Right now, for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, I’m taking an extended break from the company I founded. I’m doing things I like to do, spending time with family and friends, and giving myself permission to not worry about what’s happening at work. So far, it’s been a really good time.
As you might guess, when I decided to take this work sabbatical of sorts, I did so without filling out a PTO form for approval with HR. But that isn’t because I get some sort of fancy company-founder special treatment. It’s because for the past ten years, we haven’t tracked vacation at all at Jellyvision--and that goes for everyone.
Why would we do such a thing?
Well, to be honest, our policy started out of necessity. The company was way smaller then--there were just 14 of us--and the process of tracking paid time off was just too burdensome to be of any value. People had more important work to do, and there wasn’t much dignity in having to determine whether someone’s half-day off begins at noon like you’d expect or at 2 pm because they happened to have a tendency to arrive at the office at 10.
Now that we’re a much bigger company (we’re 20 times larger than we were back then), we continue not tracking vacation days because of the way this benefit affects our culture.
Treating vacation time this way simply broadcasts trust throughout the organization. It says to our employees: "because you’re an honest, hardworking, awesome person, we trust you to take the time you really need while also making sure that you take care of our business and your colleagues who are depending on you."
Of course, trust is something that goes two ways. In order for an open-ended vacation policy to work, employees have to trust that the flexibility you’re offering is being offered with no weird strings attached.
When employees are uncertain of whether the offer of vacation-when-you-need-it really is sincere, or if they think the policy involves some weird test of company loyalty, they’ll actually take LESS time. That’s what happened to us initially. I’m sure it didn’t help that, as the head of the company, I myself worked right through my “vacations.” Same for other leaders. So, not surprisingly, that’s what everyone else assumed they were expected to do, despite the policy. People were taking LESS than two weeks off a year.
That led to employees not getting the time off they needed to stay positive and productive. Frankly, it led to mild resentment.
Now, our CEO and all top leaders really do unplug during vacation. They happily share their excitement about their plans and often post photos. When someone tries to keep working during vacation, their manager will tell them to shut off email and let the team give them a break…as they have done for others.
Our leaders are now “vacation role models” to show that our policy is absolutely sincere. As a result, everybody in the company feels safe doing what they need in order to be refreshed and healthy.
Do we have problems with people abusing the policy? Out of hundreds of people, it has happened exactly once. At the time I asked Amanda Lannert, our CEO, whether she thought it might be time to put a limited vacation policy in place. Her response: “Just because one person abused the policy? I can just have a talk with her. And for everyone else, we can continue to show that we trust our people to use good judgment…which they do.”
People understand that work doesn’t evaporate when they go out of the office. They know their coworkers will have to pick up the slack if they choose to take time off in the middle of an important project or busy part of the year.
As long as their time-off requests are reasonable (and the details are worked out with the appropriate manager), we want our people to feel comfortable taking the time they need. But more importantly, we want them to know that we trust them. Think about it for yourself: do you work harder and smarter when you feel trusted or when you don’t?
Companies think vacation policy is about time. It’s not about time. It’s about trust.