Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Unlimited Vacation

Some employers, mostly technology companies like Netflix, IBM, and Bazaarvoice, are offering an unlimited vacation policy. That is, each employee determines how much vacation time he will take without restrictions imposed by the company. Sounds great, right? It seems to be working Bazaarvoice, anyway. Brett Hurt, CEO of the Austin, Texas based company, claims the policy is an important element of the firm’s phenomenal success.

It seems to makes sense – IT employees habitually blur the lines between time at work and time off by being perpetually “on-call,” which makes accounting for time off difficult. And more of America’s workforce has unwittingly become “on-call” with increased ability to work from home and be in contact 24/7 via mobile devices.

The trend toward unlimited vacation marks a philosophical change from “time oriented” to “results oriented” management. In other words, employers don’t care how many hours you’re in the office as long as your work is done. But is your work ever really done? This paradigm shift may eliminate clock-milking, but it may also result in employees taking less vacation. Or working during vacation.

Some activists for work/life balance worry that eliminating formal vacation policies will result in employees taking less time off. As it is, the United States is the only advanced country without government mandated vacation, and US workers are terrible at vacationing even when they do take time off. Additionally, insecurities due to the recession and unemployment could make workers hesitant to take time off at all.

The Boston Globe did an interview with Steve Swasey of Netflix, and revealed that their employees may not be in the office, but they are seldom, if ever, really “off.” They’re checking in with the office via mobile devices even during overseas trips. He says, “Some people really need to get away and rejuvenate. That might not be the right kind of person for Netflix.”

So, what you do think? Unlimited vacation: benefit or scam?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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27 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t mind. Maybe a week more one year, or a week less the next. But I have no doubts that my company, Honeywell, will never use this. If we’re not under the thumb of management at all times, they get nervous.

  2. I work at a company with a lot of long term members, people with 5+ weeks vacation (in Michigan)… and they don’t take it. So even more vacation opportunities would be wasted on them, wouldn’t be used.

    Unlimited sounds to me like a negative in the way it is presented here – when I am away, I don’t check my work email, I don’t go on the company network. Clearly I am not suited for Netflix, based on the quote above.

    If it’s vacation where you are required to be contact-able, it’s not that great.

  3. Sounds like a scam to me. An endless holiday is no holiday at all.

    However. It seems to me it’s only the sort of thing that would work in the “Bullshiting” ecomony. In the real economy where people make urgh things it’d be impossible. How’d you keep the wheels of industry turning if you don’t know how many people are going to turn up to work from one day to the next?

  4. Scam. I think this preys upon the notion that most people given X hours of vacation will take X hours of vacation. If you tell them to take vacation when they feel they deserve it will take very little. This definitely includes me. The people who genuinely don’t care about their jobs and abuse the policy can more easily be identified and let go.

    The other thing this does is break any association between vacation and my money. At my company you get a certain amount of leave per year that covers sick leave and vacation. If you don’t take all of it you get paid for what you don’t use. Since I never get sick (touch wood) and because I never take vacations (because I’m allergic to fun) this increases my pay by almost 10%. The unlimited vacation policy would remove the possibility of this extra vacation pay.

    The other thing, which I think was already mentioned, was most people don’t have jobs that are ever done. I always have twice as much work as I can accomplish and do regular triage to find out what is most critical. I’m never done and it really is never a very good time to take a break.

  5. You decide how much vacation you take but if you actually take a decent amount, you are penalized for it. Perhaps passed over for a promotion you deserve based on the quality or amount of your work because you actually took advantage of a benefit the company offers but doesn’t expect you to actually use. Not if you’re a upwardly mobile and responsible employee anyway…gag
    The thing to remmber is that a company will NEVER do anything unless it is to their advantage. A company’s major expense is in overhead and your benefits are overhead. If it costs the company profit to the stockholders, it is out of the question. And increasing overhead costs by giving employees more perks when they don’t have to is just not going to happen. If my company introduced a policy like this, I would immediately suspect that the end of paid time off was just around the corner.

  6. Just a reminder – We are skeptics.

    To pronounce something a scam based on the limited input of two articles seems – not so evidence based. It seems to based on everyone’s personal views and experiences about the workplace.

    It will be interesting to see some studies on the both the effectiveness and the long term employee morale and turnover.

  7. Seems to me this just means the vacation policy is “unofficial” and would depend greatly on company culture. If the company is good about defining goals for you and tracking your progress, then it’s easy to say, “hey, I’m up-to-date on my work, I can take next week off”, or whatever.

    But if goals and progress are totally nebulous, then it would probably be awful.

  8. Hi! I worked at Netflix. Just a mid-level call-center whipping chick, and never got the cool vacation policy (that was only for corporate office positions). But I can tell you, given that I worked frequently with the people down in Los Gatos, that I don’t think there was ever a time that any one individual there wasn’t available. I was at NF in my capacity for about a year and a half (long enough to have earned and taken my vacation days), and there were corporate sorts that would have emails back to me within 4 hours – didn’t matter day or time (and I worked some pretty messed up shifts now and again!). I remember talking to one of the engineers, who said he’d spent three weeks in, I think, Italy or somesuch… but he was tied to the Blackberry or computer the entire time – which is how no one knew he was in Italy. I always wondered how he enjoyed his trip.

    The story is similar with most of the corporate types I talked to, too. “Vacation? What’s that?”

    There were a lot of Type A workaholics there, who seemed to thrive off the intensity of their work.

    But then, for their paycheck, benefits package, and stock options, I guess you sacrifice sanity and real life. *shrug*

  9. An arrangement like this could be a godsend for some people. I’m a working single mother, and I’m very fortunate I have a workplace that is flexible with time off and working from home. It’s much easier for me to check in on my work from home, even at odd hours, when I need to be with my daughter, and I will gladly make the trade-off of being “on call” more often when I also don’t have to freak out because my daughter is sick one day and I have no one else to watch her when I’m supposed to be in an office. Also, I really enjoy my job, and treat it as an integrated part of my life. So a situation like this would really suit me well.

  10. There’s an assumption behind the controversy – that it is necessarily bad to check your emails for work emergencies before heading off to the beach during your vacation – that “unwinding” is important to everyone.

    In some situations, it may be more comforting to know that the people at the office are handling your work while you are away, and you aren’t returning from 2 weeks off to find a full 2 week backlog waiting for you because they couldn’t remember the password to some account on Day 1.

    Also, I bristled in the past when my boss has tried to give me instructions about how to spend my holiday. He was good intentioned, and wanted me to unwind, but it felt like he was giving me a list of goals that he expected me to achieve. To me, the whole point of that particular holiday (which wasn’t about relaxing, but playing hard!) was that he wasn’t my boss during that period.

    So, whenever I hear people telling me how I should spend my time off so as to best benefit my employer, I get grumpy because I feel they are out of line.

  11. I’d love this to be a more common policy among employers.
    It would certainly benefit people like me. I don’t work in an office, don’t even use a computer or phone at my job, but the work I do is very physically demanding. If I could take a week off at the end of every month, to rest my mind and body, that would be a huge incentive for me to want to do my job better. Better for my health, too.
    So I say: scam for some, benefit for many others.

  12. There’s only a limited amount of jobs that allow you to work from home, and by extension to work from wherever you happen to be at when on holiday.

    I work in IT, but a lot of the work I do is pretty hands on. So if I take my job home (or on holiday), it just means I keep receiving calls, except now I have limited or no access to the information and tools I need to help people out.

    Might as well turn the phone off and have a complete vacation rather than a half-assed vacation.

  13. While I guess this is a nice idea in theory in the end, it is a scam. My sister works at a place with no formal vacation policy. She and her co workers often work 18 hour days, or stick around the office until very late at night because of their bosses whims. But if they take too much time off, they will be fired. How much time off is too much? Who knows. But they definetly discussed firing one of her coworkers because he had been taking too much time off. (Even though his work was done.)

    I suppose this could be good depending on how the corporate culture worked, if the company wanted results and was careful to make sure everyone had a reasonable workload that allowed them to balance their working life and their home life, then a fully results oriented culture would be great. However everywhere I have worked the policy would have eventually devolved to paying a single salary to have the work of three people get done and too bad if you don’t have any time off.

  14. Hi there!

    Well, I’m fortunate in that I get something like 22 vacation days a year, (I work at a University) and I’m very “American” in that I seldom take even half that many. I can only take a real “vacation” when my darling wifey is available, and her schedule leaves her very very little time to get away. So I basically take about 5 days off in August and then maybe another 5 during the year for any special events that I want to attend. Then I get Library Conferences and/or workshops for free, since they’re considered “work”, but still feel like vacation.

    Yet I’m hesitant to say: “SCAM!” at the prospect of unlimited vacation, because I know that there ARE people who would immediately see this as an excuse to work 3 days a week and take multiple “working vacations” where they stay home for a month but check their e-mail a few times a day. Not just in my workplace but in other workplaces I’ve known, people are always trying to get away with working as little as they possibly can.

    Under an “unlimited vacation” policy, I think most of the hard-working people would take exactly as much vacation as they do now, but the lazy-asses would progressively slow down to the least possible productivity as they can muster. This would make it easy for management to pass those people over for promotions, raises, etc. I’d have no problem with that scam. :)

    — Craig

  15. I’d like to believe it, but I’m wary for many of the reasons above.

    By the standards of the rest of the First World (which the US appears Hell bent on leaving in a flat run), Americans are vacation-deprived workaholics. In the US, if you stay long enough at an employer to get the top of the vacation pile, you become a target because you “cost too much.” Even if you don’t use it – it’s still on the books.

    When you start your new job, you’re back at the bottom of the vacation pile, maybe two weeks a year, if that. Of course, we’re made to feel guilty if we use it all…after all, if we’re away the bosses might decide that we’re not all that essential…

    I think the French are right when they say that Americans have forgotten how to live.

  16. It would be difficult to work in a service industry (like the library). While unlimited vacation sounds nice (especially with all the people needing to take time off for spawning purposes), it would be murder on scheduling… and for people like me, who generally like their job, but would wind up covering the desk a lot if people were out whenever they wanted to be (even assuming it still needs to be scheduled time off).

  17. I just want to say, slightly OT, that “enjoying your job” is not a good reason to work to the exclusion of other activities. I enjoy ice cream, but I’m not going to eat it three meals a day. I like shopping, but if I spend all my time at the mall I won’t get to work-out or watch movies. And I like my job, but I don’t want to spend all my time working. It’s a matter of finding the right balance between time at work and time off, and I don’t think wanting time off to do other things means you don’t “enjoy your job”.

  18. @Stacey: True. However, my job mostly consists of sitting around on the internet until someone asks me a question, usually one I’ve answered 30 bajillion times before, and mostly working with people I like (who are reasonable and accept “I have a lunch date with a very attractive woman” as a reason to take an hour and a half lunch). Every so often I come up with a way to do something better, which gets me kudos.

    My days off? They’re pretty much the same, only with more naps and video games.

  19. @Mark Hall: Haha…that does sound pretty enjoyable. I didn’t hit the “@” on my original comment because it wasn’t really directed at you – you just reminded me of the topic. I left my industry last year after 13 years at the same job, which required workaholic hours. I had this conversation with an annoyingly new, enthusiastic, and un-burnt-out co-worker and his argument was that he just looooved being there so much that he didn’t care that he couldn’t do much else. Good for him. I now have a life. Sorry, pet peeve. :)

  20. “So, what you do think? Unlimited vacation: benefit or scam?”

    False dichotomy! I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both options, and one needs to decide what will work best for your own lifestyle.

    I have a relatively flexible work schedule myself (I can work 4 days a week, 10 hour days if I want and I usually do) and I have to say I really like it. Getting a day off in the middle of the week, or long weekends allows me to get things done at home or travel more often, but the flip side is that 10 hour days in the office do feel long.

  21. I’m currently sitting at my job compulsively commenting on Skepchick. Why? Because there is no work to do. We are between projects and the last project(s) haven’t left due to issues beyond my control (another department’s issue that I’m not qualified to help with).

    I really hate sitting here doing nothing. I could be doing nothing while enjoying a beer downtown.

    However, when we are busy I’m here like a champ and I will bust my ass.

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