Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about “unlimited vacation” – with companies like Netflix, Virgin and 37signals offering employees as many days off as they want. This idea seems radical to most managers and there are even some critics that say such a policy is actually harmful for the employees – some statistics suggest that people who are offered choice of how many days they will take off, actually take less days than usual. Anyway, the movement towards extended vacation is well aligned with the general movement towards more flexibility in the workplace, so lets look at why such policy may or may not work.
The first objection usually is that given unlimited vacation, employees won’t come back to work. This is rooted in a belief that the only reason someone comes to work is because he is being paid for this. It comes as no surprise that majority of employees are not engaged in their work – how could they, if the paycheck is the only reason they are showing up?
A year of a vacation
The actual vacation policy at 37signals is “be reasonable”. Vacation time is still something that is permitted to the employee and there is no reason to believe that someone will be out of the office all of the time and he will keep his job. The managers’ fear of unlimited vacation time comes from the fact that it is very hard to measure someone’s performance when we are talking about creative work. It’s not the vacation that is the problem, but the lack of reliable measurement, so when the employee starts taking more vacation, the manager doesn’t know if this employee still performs the same amount of work or not. If you focus on results and not on the time in the office however, it’s much easier to let employees take time off when they are not productive anyway. While giving someone 3 days off once in a while doesn’t seem radical, unlimited vacation implies that the person can get full year away from the office. Is this reasonable? Of course it is – to the degree that some companies actually close the office for a whole year every 7 or so years. The alternative, if the person needs the break anyway, is to lose the employee – he will leave and after a year will find another job (some would offer unpaid time off, but that’s another story). But what about taking 11 months off out of every 12? Is that reasonable? Perhaps not. Unless in that time the employee generate ideas that leads to millions of profit for the company – then why not?
What means unlimited anyway?
The whole discussion comes from the assumption about what unlimited vacation means, so to close the first argument against it, let look at the things in the proper way. Most countries have some minimum vacation time you have to give to employees defined by the labor law. Same goes for how long is the work week. And those numbers are no-sense for a lot of the jobs. Because being of the office does not equals working, and in the knowledge work working does not equals getting results. The only reason people care about working hours is that they believe that there is some correlation between the results and the working hours. So lets focus only to results and see where this paths leads regarding the vacation time. The law provide some fixed amount of vacation time. What happens if you need a day off – not a resting time, but time required for something else. What if you have to drive your child to a doctor and you’re going to lose at least half of the working day anyway? What if one day you don’t feel good, but you’re actually not sick (perhaps you just have a hangover after your best friend’s wedding)? The options are more than you think. Taking a paid or unpaid day off are the most obvious ones. More often however people go to work and try to do everything else in between, taking longer lunch break, coming a bit later, arranging things over the phone, etc. Chances are that instead of taking half day off they will lose 2 days in unproductive work, while taking care about the other issues they have. Or they will come to work while not feeling well and in the best case they won’t be able to complete much (the worst case scenario – they will actually make mistakes that will cost you more than the 1 day off). What if we just allow people not to come to work once in a while, when they don’t feel good or have other responsibilities to take care of? This would be the first step towards the unlimited vacation. The final step is just stopping to count and thinking about a reasonable limit to these days off.
The lost collaboration
Another widely held assumption is that people work in the office. E.g. being in the office equals doing your job. Of course, there is no correlation between being in the office and doing a good job (or any job at all). Why otherwise companies would be afraid that their workers waste too much time on social networks and why any performance management would be required? Still, most people believe that if an employee is at the office, he will do at least some work. (Jason Fried argues that the office actually is not the best place to do work). Here comes the question if the office actually support team work and I admit, that flexible schedule makes collaboration harder to achieve. Still it’s good in a way that it puts the focus on the collaboration, while if you have fixed office hours / vacation time, you just assume that collaboration will happen in the office, and such assumption is not grounded into reality.
Still one may suggest that at least if the help of the person is needed and he is in the office, he could help. This is valid argument, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the vacation time. What if the person in question is actually on a (regular) vacation, sick leave or just leaves the company?
The belief that work occurs in the office is closely related with the one that teamwork happens because people are working on the same place. If people have too much vacation, they will spend too little time together, and teams won’t jell.
To address this, we must focus on the collaboration, and not on the vacation time. Here some vacation time can actually help, if we redefine the term vacation. For most people this is time away from the office. Moreover, it’s assumed as time you are not interacting with your colleagues. What if you send the whole team on the same vacation? What if we define vacation as any time you are not doing your usual job? Giving people time to do some other job – in another role, in another department, working on an open-source project, volunteering – all this can count towards the “vacation” time. Hubspot for example lets any employee sit in another team for a while. This is a great opportunity to build better understanding of the business as a whole and relationships between different departments, and to optimize the organization as a whole.
Not taking the time off
The only real argument against unlimited vacation is that it won’t work for the given company. This can go in two ways. The first one is when people do not take their days off. Given with such freedom, often employees take less time off. There are a lot of reasons for this, but you have to ensure that they take at least the minimum amount of vacation, required by the law. Usually the reasons are that the employees feel obligated to work harder, or that they are unable to schedule the work in such a way that they actually can get their time off. Introducing a radical new policy never works as expected. Because of this, having different types of “vacation” and introducing the policy in smaller step (like not counting single days off) may help the employees to get used to new policies.
The second way in which this may not work for your company is that some people will start taking a lot of vacation time, while other will sit in the office and “do the work”. This is purely a management problem and you have to deal with it as soon as you notice it. You have to ensure that all people use equal opportunity and you should be prepared to let those people, that are not motivated to work and use any possibility to be away from the job, go.
Such a radical policy won’t work in a traditional company. It requires rethinking of the way the work works, and of the motivation of the employees. It may actually require changing large part of the team – people who are disengaged anyway. But there are so many benefits from stopping counting the days away from the office (which is what “unlimited vacation days” actually means) – increased productivity, creativity, engagement; it’s good for recruitment and it’s good for retaining people, that more and more companies adopt some kind of unlimited vacation policy.