This San Francisco startup gives employees five ‘inner work days’ a year to stay home and self-reflect

Silicon Valley tech companies are famous for unlimited vacation policies. It’s a perk — like fancy fizzy water — that has become table stakes for startups trying to recruit top talent.

One company, though, is pushing that time-off benefit even further.

BetterUp— a San Francisco-based startup that connects professional coaches with those seeking career advice — has been giving its employees five days off a year to ditch their standard day job and instead, take the day to work on themselves.

Dubbed “inner work days,” these five days are spread throughout the year, with everyone at BetterUp taking the same day off (often on a Monday, to extend a weekend). Some use the free days to meditate or go on hikes. Others stay inside to read. Some go on a digital detox, not checking their phones, emails, or Instagram throughout the day.

The point, BetterUp co-founder and CEO Alexi Robichaux told Business Insider in a recent interview, is to give employees dedicated time for self-reflection.

“Most of the work we do in our life is outside of us,” Robichaux said. “But part of being a professional, especially in the creative economy, is like, we have to work on ourselves. How do we engage in some amount of reflection? How do we engage in some amount of introspection?”

BetterUp began the tradition two years ago, when the company had around 30 employees. Today, all of BetterUp’s 150-plus employees participate and many share their experiences on the company’s dedicated Slack channel for “inner work day” highlights.

“He went surfing in his soul”

Recently, one employee shared that he went to surf at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach during an “inner work day” but ended up spending the entire day sitting on the sand instead.

“He realized he hadn’t stopped to process an emotional event that had just happened to him,” Robichaux said. “He never went surfing in the water. He went surfing in his soul. And he came back super energized.”

Jacinta Jimenez, BetterUp’s Head of Coaching, told us that the company believes the dedicated time off for self-reflection makes employees more effective when they get back to their desks.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“If we don’t give our brains time to think, it’s going to compromise how we make decisions, show up at work, at home, all around,” Jimenez said. “So making the time to have that space, to switch attention to something else other than what we do every day, day in and day out, is really doing a service for our brains, which then translates to how we show up in the world.”

“They may think it’s crazy”

BetterUp’s “inner work days” are not a cunning rebranding of vacation that employees were already entitled to. The offices still shut down for all the major national holidays, and the company says it encourages employees to take at least two weeks off every year as part of its unlimited vacation policy.

Jimenez likens the idea of “inner work days” to Bill Gates’ twice-yearly “think weeks,” where the billionaire philanthropist spends seven days completely secluded from friends and family in his Pacific Northwest retreat to contemplate life and think through new ideas.

“There’s a theory called Attention Restoration Theory and basically, it reports that when you’re in an environment with lower levels of sensory inputs, especially in nature, your brain can recover its cognitive ability,” Jimenez said. “It can restore or replenish attention, motivation, and creativity as well.”

Robichaux also thinks “inner work days” are important specifically for BetterUp, given that they’re in the business of helping people advance their careers through coaching services.

“I think it’s really important for us to be true to ourselves and our values for the business we’re in,” Robichaux said. “How are you going to create a better experience related to personal transformation if you aren’t experiencing it day by day yourself. I think that’s one of the toughest things when you’re in the business of physiological experiences. You can’t physically hold them, so you need to spend the time focusing on them.”

Asked what other CEOs think of his “inner work day” idea, Robichaux said, “most people think its really cool. I mean, they may just be humoring me. They may think it’s crazy.”

‘From functional to fantastic’

BetterUp itself was founded back in 2013 based on “inner work” or self-reflection that Robichaux had done himself.

Previously, Robichaux was a young product executive at VMware, meeting with CIOs of some of the world’s largest companies. But after a year and a half, he was burned out and “wasn’t in a great spot,” he told us.

In a “bummed out” state, Robichaux left the software giant and sought help. Eventually, he stumbled upon positive psychology — a subfield of psychology focused on human happiness — and became fascinated by what he found.

“It wasn’t focused on someone with a mental illness; it was focused on someone who was high-functioning become a superstar,” he said. “Not going from falling apart to functional, but from functional to fantastic.”

Robichaux found a coach in the Bay Area who practiced positive psychology (though there were few) but quickly noticed inefficiencies in the process — he would have to drive across town for his weekly meetings and even then, he and his coach would spend the first 30 minutes of an hour-long session re-capping what was discussed in their previous session.

Robichaux knew there had to be a better way and given his background in software, the idea for BetterUp was born.

BetterUp is a software platform for businesses, virtually connecting employees with professional coaches through video and voice chat. Unlike most other professional coaching services, BetterUp doesn’t focus on high-ranking executives, but on employees of all levels.

“Usually companies are investing in key populations, high potential employees, folks they want to see grow and don’t want to lose,” Robichaux said. “They’re usually at the start of their careers, in their first ten to fifteen years, and [companies] know, this is the opportunity to make the investment [in them].”

BetterUp charges companies a monthly subscription fee per employee utilizing the service, and employees typically meet with their coaches once a week for one hour.

Robichaux tells us that the idea of bringing positive psychology to the workplace and building a software company around professional coaching wasn’t always so well received, especially when he was initially trying to fundraise.

“Five years ago in Silicon Valley, this was pretty crazy. It wasn’t big data. It wasn’t VR. It had human beings involved,” he said. “At the time, it was really hard to get any traction.”

But with mindfulness apps like Calm and Headspace gaining popularity among modern workers, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of mental health.

Today, BetterUp has raised over $40 million in venture funding and the service has found favor amongst tech’s hottest companies — with the likes of Lyft, LinkedIn, and Airbnb all offering its coaching to their employees. But perhaps most surprising, and fulfilling, for Robichaux is to see more traditional businesses like brick and mortar retail and restaurants beginning to sign on.

“Some of our fastest growing use cases right now are what you would consider traditional, front-line [businesses] —blue collar for lack of a better term,” he said. “Companies are investing in this talent as well and that’s just been so fulfilling.”

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