How an unlimited vacation policy changed my mind about what leads to success in the workplace.
April 4th, 2018
I have always been a firm believer in the idea that structure in the workplace is the most effective recipe for success. So when I left my job at large, established nonprofit to work for a 3-person remotely-based startup, I was in for some serious culture shock. I was making a change from a comfortable desk and predictable schedule, where I took two half-hour breaks per day and knew exactly how much time off I could take around holidays and family vacations. Now I was in a company without an office, without structured working hours, and perhaps most shockingly, without a vacation policy.
When I was debating the job offer, I read one article that suggested that companies choose to institute “unlimited” or “take-what-you-need” vacation policies under the guise of flexibility, knowing that they will ultimately benefit from the average American worker’s unused vacation and sick days, leaving employees with a false sense of freedom and flexibility that they aren’t actually receiving any benefit from.
What I found in the reality of accepting a job without a vacation policy was in fact the exact opposite.
Fast forward to four months into the job – a time during which most new hires would be in a waiting period, and/or slowly accruing their vacation time pay period by pay period – and I’m taking a week off to travel Nepal with my dad, following a conference in the same country. Not only was this happily approved by my supervisors, it was highly encouraged.
One Friday afternoon I sent my boss a text letting her know that I’d run out of client work for the week. “I’m taking the afternoon off, is that OK?” Her response? “Good for you. Talk to you on Monday.”
The founders of Impact By Design chose an unlimited vacation policy based on research and insights suggesting it could help create a healthy working culture, where staff have the flexibility to manage their time off as they see fit. IBD believes that employees are at their peak performance when they are not only well-rested and healthy, but also when they feel valued and respected by their organization. Ideally, this policy affords both. It allows staff the flexibility to meet their personal needs, enabling them to be more focused and productive at work - and in other words - be the best employee that they can be.
“Work-life balance can be challenging in an organization like ours, where employees aren’t always working a simple 9 to 5 day – traveling can mean round-the-clock work, from meetings that start first thing to running full day trainings, and prepping for the next day right up until bedtime”, says co-founder, Amielle DeWan.
“We wanted to build a culture where employees know that after they put in the hard work to meet their deadlines, they have the flexibility to relax and enjoy some time for self-care. We see unlimited vacation as a tool to support our organization’s culture of trusting and caring for staff. If you’re willing to put yourself out there to work when the work needs to be done, then we’re willing to put ourselves out there in letting staff take the time that they need to take when they need to take it.”
How does an unlimited vacation policy actually play out for staff?
In a test of how much employees valued a newly instituted unlimited PTO policy, business media outlet Fast Company discovered that after just one year, the policy was the third-highest valued by staff. Organizations like Hubspot have pointed out that an unlimited vacation policy actually decreases the stress associated with planning vacation wisely or scrabbling to use up vacation time at the close of the year. The policy places the focus on performance, rather than hours-in, which can be a huge stress reliever for employees who work on differing timeframes. Other organizations have found increases in staff productivity, because it allows employees the flexibility to adjust their work time according to workflow. It also is a natural time saver, for the sheer fact of eliminating the management aspect of a time-off policy.
Here at Impact By Design, one of the biggest benefits is employees’ ability to create a work-life balance that maintains high performance and high engagement without sacrificing employees’ personal lives, or creating high levels of stress.
But can it really work?
Needless to say, unlimited vacation policies are not going to work for every organization. But the philosophy that Impact By Design subscribes to is that if you’re willing to take the time in hiring the right people, then your employees will be people that share a set of values and work ethic with the organization, and you won’t need to “police” your employees in the traditional sense that strict time-off policies and accrual systems do. The idea being that such parameters simply aren’t necessary, because the people your company hires will be high performers, capable of making good decisions based on their needs.
“I think the goal is that the policy has reverberating effects on other parts of your work and personal life,” says co-founder Hanna Lentz. “Our hope is that the policy enables staff to concentrate when they need to, but also let go when they need to, and feel supported in that. It’s really a culture shift, where it is not just about time on and time off, but about building a culture of trust and support. Just having the policy doesn’t do anything, but committing to a healthy working culture is what makes unlimited vacation work.”