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Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Posted October 06, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes

I think it’s safe to say that Google’s unique corporate culture was a game-changer in how employers and employees view their workplace environments. The company’s Googleplex HQ sports over a dozen cafes, 24/7 gym access, washers and dryers, a bowling alley, and an employees-only sports park. With so many convenient amenities, what 22-year-old brilliant comp sci graduate wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to join the fun?

A more experienced desk jockey might interpret these perks differently: namely, that Google provides them so their employees can work and be productive around the clock. According to some helpful Glassdoor reviews, there is indeed a tacit assumption that time-off at Google doesn’t exist. These testimonials complain of 3 am emails, no weekends off, and employees breaking down at their desks. Google has built a remarkable corporate culture that looks laid-back, challenging, and fun on paper, but which might be more accurately described as soul-crushing and life-destroying by many on the inside.

The Google paradox seems an apt framing device for a newer trend: unlimited vacation, or “discretionary time off.” The prevalence of employers offering unlimited vacation has doubled since 2014, albeit only from 1% to 2% of all US employers. While the policy is much more common among agile startups where you might imagine working at a desk made of recycled plant fibers, LinkedIn notably introduced the policy in October 2015. More and more employers are buying in because American workers are taking less vacation time every year, so paying out unused vacation time when an employee retires or quits is becoming increasingly expensive. Project: Time Off, a coalition seeking to redefine employee well-being and self-care, estimates that US companies carried $224 billion in total unused vacation time on their books in 2015.* Unlimited vacation makes much more sense from a cost perspective in that employees only receive the vacation time they request, eliminating horded time off.

*Project: Time Off is an initiative started by the US Travel Association to “prove the value of time off for personal well-being, professional success, business performance, and economic expansion.” In other words, take more vacations. I smell a probable bias here.

Unlimited vacation time is an odd concept because, similarly to Google’s outlandish perks, it sets up the employer to be extremely generous but tacitly lays out expectations without a well-defined policy. I’d imagine that employees with unlimited vacation time often wonder whether they “should” or “can” take more vacation time. Experts advise workers laboring under these policies to scope out how much vacation everyone else is taking (usually 2-3 weeks plus an occasional day off per year) and stick to that. According to a recent article in Inc. magazine, discretionary time off policies can serve as a potential red flag for workers looking to jump ship in the near future. The magazine listed an example of an employee who took a two-week vacation, worked for a week, then tried to take another week off. When confronted, he broke down and confessed that he was planning on leaving the company in two weeks without notice.

Unlimited vacation is a new enough concept that it’s impossible to predict if it’ll stick around or fade away. Maybe there will come a day when job-seekers will regard companies who don’t offer unlimited time off as dinosaurs, or maybe the idea will become an excessive benefit offered in return for the expectation of all-nighters and workaholism, a la Google.

Stay tuned for more blogs about the changing nature of work and employee relations.

Image credit: Lulu Hoeller (CC BY 2.0)

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#1

Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 7:51 AM

Sounds like retirement...

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#2

Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 8:57 AM

I could be cynical and observe that since U.S. workers in general don't use all of their vacation, offering unlimited vacation is a perk that looks great but in reality won't cost an employer anything. Before I get slammed for over-generalization, I admit I don't know what segments of the working population don't use up vacation.

I wonder if unlimited vacation could also be used for parental leave. I heard a story on NPR last night about the dearth of parental leave, particularly leave for fathers and for hourly employees. I'm guessing the companies that offer unlimited vacation also have some provision for parental leave.

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#3
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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 9:20 AM

Some would claim that all segments don't use all of it, or use enough. Again, most of the stats I found about unused vacation are published by travel advocacy groups with a vested interest in PTO.

Then there's the stories of employees running out of sick time and dying at their desks, although I can't imagine that's common:

http://fortune.com/2015/05/01/paid-time-off-vacation/

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#4

Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 11:16 AM

I'd much rather an employer say "you have 3 weeks vacation a year and you have to use them or you lose them" rather than offer "unlimited vacation".

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 1:12 PM

I agree. I think Google's unlimited time off is accompanied by an expectation for a work model (I won't call it an ethic, because it isn't) that likely results in very little time 'off'.

But on the other hand, . . . .

No one makes anyone stay there.

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#8
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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 3:34 PM

Google has a very brutal interview process(s) that very few can circumvent.

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 1:04 PM

They let you play hard, but I'm sure they expect you to also work hard. It's an old psychology trick that's used all the time. The more perks, the more people will feel they have to work, at least the type of motivated people the company wants to keep. It sounds like a recipe for burnout.

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/06/2016 2:57 PM

"These testimonials complain of 3 am emails, no weekends off, and employees breaking down at their desks. Google has built a remarkable corporate culture that looks laid-back, challenging, and fun on paper, but which might be more accurately described as soul-crushing and life-destroying by many on the inside."

Not a new concept. Wikipedia article regarding Karoshi.

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#9

Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/07/2016 4:52 PM

Depends on your job, if you view this as a good perk or bad. In the dark past, when I was an oil field slave, to get a vacation at all was a luxury. Unlimited vacation would have been totally useless as you couldn't get a day off without being injured, and that was time limited. I worked through a concussion on several well sites, despite doctors orders to stay home for a week.

Now with my current job, it would be very good indeed. We go through periods of great rush and 15 hour days with no weekend time off, to a month or two with one wondering what to do at work. Sudoku is a good time filler. Management could be satisfied, as one would put in plenty of time during the rush to make up for multiple days in a row of checking in, then leaving.

So depending on the job conditions - it is great, or it is a big come on to get let down.

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/12/2016 10:12 AM

When I was in the oil fields the schedule was 14 - 15 days on followed by 6 -7 off. In my books going by past jobs I have had that was the equivalent of a normal work schedule but with a weeks vacation coming every two weeks!

For me I loved that part of the oil field work. Hard all time consuming work schedule followed by a sufficient off time to reset.

Since then I have often thought that if I started my own company I would run things a similar schedule. Two weeks of 12 hour days followed by a week off.

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/12/2016 10:26 AM

Can tell you weren't in the wireline operations in the oilfield, as at one time, the best they could do was say 9 on with 3 off, but stay close in case we need you, which they usually did. The CEO had to issue a threat eventually, to fire any field manager that cancelled vacations, because despite the wages about double any where else an engineer could work, people were leaving within 6 months of the rather expensive training program they put you through. Vacations weren't guaranteed for my first 5 years and the "stay close" order was in effect as well. We were still expected to be at work 8AM to 5PM even when we weren't out in the field, and even when we knew we were probably going to be up that night on a site. Hopefully, this is not the working conditions anymore in that facet of the industry.

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#12
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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/12/2016 12:42 PM

I was in fracking the last time.

We loved the wire line well jobs. Over worked, understaffed, unorganized and usually running on equipment with insufficient training so we were almost guaranteed at least one 24 - 48 hour shutdown due to breakdowns every time we had a wireline well project!

That meant movie time in the data van or hole up in a truck bunk and catch up on sleep for us on the frack crews!

Unless of course they set off the gun in the down pipe while dropping the gun rather than in the horizontal run by accident. Then we had to rig everything down and head for the next well job.

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Re: Is Unlimited Vacation Time Too Much Of A Good Thing?

10/12/2016 1:03 PM

I see the wireline industry has not improved. I made it 11 years so by the end, I didn't give you guys much downtime. My company was bought up by Dresser and slowly taken apart. By the end, when I said enough of this over working, I was one of three remaining Birdwell engineers. Apparently Dresser understood what experience was worth.

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