Today's employees value time as much as — or more than — money. In fact, 66 percent say that they would gladly give up some of their compensation in return for more flexibility in their working hours, according to Robert Half International. Yet some 413 million vacation days will go unused in the United States this year alone, at a time when our European counterparts are steadily increasing the number of vacation days they take each year (now averaging four to six weeks).

Why don't Americans take the time off that's due them?

It could be that they are increasingly caught in a no-win dilemma — wanting more balance and freedom in their lives, yet fearing that taking time off might jeopardize their jobs. Many are feeling the heat as their companies are merging, outsourcing, downsizing — or all three.

How can managers help employees to take the time off they want and need without having them risk the perception that they may not be truly committed to their jobs? One answer I have found is to increase the flexibility of working hours. In my research, employees ranked the following items as “very or extremely important” to them: “being allowed to leave work early when necessary” (85 percent), “being allowed flexible hours” (78 percent), “being given time off from work” (76 percent), and “being allowed time off for extra hours worked” (66 percent).

Flexible working hours can take many shapes. TRW in San Diego has a 9/80 work schedule in which any employee can work nine hours a day and get every other Friday off. Cygna Group, an engineering and consulting firm based in Oakland, Calif., has a “Take the Rest of the Day Off and Do” reward when employees finish a big project. Workers at Eddie Bauer are allowed to “call in well” to encourage a more balanced work life. Valassis, a marketing company headquartered in Livonia, Mich., always gives half days off on Fridays before major holidays.

The truth is, work is increasingly becoming a state of mind rather than a place to be. If you work to engage your employees on those things that are most important to them, you'll find that they can often get more work done in fewer hours — and be more appreciative and productive as a result.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego; best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees; and a frequent presenter to management groups and conferences. For more information, visit