5 Thoughts About Unlimited Vacation

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A post on Paper Planes got me to thinking about vacation, and the nature of paid time off, and the way that great ideas can collide with the real world in unexpected ways. I also took a second look at Jacob’s great post about open vacation policies when writing this post.

  1. Open (or unlimited) vacation policies have counterintuitive results: again and again it turns out that when folks are simply given no upper boundary on their time off, they tend to take about average offered elsewhere, or somewhat less than average.
  2. We’re social animals: even with an open vacation policy removing the limits that an employer places on an employee, there exist other limits. Specifically, how much time off does my boss take? What about other folks on my work team? What are the consequences of taking frequent or lengthy vacations? These limitations aren’t placed on the employee by the employer, but rather exist in the mind of the employee – and prevent them (us!) from taking as much time as we perhaps need – or deserve!
  3. “What is measured can be managed” has a reverse: to offer an unlimited vacation policy, and then proceed to track the days taken off, resonates in an uncomfortable way – if after all, the policy is unlimited, why track? If the goal is to avoid managing the days off taken by employees, then measurement seems dissonant with that goal. I acknowledge this may be the result of legal requirements placed on HR by outside bodies – which is a difference that makes a difference.
  4. Track or not to track? Jacob says you must track vacation days for a few reasons, but mostly to ensure that there isn’t any implicit (or explicit!) biases at work. Mathias reports that they did not track days at first, but ended up tracking days off in order to require them. Automattic does track time taken off, likely for the same reasons that Jacob espouses it.
  5. Minimums and Paid-Paid Time Off: Companies have started to take the above four points and push the open vacation idea to the next level – minimum vacations, as described by Mathias, where employees have 25 mandatory vacation days. Or Evernote, who pays employees $1,000 when they take a week off, to ensure, one imagines, that they relax to the max.

Some part of this discussion reminds me of the discussion in Freakonomics, where Dubner and Levitt discuss a day care center that had a small number of parents who would consistently arrive late for child pickup – in order to fight against this, they imposed a $3 fine, and the unexpected result was that even more parents arrived late, the day care center replacing a moral penalty with a tiny financial penalty.

When we remove the upper limit of paid vacation, and also remove the motivating factors of the use-it-or-lose-it system, folks are left only with their own interpretations and psychological barriers – which lead to fewer trips to Aruba. And no one wants that.

(Yes, Daryl, I read Mathias’ company as “Tavis” as well. )

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