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Thoughts On Unlimited Vacation

  • By , Director of Engineering, Culture Foundry

What does “unlimited vacation” actually mean?

“Employees are trusted.” This is the kind of statement that no company would contradict: the phrase “employees are not trusted” emblazoned on the office wall makes employee retention difficult.

At Culture Foundry we live this statement. One way we do that is that every employee has unlimited paid vacation.

But what does that actually mean?

I’m sure there are benefits for the company to this policy, but I’m not the right person to speak to them. I’m going to talk about the benefits and responsibilities from an employee perspective. From my perspective.

The benefits of unlimited vacation from the employee perspective are pretty straightforward. When you need time off, whether for a family emergency, a planned trip, or a powder day, you take it. At Culture Foundry, we have a shared Google calendar that you add your vacation time too, and that’s the entire “approval” process. That’s it.

However, this freedom has a corresponding responsibility. You take time off when you need it, but you have to be aware of the impact your vacation has on the teams of which you are a part. Our clients care about delivery and that doesn’t happen when you are not present (though vacation can improve your ability to deliver when you return, to the benefit of both the employee and the company). At Culture Foundry we have billable hour targets (cumulative, over the year) which also ensure that the impact on the company’s bottom line of nonbillable time (including vacation) is clear to all parties.

In a traditional environment where vacation is tracked and approved, a manager or team lead or project manager is responsible for understanding the schedule impact. But in the unlimited vacation scenario, that responsibility is the employee’s. They need to understand what the impact will be on their co-workers. (If the time off is for an emergency, that’s a different situation.) You, the employee, need to seek out such information and make sure that you’re not overly impacting the team. You also need to communicate the time off you have scheduled so that others can plan around it. Sometimes just posting on the calendar is enough, other times you need to speak up in planning meetings.

When you are interviewing at a company with unlimited vacation, make sure you determine the norms. Unlimited vacation doesn’t mean that you can take every other week off (at least, I’ve never seen that). Since unlimited vacation is a relative novelty in the working world, it’s OK to spend some time trying to understand this during an interview, or via follow up email if you get an offer. Ask these kinds of questions:

  • How do you ask for time off?
  • What is the maximum amount of continual time off that has been taken by anyone in the past year?
  • How many weeks a year is the typical employee taking off?
  • How do teams communicate time off?
  • How does vacation impact deadlines? (And vice versa.)

When you have unlimited vacation, make sure to use it! Unlike allotted vacation plans, you won’t be paid out for unused vacation when you leave a company. Determine what works best with your schedule–is it a week off every quarter, or a long summer trip, or a three day weekend every few weeks? Also, be aware that during busy times there will always be a reason to put off vacation. Don’t let that happen, because that is a recipe for burnout.

Unlimited vacation is one way an employer can “walk the walk” and trust their employees to both take care of themselves and to act in the best interests of the company.

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