Sir Richard Branson may be the most high-profile advocate of unlimited vacation days, but he’s far from the only entrepreneur entranced by the idea. His announcement last fall of the new policy for some employees at Virgin set off a flurry of press coverage of other firms that were succeeding with similar policies (as well as a few pieces offering skeptical pushback).
But just because unlimited vacation time sounds amazing for employees doesn’t mean implementing the idea is without its pitfalls. Even with a committed team and a culture of responsibility you can run into trouble. Want proof? Just look at the story of British photography equipment company Triggertrap.
CEO Haje Jan Kamps shared the story of the company’s failed experiment in offering unlimited vacation time in 2014 on Medium. While Jan Kamps was worried that if his company stopped tracking who was taking off when, productivity might slide and employees might overindulge in the new privilege, the actual problem turned out to be very different, he discovered.
“We looked at the numbers, and it turned out we had a problem,” he writes. “The problem wasn’t that people were taking too much holiday. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
While you’d assume that giving people free rein to plan their time would lead to them taking more time to refresh and recharge, Triggertrap’s experience belies this logic. “In the UK, you tend to be told how many ‘days of holiday’ you have left on your pay slip, which means that you get a monthly reminder of how many days you’ve taken, and how many you have left. This tends to lead to people actually taking their days off—because if you don’t take them by the end of the year, you lose them,” Jan Kramps explains. Without that monthly nudge his staff were taking less time, not more.
And that wasn’t the only issue. “Because we weren’t explicitly tracking, people felt guilty about taking time off,” Jan Kamps reports. Plus, when the company didn’t keep tabs on days, management found it was difficult to fairly assess who wasn’t pulling their weight. “Some were taking a week here and a week there, but others were just taking the odd day. The problem with the latter is that it seemed like they were always away,” he writes.
The bottom line: The policy wasn’t working by any measure. Employees were more burnt out, the actual number of days taken had declined, and the leadership team was paradoxically more stressed about vacation policy than before it instituted this supposedly anxiety-reducing initiative.
Triggertrap has decided to do things a bit differently in 2015, designing a new four-point approach to vacations that significantly tweaks the simple “no tracking time off” policy that didn’t work so well last year. It entails:
- Publicly tracking vacation days taken
- Giving teams responsibility for each others’ burn out—if your colleague needs a break, push them to take more time.
- Continuing to offer no absolute limit on the number of days people can take given that their colleague are happy with their plans
- Offering cash bonuses for employees who take 14 or more days holiday in each half of the year.
The idea of paying your employees to work less might sound extreme, but Triggertrap isn’t the only company that’s trying this approach. Will it work for them? Jan Kamps admits that only time will tell.