Offering Flexible Workdays and Unlimited Vacation Time

Do you remember how you felt after a few months of working in your first full-time job? I do. When the reality hit me that there would be no summer break, I was depressed for a few days! Wouldn’t it be great if we could just take a break whenever we wanted? Don’t snort in derision, because the topic of allowing flexible workdays and unlimited vacation time is being thrown around a lot lately as a perk more employers should consider offering.

Does the suggestion of offering flexible workdays and unlimited vacation time seem preposterous to you? It did to me. If we at Amtec were to take a 2-hour lunch as one article I read suggested, would our customers want us to interrupt their dinnertime to allow us present them with a candidate? And if we had no boundaries on our vacation policy, who would be in the office to receive calls and greet candidates or customers? I’m sure you can think of more what-ifs for your organization’s specific circumstances and needs.

To my relief, Jim Belosic, CEO of ShortStack and a big proponent of the unlimited vacation policy, recognizes that such an unstructured policy isn’t a good fit for every company:

In most larger businesses when someone takes a week off, any work that can’t be put on pause can be allocated to other employees for the week—because there are enough employees to pick up the slack. [But] if you’re a small business owner, you may have one person who wears several hats, and the option to have a position “covered” simply isn’t there. Instead of offering unlimited vacation, consider adapting the “I don’t care when you work, as long as your work gets done” policy. This provides flexibility for employees with families or for those who have an obligation pop up, but it doesn’t compromise the business.

Mark Volpe, CMO of HubSpot, a marketing and sales software company, says that employees want their employer to trust them, challenge them, and give them the freedom to create their own work-life balance. If that sounds idealistic or unrealistic to you or I, it could be because the output of some jobs is measured in hours worked. But Volpe says that shouldn’t stop employers from making every job more flexible today than it was ten years ago, to enable employees to mold their jobs to fit their lives. (And his picture of this balance, I might add, includes the idea that his employees can “do their jobs from almost anywhere today, thanks to tools like Google Drive and GoToMeeting,” which doesn’t exactly sound like a vacation escape to me!)

Belosic adds that 75% of U.S. employees do not currently take the vacation time they’ve earned, possibly out of worry that they’ll either lose their job or fall behind. Yet studies have shown that people need to take their vacation days to rest, replenish, and come back ready to be productive again. Belosic recommends surveying your people to find out if unlimited vacation time is even something they want. And your people, he adds, must be hired for their ability to be self-starters, because “if you have people who need to be told what to do every day or every week and aren’t self-directed, there’s a risk that these people will not cover their bases when they’re gone—and therefore a non-regulated vacation policy could be detrimental.”

Ironically, the ambiguity of an unlimited vacation policy could actually lead employees to work more and take less vacation, says Lotte Bailyn, a professor of management at MIT. She asserts that companies that want energized, creative employees would be smarter to insist that everyone takes at least a two-week vacation, from top management to the lowest level of employee.

Offering flexible workdays and unlimited vacation time may work for some results-driven organizations such as Netflix, Evernote, and Best Buy. If yours measures employees’ performance solely by output and not by hours worked or accessibility, then perhaps you’re ready to let your employees take off whenever they want. But for many companies, the more practical challenge is how to offer smaller pieces of flexibility and understanding that can contribute to your employees’ work/life balance without putting your company out of business!

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Reference: Are Unlimited Vacation Policies a Good Idea? Costco Connection, March 2015.

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