Unlimited vacation — why not?

There are some jobs that — for the time being, at least — require someone to be at a certain place at a certain time. Many teaching jobs are like that. Childcare, obviously, requires a proximity to the child at a certain time. Most medical procedures are done in person, and plenty of us who shop still appreciate live clerks who are actually in the store.

But other jobs are not like that. Much information work can be done any time or any where. At least in theory, you should be paid for results, not time spent achieving those results. Sometimes this manifests itself as flexible scheduling. But another interesting approach is to create unlimited vacation/sick day policies.

A recent World-Herald article listed several Omaha-area businesses with such policies, and I’m guessing Omaha isn’t the only hotbed of vacation day liberation. I think such policies are mostly smart. Here’s why.

First, trust is a great motivator. In the absence of real reasons to require someone to be onsite at certain times, limited vacation and sick day policies signify a belief that you think people will behave like truant children if not carefully policed. Sure, some people can’t be trusted not to claim to have the flu 365 days a year…but maybe you shouldn’t hire people like that. You can also have ways to weed out anyone who doesn’t meet expectations. 

Second, an unlimited vacation policy requires an emphasis on expectations and results. Why, exactly, do you need this number of people in your department? What should they be accountable for doing? What’s a challenging but achievable goal for each employee for each week, month, year? Communicating expectations, and holding people accountable to them, is part of good management. It’s also less prevalent than it should be.

Third, an unlimited vacation (and sick day) policy removes problems that don’t have to be problems. I remember reading an HR publication’s Q&A, in which a manager wrote in asking if he should count an employee’s absence as a sick day — the father didn’t come in because his kid had been up sick all night — vs. a vacation day. This struck me as a lot of bean-counting and bureaucracy. In a different world, that father might be trusted to make up his work after he’d taken a nap. No one would worry about how to attribute the day. 

Of course, there’s a downside to being held accountable for results…which is that you actually have to achieve results. And that doesn’t always allow for taking chunks of time off with no communication. When vacation time is accrued in the traditional way in traditional jobs, you’re entitled to it. If your job involves manning the cash register at a store, you clearly won’t be doing that on vacation. The lines are cut and dried. You can tune everything out. If you have to achieve certain results — but can take off whatever time you want — you may be checking email once a day, and handling anything directly related to those required results while on the road.

But personally, I think that’s a good trade off. Since I work for myself writing things (rather than, say, fixing toilets or running a bakery), that’s pretty much how my work works. I go or do whatever I want…but I’ll send emails from a beach house at night, or file a story from a hotel. People who’ve worked with me on projects have worked the same way. Maybe it’s not pure vacation, but I also get away from my desk a lot more often that way.

What’s your organization’s policy toward vacation? 

In other news: Whitney Bates asks “Can this year be saved?” We still have about 4000 hours to go in 2013!

Chicago Business runs a story about how “Female execs ditch the domestic to-do list — and the guilt.” I’m broadly sympathetic with the story — I advocate outsourcing non-core competency activities! — but there are certain conventions of this genre that bug me. Some of these women are “outsourcing” domestic tasks to their husbands. The assumption is that domestic tasks are inherently women’s work, and having a stay-at-home husband is outsourcing, as opposed to your family’s decision on division-of-labor. Also, one executive with 2 kids, who’s started a non-profit, outsources things to “do it all without losing her mind.” I’m getting a little tired of the picture of women leaders as crazed jugglers. One of the fascinating things in logs from the Dandelion Project is how much down time there is in women’s lives. 

19 thoughts on “Unlimited vacation — why not?

  1. As for the original question, I happen to be one of those jobs that technically needs to be done in person. So our vacation policies are fixed. There are no “sick days”, unless you take short-term disability, you use vacation days if you’re sick, family sick, whatever. I would love more leeway in this…and I do sometimes simply TAKE some time off, as long as I am responsive to emails/phone calls and make up the non-urgent work, I don’t feel guilty.

  2. We have “unlimited” sick time up to 5 days in a row (more and we need to invoke STD). Honestly, I don’t like it because when I was given 5 days of sick per year I could take an occasional mental health day without guilt as they were “my” days. Now, I don’t ever do it because the guilt is too strong.

    Vacation however is not unlimited. Bummer.

  3. Have you looked at Results Only Work Environments? An end to tracking time off is one component of those, but it is a more complete package, that focuses on managing results and not time in the office. I think you need the focus on results to make this sort of thing work, because otherwise you get situations where people never feel like they can take time off, because they don’t know how they’re tracking against expectations.

  4. Oh, and I didn’t answer the question- my current company is the first that has ever given me actual sick leave- a whole 2 days. Everything else is “paid time off.” I get a little over 3 weeks, and that goes up with seniority. That’s been pretty standard everywhere I’ve worked, except some places have started at 12 days instead of 15 days of PTO and gone up from there. I could rant on and on about how screwed up the approach to time off is in this country, but I won’t. It is one of the things pushing me to leave corporate America and find another career path. I want more time off- both because it would make me happier and because it would make me more productive!

  5. Our company, HubSpot , does vacation differently. We expect everyone who works here to deliver remarkable results. In return, we offer all our employees, at every level, unlimited vacation and the autonomy to determine when, where and how they take it. This is not an experiment; it’s a long-standing policy built into a broader commitment to our company culture . The truth is that if you hire people who love their work and understand the mission and vision of your company, banking, tracking and paying out unused vacation become a massive waste of time and money. We devote that time, energy and money to our customers, and our company is better off for it.

  6. I think the price you pay for flexibility is the sense that you are never off. The upside of that being as long as you can produce resuls and money you should – I agree with cloud though that the original idea of flexibilty and rejuvenation along productivity lines is muddled both in the culture and specifically in corporate america.. and sometimes the being on thing can result in one forgetting how to turn it off… for me as a working woman I think this is one of the prices I have paid for earning power and flexibility — which is also a priviledge of say always having another opportunity I can pursue for additional revenue or opportunity …etc

  7. I’m a Registered Nurse at a clinic and my job can only be done in person during fixed hours. In one way that’s nice because when I’m home, I don’t have to think about work but its not very flexible. We have one pot of personal time off that is used for vacation, sick, bereavement, whatever and is accrued monthly. One negative is that if I’m not at work, someone else needs to be doing my job so its difficult to get time off with short notice.(My kids are grown so I don’t have the sick child problem) Sometimes it would be nice to be able to call in and say “its a nice day, I’m taking a vacation day and going to the beach” but I can’t do that. That said, I’m a planner and have always been able to get the time off I want for my vacations. I love my job and my patients and my co-workers so that’s a plus.

    Regarding your post from yesterday, I rarely comment. Many of your posts on careers don’t seem to apply to people in my type of jobs so maybe I should comment more often and give you another perspective. I enjoy your blog and read it every day.

    1. I hope you comment more! Lots of successful professional women are in the medical field so I try (unsuccessfully) to imagine how Laura’s advice would apply to them. I suspect either a majority or a significant minority of $100k+ female professionals are in the medical field.

      1. @TG – while there’s advice on working from home that doesn’t fit, I write about plenty of topics related to careers. And I have several readers in medical fields.

    2. @Linda M – I welcome your comments. There are a diversity of jobs, and no one post can be about all of them. But I do try to keep the posts varied here.

      There are upsides to having strict lines between work and home. I haven’t felt my work was “done” for the day in years.

  8. I’m in South Africa and at my company, we get 20 paid days per annum for actual “vacation” leave and then we have a rolling 30 days per 3 year cycle for sick leave.

    If you take a sick leave day next to a weekend or public holiday, or it’s more than 3 days, you have to provide a doctor’s note, otherwise there is no problem.

    Sounds AMAZING reading these comments 🙂

  9. PS this face-time business is something I’m struggling with at the moment. I’ve always believed that you don’t need to be “showing your face” just for the sake of it. Recently (month 4) accepted a new role in same company where you have to be there and it’s killing me slowly since for the last 19 years I’ve worked in output-driven environments with only core hours (about 6 a day being face-time :))

  10. Apparently one of the companies that has no vacation policy — i.e., take as much as you want — is Netflix. When they first announced it, someone said: how can you not have a policy on this? The CEO replied: You know, we don’t have a “wear clothes to work” policy. But so far, no one has shown up naked.

    I think that trusting people and treating them like adults goes a very long way.

  11. The CEO elaborated to say that they didn’t have a policy on how many hours people were supposed to work, so why have a policy on how many hours they were supposed to be not working? Of course this is a creative company, with a lot more flexibility than a hospital or a manufacturing plant. But it’s nice to see them using it.

  12. Thanks for the mention, Laura!

    While the company I work for (high-tech industry) doesn’t have unlimited vacation, we do have very flexible work hours. So, while I can’t take unlimited days off, I can make arrangements to leave early or come in late for something important to me, no questions asked, as long as I can get my hours in for the week. After working jobs that required punching into a time clock, this perk has made all the difference and is one of the reasons I will celebrate my ten-year anniversary with them in a few months.

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