Need a vacation? Staycation? Or maybe just a day to fit in those doctor’s visits you’ve been putting off for three months?
Deciding when to take time off can be more stressful than just going to work, which is why unlimited PTO has been a big seller for many local companies when recruiting. But like most things that seem too good to be true, unlimited PTO can have some serious downfalls in practice.
A recent issue of Girls Night In, a weekly, nationally focused newsletter about self care, featured the words of a former unlimited PTO employee who bemoans the trap in which the policy can ensnare some workers. GNI’s Tyler Calder writes:
“I have such vivid memories of being at my first couple of jobs out of college — both cool startups™ with unlimited time-off policies — and still being absolutely petrified to take time off work. … ‘A trip isn’t in my budget,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have a reason to take time off.’
The funny thing about unlimited PTO is that, unless someone teaches you how to use it properly, it can make you feel like you owe your employer something.”
So, what’s the deal with unlimited PTO? At first glance it seems like a dream world of Caribbean vacations anytime, but in actuality can make it look to a boss like you’re shirking responsibilities by taking it. Also, what’s the right amount of PTO? And is it really unlimited if there’s a recommended amount? Do you actually end up taking fewer days off than the average worker? How does it affect company culture?
Time off is a complex issue. Even if you get a good policy, Slate pointed out the difficulties of feeling like you can’t take vacation time even if it’s offered. Companies may still expect employees to be available for phone calls and emails, and that employers might take issues if staff doesn’t have a “good enough” reason to take off. Unlimited PTO could solve this if managers aren’t tracking days as closely, but HR Dive notes that higher-ups also need to be taking off to establish a company culture of using vacation time.
“I was hesitant to implement unlimited PTO at first because of everything I’d read about how it actually leads to employees taking less time off, in part because the norms are unclear, and there’s a fear of taking more time off than leadership actually wants and isn’t disclosing,” wrote the company’s former director of strategic initiatives in an email. “[Founder] Mike [Tedeschi] and I worked to counter that by requiring staff take a minimum of two weeks off. Having the policy was just the start though. We learned that we as leadership needed to model it by taking our own time off.”
To answer all of our time-off questions, we asked local reps from companies with unlimited PTO policies how it works for them.
So, what’s the 411? Why do you offer unlimited PTO?
- “We believe in trusting and empowering our team and then getting out of their way vs. being policy heavy,” said Emily Allen, director of people operations at Seer Interactive. “We want our team to want to be here, that’s when we believe the best work is done.”
- “One, we trust our people and felt like there had been some awkward scenarios where someone needed more days off and was asking for unpaid time off which was crappy,” said Darren Hill, CEO at Weblinc. “Two, we have a very small administrative team and tracking days off became a waste of someone’s time.”
- “We put it in place in response to the idea that we wanted to create this culture of work/life balance by taking out the restrictions around PTO and how its used and when its used,” said Melinda Ramos, director of talent and diversity at the Brownstein Group. “Creating an unlimited PTO policy allowed us to keep it flexible. … Also, from a recruiting standpoint, it’s a big seller.”
How much time do you recommend employees take off?
- “We don’t have a recommended amount, but, I do share Seer’s average with our team for relativity,” Allen said. “In looking at our last rolling 12 months of data, we’re averaging four weeks of PTO at Seer.”
- “We don’t have a recommended time, but we expect most people to take two to four weeks off,” Hill said.
- “I generally think that four to five weeks a year is a safe and comfortable amount of time to take off,” Ramos said.
How do you prevent people from taking advantage of it?
- “If we feel that the policy is being abused, we simply flag that direct with the team member to course correct,” Allen said. “Our intention is to address this individually, versus making a policy change that impacts the whole due to one or two folks that may need some clarity regarding expectations. Additionally, we have parameters in place to catch this: Managers have a checklist to follow to approve PTO. Without approval, an employee is not permitted to take PTO.”
- “We are such a tight team that it’s obvious to everyone if one person is not carrying their own weight,” Hill said.
- “In the time I’ve been here I tend to see over-usage in the single percentage range, and that’s usually some sort of a reminder to people that we want to be cognizant of our teammates as well as the workload and make sure we’re not leaving other people to take over what we’re doing,” Ramos said. (Ramos also noted that recent graduates are the most likely to take more time off, possibly because they’re transitioning from a schedule with summer and winter breaks.)
Conversely, how do you make sure people are using it?
- “We look at reports on a monthly basis to see whether or not it is being underused or overused, and when it is being underused we basically make an assessment about the time of year it might be in,” Ramos said. “If we see low usage during the summer months, which tend to be on the slower side, we usually will notify the managers of those departments and say, ‘Hey, we’re seeing really low usage and you should encourage your people to take some time off and just remind them that its available to them.”
How does it affect the work environment?
- “We only hire adults who are really good at what they do,” Hill said. “We give these employees the freedom to make their own schedules based on their lives. I think the people who work here like that freedom.”
- “Knowing that you have a safety net of being able to take time off whenever you need it and there aren’t going to be a lot of questions about it or pushback, I think gives people a peace of mind which makes for a much more healthy employee,” Ramos said, “in the sense that they’re not holding any kind of resentment or anxiety about their teammates or their manager relationships.”
Is this something you would recommend to other companies?
- “Honestly, it depends on the culture,” Allen said. “Seer is more output or results focused than ‘butts in seats’ focused. There’s a lot of great companies out there that I know that really care about ‘butts in seats,’ meaning leadership wants to see people in the office. In an environment like that, an unlimited PTO policy likely wouldn’t be the best fit.”
Longo shared a similar case-by-case sentiment: “I’m less interested in seeing more employers implement unlimited PTO per se than I am in seeing them think intentionally about PTO, truly value time off, trust in their employees to make decisions about when they need that time, and create and communicate clear policies and processes,” she said.
OK, so that’s from the people offering unlimited PTO. But what about the employees taking it?
LaNeshe Miller White worked as Interactive Mechanics’ marketing manager for the year before it shut down, and she said the policy had been a draw when applying. She didn’t feel the need to be “on” during days she’d requested off ahead of time, and that project management software, such as Asana, helped employees adjust their tasks when they needed to take a day last minute.
“I really liked that things were clear,” she wrote in an email about how the policy played out IRL. “We had to give one week’s notice per day that we were taking off. So there was a structure to lead time, and it was also done via our payroll system so you could submit the dates without actually having to talk about why you were taking off, which can be nerve wracking sometimes. It was truly Unlimited Paid Time Off, with no caveats other than the lead time request.”
Miller White estimated she took about two to three weeks of PTO per year, while former Interactive Mechanics developer Christina Deemer said she ended up taking between 10 and 15 days off per year — “definitely more than I would take in the past,” Deemer said. (Psst, the national average was 17.4 days last year.)
“The flexibility encouraged me to take breaks when I needed them, which kept me feeling refreshed and motivated,” Deemer said, and she appreciated the policy so much that when she went looking for her next role, she “particularly” looked for companies with similarly flexible PTO policies. She’s now a UX developer with remote-first Alley, which requires its employees to take at least 10 days off.
Twitter also offered these perspectives:
I have a self-imposed rule that I ask unlimited PTO companies to tell me what the average actually taken is, and if they can't/don't/won't, I walk away from the recruiter and never look back.
— Ben Novack (@titlecharacter) August 21, 2019
Novack, a local software project manager, continued in the tweet thread that he wants to see companies average well over three weeks of PTO to keep up with sickness, life and personal time.
“I know people who work(ed) at actual, good UPTO places, so I want to remain open, but I’m very comfortable saying my default position is it’s a red flag and it’s on [the companies] to prove to me they’re the awesome exception,” Novack said in the thread.
Have thoughts about unlimited PTO? We want to hear from you. Give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.