How ‘unlimited PTO’ can undermine employee engagement

Too often, such generous policies come with a catch—or five. If your staffers can’t freely flee the workaday world, it’s not much of a vacation, is it? Perhaps a different approach makes sense.

Unlimited vacation time. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

You get all the time off you want, but what’s the catch?

Of course, the business has to be in good standing—as a collective, the goals are being exceeded, and it’s making money, and, as an individual, you have to exceed your goals.

If those things happen, you can have all the time off that you want.

It’s a perk many startups use to lure talented performers away from competitors. It’s one we offer.

It turns out, there is an even bigger catch: Unlimited vacation time means you have to work during your holiday(s).

Humans are not robots

We do offer unlimited vacation time—and not with the catch that you have to work while you’re out—but it’s nearly impossible to get people to take vacation time .

Unlimited vacation is horrible; there will always be competition to see who took the least.

What would be better is a mandatory six weeks per year, as they have in Europe: four in summer and two at Christmas or around another holiday. People are just productive and happier. I’ve worked in Europe, the United States and Latin America; the U.S., by far, has the unhealthiest attitude toward vacation.

I once had to bribe Laura Petrolino to take time off. I had the same conversation with Corina Manea (and finally persuaded her to take a week off).

I’m probably the only boss in the world who tracks how long you’ve been with an organization and whether you’ve taken any time off—and then forces it upon you.

I am a big believer in having time to relax, recharge and rest, because human beings are not robots. We come back from even a few days off more productive, more creative and more energized.

It’s completely selfish. I want my team to be all of those things. It’s better for me and for my organization.

Humans burn out

If you have to work through your vacation, all those benefits disappear. Beyond that, people burn out.

Even if we adore our jobs and love the work we’re doing, our brains need time to do something else. That’s why we come up with great ideas in the shower or while exercising or sometimes even when we sleep—our brains are doing something other than work.

So let’s revisit the “perk” that many startups offer with unlimited paid time off (PTO).

The catch is this: You want to go to Europe or Africa or Australia? Great! Make sure you’re still attending meetings, responding to and forwarding email, and doing a minimum day’s worth of work.

That, my friends, is not unlimited vacation time. That is only a change of scenery .

It’s a totally cool perk if you want to be a nomad and work from anywhere, anytime, and no one cares if you’re even in the same time zone—but it is not unlimited vacation time.

Humans are responsible beings

Unlimited vacation time means you get time off—truly off—if you have to wait for the cable guy, need surgery or want to leave the country for a few weeks.

It means you can attend your cousin’s wedding and still go on your annual boys’ trip.

The catch in my organization is exactly what I described above: The organization’s goals and the individual goals have to be exceeded.

The current team has to be able to execute on your things while you’re out. (We don’t hire freelancers to cover for a person using PTO.)

More than anything, we don’t track against any time off.

When you work with adults—and you treat them that way—and you’ve created a culture of accountability, they are responsible with their PTO.

It does not mean someone can take six months of paid maternity or paternity leave.

It does not mean someone can take a paid yearlong sabbatical.

It does not mean someone can be gone for weeks or months on end.

What it does mean is one can have reasonable PTO within a calendar year.

It means if you have a series of doctor’s appointments or want to go to your kid’s summer picnic, no one is watching the clock to make sure you’re putting in the time.

It means if you want to exercise in the middle of the day, no one cares.

It means if you want to take a nap every day, no one is counting that.

It means you can actually take a vacation—unplug, recharge and relax—without expecting to have to do any (and I mean any) work.

Poor managers ruin unlimited vacation time

The shortsightedness of asking people to work while they’re on vacation makes me roll my eyes. Not only is it harder from an HR perspective to track everyone’s time off—even if it’s just an hour or two in the middle of the day—but it subliminally tells your team members that you don’t trust them.

Beyond that, you’ve now created a sense of disloyalty. Worse yet, it doesn’t allow your people to recharge, which hurts you in the long run.

If you offer an unlimited vacation time policy, make it truly that: time off without any strings attached.

A version of this post first appeared on SpinSucks. This post first appeared on Ragan in 2016.

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