How many of you dream of taking a three week cruise in the Mediterranean followed by a couple of weeks touring European wine regions? All while getting paid for it with no concern about whether you’ll have enough leave for future vacations or sick time either. Sound too good to be true?
According to The Wall Street Journal, companies who offer unlimited vacations are increasing but employees are hesitant to fully embrace these policies. And indeed, my recent post about Netflix briefly mentioned their own unlimited vacation policy to which one commenter replied, “all you need vacation as long as you get your work done – really, on what planet?”
Are the skeptics right, or does unlimited vacation work in the right culture?
A lesson from Netflix
In the Journal article, Netflix says they discontinued tracking vacation back in 2004. Based on their own estimates, employees take 3-5 weeks off per year (better than before they claim). Discussions flow around how work will be done and how to accommodate when an employee is gone rather than focusing on the length of time they will be away.
There is a bit of a catch: be prepared to be tied to your Blackberry or laptop for part of your trip. From the story, it seems like this is the norm. Be away all you want but work still has to go on.
That may be nice but sometimes you have to unplug completely on vacation. Physical relaxation and renewal goes along with the mental part too. And not completely unplugging seems to plays in favor of cynics who think the unlimited vacation perk just sets the stage for working all of the time, no matter where you are at.
Another example: The Newman Group
When I saw this piece, I also remembered that The Newman Group used to have a similar policy before its acquisition by Korn/Ferry. I had the chance to go back and forth with former CEO Ed Newman (now writer of the Accidental Entrepreneur blog) and talk about what they did.
Newman had the unlimited time off plan in place for a six year period before the company’s integration into Korn/Ferry. The types of leave varied and allowed for casual time off (like a Friday off or a half day to take care of a doctor appointment), vacations (a week or more) and sick time (unlimited too, until disability kicked in). Most people didn’t take more than a week or two off for vacation (although one did take off a month after a long period without time off).
The why for Newman was simple. “My philosophy was that everyone working for me was an adult and worked hard. So if you need time off for something, just take it,” he said. “My experience was that people worked way more than 40 hours a week and if they took a Friday off, they had already earned it and deserved it. I felt like the accrual method was like nickel and diming.”
He also estimated that most employees took two weeks off (one planned, one for various casual days). That number seems right along the averages that CNNMoney mentioned a couple of months ago.
Differences in the unlimited vacation approach
Where The Newman Group differed from an approach like Netflix was that vacation time was truly vacation time.
“In a consulting business, there is always that pressure to put in the billable hours to make revenue. But the pressure was the same whether there is an accrual or not,” he explained. “With the ‘no limit’ policy, it made me really encourage people to take adequate vacations each year, and I needed to set the example. When I took time, I also made it a policy to not check email or voicemail, and I encouraged the same. Because when you take the vacation time, I want you to get the full benefit.”
And that really helps you take “unlimited” vacation policies with a grain of salt. How employers expect you to work normally, how you work while on “vacation,” and the peer culture that often dictates what the vacation norm would be, are really the determining factors in play. For some people, a Netflix approach where being away from the office is fine as long as you’re plugged in (at least some of the time) works fine. Others would prefer true time away from the office, even if it meant they weren’t necessarily encouraged to use more than industry norms.
Could you do it?
Of course, some in HR will think that companies are better equipped to know what employees can handle. Tracking it gives employers a bit of an easier way to see when someone may be due to take some time away. That being said, it is a compelling feature of “unlimited” vacation. If you could turn skeptics into believers and had the right culture to do it, it seems like it could work the same way it has for Netflix or The Newman Group.
What is your experience with unlimited vacation time? Do you think your company could handle it?