This editorial was originally published on 12 Jul 2017. It is being republished as Steve is on holiday.
It’s still not what I would call mainstream, but many companies offer unlimited vacation as part of the benefit package. It sounds intriguing, but I bet you’re already thinking “too good to be true” or “read the fine print”. You’re right to think that there are limits - common sense prevails! But the limits are less restrictive than you might think, and that makes it worth considering.
Until last year every time I’ve been an employee vacation (paid time off, PTO) was a benefit that was well defined. Vacation was requested, approved, and tracked. Sometimes you could accrue it, sometimes it had to be spent by the end of the year, but overall there wasn’t much difference across employers. It’s a workable system, but the best one?
Last year I accepted a position that includes unlimited PTO. I was definitely cautious and a little cynical as I tried to understand what it meant at this company. One of my early questions was “what is the average number of days employees take off?”. The answer was “we don’t know”. How can they not know?!
In this case it was because they made some deliberate choices. There is no approval process for vacations under three weeks - just book the time on a shared calendar. We also have flex time and location. I can work at home, the office, my favorite coffee spot, or wherever else. As long as you’re meeting your goals (which are reasonable) then use the plan to figure out a work life balance that works for you. It approaches the flexibility I’ve had when I was self employed.
Looking back at the first year I think I took three weeks off. This year I’m on track for one week a quarter, plus holidays. I work at home two days most weeks. I try for about 40 hours a week. Some weeks it’s more, some it’s less, and that’s nice - at most jobs it’s 40 or more, rarely less.
It won’t be a perfect fit for every team or every person. Some teams will need more structure, some people will want to be able to accrue time or not have to worry about someone thinking they are taking advantage. For me, it’s no contest - I much prefer the autonomy of taking time as I need it, whether it’s an hour or a week versus requesting and explaining that I want to leave at 2 pm to take my kids to Disney.
In closing, I’ll say this - don’t let the ambitious branding (unlimited!) throw you off. Definitely ask how it works and what the norms are, but if you want the flexibility, realize it requires both sides to trust each other.