to pursue their out-of-work passions. Drawing on their research, the authors offer practical strategies for creating “passion opportunities” so that you can attract and retain employees who want to pursue their passions outside of work. Beyond simply providing employees with flexibility, leaders need to make sure that employees feel comfortable actually using this flexibility. Given longstanding ideas about the “ideal worker,” or the notion prevalent in the U.S. that a good employee is one who dedicates their time and energy solely to work, embracing non-work passions requires igniting a mindset shift, including explicit endorsement from leaders.

As the Great Resignation continues, leaders continue to struggle with how to recruit and retain the best talent. What do talented workers most want out of their jobs? Is it remote work and autonomy? Better pay and health coverage? The chance to work with a diverse team and make a positive impact in the lives of others?

While these dimensions are widely understood as important, our research pinpoints an additional aspect of the most attractive jobs that is currently under recognized: jobs that are designed to enable employees to pursue their out-of-work passions. That is, many employees may benefit from viewing their jobs as conduits to pursue their passion outside of work, and jobs that allow employees to do so may not only draw in talented employees, but can help them maintain their productivity and well-being over the long-term.

How can you attract and retain employees who want to pursue their passions outside of work? Drawing on research on passion at work and examples of companies that help employees to embrace out-of-work passions, we recommend creating passion opportunities for your employees through the following steps. 

Work with employees to create flexibility.

What prevents employees from pursuing activities outside of work that make their lives meaningful? It’s clear that passions require time — but with ever-more-packed workdays and constantly surging to-do lists, employees struggle to find it. To support employees’ passions outside of work, leaders need to work with them to create this time.

One way to grant employees the time they need to pursue passions is by giving them greater power to define their work hours — and setting clear expectations that employees should craft work hours around their passions. Passions may require employees to commit to specific times and are predicated on regular attendance. Employees need to know they shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving work or have to wonder whether doing so will jeopardize performance reviews. For example, a friend had always wanted to be a soccer coach for his daughter’s team, but training was every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 P.M., while his working hours commonly lasted until at least 6 P.M., and sometimes longer when necessary. Drawing on the Boston Consulting Group’s concept of “planned time off,” he felt encouraged to ask his supervisor for support, who not only enthusiastically committed to making sure he could leave early Tuesday and Thursdays in exchange for coming in earlier, but also encouraged other people on his team to similarly request planned time off to pursue non-work interests.

Beyond explicitly encouraging employees to shift their hours to encompass passions during the work week, managers might give employees dedicated time off to further explore their out-of-work selves, including policies like sabbaticals. For example, Adobe offers employees who have been at the company for at least five years four weeks of paid leave to “plan their dream vacation” or “finally write that novel.” Google started a fellowship program that allowed employees to spend up to six months working for nonprofits on special projects. Even industries considered more traditional, like investment banking, have started adopting similar policies.

But more time may not be enough to fully enable passions — especially if employees’ passions involve traveling or living in locations with particular features (e.g., being near a beach for surfing or near the mountains for climbing). Supporting passions could mean being flexible not only in the “when,” but also in the “where” of working. For instance, some employers, like Siemens and Twitter, have adopted a work-from-anywhere policy that allows employees to complete their work in any location they desire. If your company’s jobs allow for geographic flexibility, this benefit can be touted as something that allows employees to pursue their passions and can help you to market these jobs in an appealing way.

Lead by example.

Beyond simply providing employees with the flexibility needed to pursue their passions, leaders need to make sure that employees feel comfortable actually using this flexibility. Just think of how challenging it is to get employees to take even their paid vacation days due to social pressure! Given longstanding ideas about the “ideal worker,” or the notion prevalent in the U.S. that a good employee is one who dedicates their time and energy solely to work, embracing non-work passions requires igniting a mindset shift, including explicit endorsement from leaders.

Employees may fear that unorthodox work times will bring backlash and may be unwilling to take advantage of flexible work policies. Research suggests that these employee fears are well-founded. Employees who use flexible work schedules to balance work and life often face stigma. With this backdrop, workers might worry that taking time for out-of-work passions even outside of work hours will make them look less committed to their jobs — let alone taking advantage of opportunities to do so during work hours.

However, the stigma against out-of-work passions is unfounded. There is no support for the idea that competing passions weaken work performance. In fact, research suggests that people who have a “side hustle,” or another income-generating job performed along full-time work, perform better at their main job. This happens because side hustles boost a sense of empowerment and positive emotion. Passions boost engagement in a similar way. Further, working all the time, especially on holidays and off-hours, actually backfires by sapping people’s intrinsic motivation for work.

Leaders can play a role in dispelling myths about out-of-work passions and help their pursuits to become normalized. For instance, you can share the passions you have outside of work with your employees. Explain how you see passions as fuel that re-energizes you to do your best — and critically, tell employees that they can, and should, make time for the same.

Encourage employees to share their passions with each other.

Beyond sharing their own passions, leaders can take steps to establish norms among their employees that favor passion pursuit. This is important for leaders to do in addition to sharing their own passions because employees often pay more attention to what their team members at the same level do, rather than looking at higher-ranking leaders, when deciding what behaviors are appropriate. If no one else from the team takes time to pursue passions, it’s unlikely that employees will start to follow a leader who does.

One way leaders can do this is by creating space for employees to share their passions with one another. For example, one of us (Jon) holds weekly lab meetings that provide space for each team member to share what they are passionate about outside of work, and subsequently encourages people to pursue these non-work passions in the weeks and months that follow. Leaders could create Slack or Microsoft Teams channels dedicated to non-work passions, where group members can post about their pursuits and receive affirmation from others.

In addition to benefitting individual employees, creating opportunities for people to share their passions with one another may also strengthen social bonds among coworkers by making work more personal. Taking turns revealing personal interests can help create a sense of closeness between people and set the stage for positive relationships.

Passion opportunities could be a new way for companies with high numbers of remote workers to focus on forging social bonds among coworkers. Many no-office companies try to bring people together to build relationships through perks like company-wide retreats. For example, the all-remote social media company Buffer has paid for its employees to visit everywhere from New York to Thailand to Sydney together. Rather than just designing these retreats around fun and games, companies could use them to allow employees to tap into existing passions or explore new ones. For instance, companies could pay for interested employees to meet and attend a cooking class, take a guided tour, or learn a new language. When employees work out of the office, passion opportunities can create new shared experiences that generate positivity and help colleagues stay connected even when working in different zip codes and time zones.

Put your money where your mouth is.

Given the benefits of passion on work performance, a growing number of companies have started to financially support passion pursuits outside of work. The expenses for these programs are easily offset through the additional motivation and commitment that employees subsequently bring to work.

For example, Edelman employees can apply for up to $2,500 in funding to devote to a cause they care about, or for an “Edelman Escape,” a one-week break from work and $1,500 stipend to pursue a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. The clothing company Betabrand pays for its employees to travel to an international destination they’ve always dreamed of visiting — whether seeing where one’s grandmother was born in Ireland or skipping off to Paris in pursuit of romance — as part of their Flyaway Program. The software company FullContact offers a practice called “Paid Paid vacation,” including a $7,500 stipend on top of paid vacation time that employees can use for whatever they want, with one caveat: They must disconnect and do something completely non-work-related. In another example of how to help employees pursue a different kind of passion outside of work, the dating app company Hinge gives each employee $200 to spend on dates.

Leaders could also offer learning stipends, giving employees funds for self-development. For example, Reddit provides employees with funds for personal and professional development that cover classes related to any interests, whether job related or not. Given that out-of-work passions can spill over to foster creativity and innovation at work, learning stipends for topics that are not directly related to an employee’s work could end up being a boon for an organization.

. . .

Flexibility is often cast as a solution for the “musts” of life — parents who must pick up their children from daycare and thus use flexibility to shift some work from the afternoon into the evening, or employees who must live far away and thus use flexibility to avoid a long commute. Instead, we suggest that flexibility should also allow for the “wants” of life — it should give employees the space to pursue their passions and come to work invigorated from those experiences. Flexibility with support — both social and financial — to allow people to carve out a place for out-of-work passions in their lives can make your workplace more appealing to attract employees, and healthier to retain them.

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