Unlimited Vacation

Posted by kdow on May 27, 2016 3:54:01 PM

Photo by me, from my return trip from Tenerife where I used vacation time to get married.

One of the most touted perks in a lot of startups, scaleups and tech unicorns is the ability to take a vacation whenever you want as an employee.

The idea is simple: in an appropriate timeframe, inform your manager that you want to go on vacation. Then go on vacation when the time comes.

The skeptics will say that this encourages either a totally lackadaisical environment in which people are taking months off work, abusing the policy and ruining both the ability for the business to get anything done, but also the culture that the business spends lots of money to nurture (with ping pong tables, beer taps, etc.).

As someone who enjoys and enforces this as a perk, I thought I’d write a post that (maybe) dispels some myths.

What is unlimited vacation?

In most companies, vacation time is an accrued period in which an employee can take time out to unwind from the work environment. Typically this comes to about 25 days (in Ireland), and is usually taken around summertime to go on a tropical odyssey far away from the office & rain.

Unlimited vacation is a fully paid perk that guarantees you as much time off (where appropriate) whenever you need it. It’s used in much the same way: to unwind, relax and get rid of stress from a normally stressful tech company environment. The company doesn’t accrue the days taken off to hold against you later.

Typically this time is used for time off, religious days that aren’t recognised by the company/state, sick days or more spur-of-the-moment things like days when kids are sick, there’s a family emergency or just because you need a day to unwind after a rough month.

The problem

The initial problem with unlimited vacation time is that it solves a really big problem for US-based companies in that US citizens get very little time off from companies typically. We Europeans joke that new mother’s get a weekend off after giving birth for maternity leave. The horror is we’re probably not that wrong!

But that problem doesn’t exist in EMEA or APAC (for the most part). As I mentioned above, Ireland offers 20 days off by the government, and this is usually topped up by the business by 5 days. Unless you work for a tech company where those 20/25 days are listed as minimums.

But the real problem is probably representative of the perception. If you only have 25 days vacation available to you in a year, you’re likely to take them. In my Dad’s days he would have 25 days a year off, but they carried over to the following year if he didn’t take them. Then, after many years of not taking certain vacation days, the company he worked for had to buy the vacation days back off of him in fear that he’d take a year off.

That carry-over of days can’t happen with unlimited plans because there’s no days in lieu and no debt owed to employees who don’t take the days. It’s open deliberately to avoid such accounting issues. But also, as a result of it being open, a lot of people unused to such perks just don’t use them. That’s not the companies’ fault per se. As a result, the company I work for has language that suggests you should take 25 days, but if you need more that’s cool.

What people actually do with the perk

The folks I work with use the perk for varied reasons, but they often boil down to the following:

  • Weddings (there’s a few of those happening!).
  • Family events (we have a few people from other countries in the team so they need a few days to travel for birthdays, etc.).
  • Doctor visits.
  • Bringing the kids to events (sports day, etc.).
  • Taking a day to mind the kids on their days off, especially when the other spouse is in work.
  • Stuff. Miscellaneous stuff that’s none of my business.

So rather than taking 2 months off to climb a mountain in India to have a relaxing conversation with an orchid plant, most people use the perk as a way to blend work & life balance. Which is the human intention of the perk in the first place (as opposed to the business one, being no unruly debt on the books).