Unlimited Vacation: It’s the Thought that Counts

I thought that when it came to vacations I knew about all the trends. Giving flights away for free to test your Klout, sending someone to look after an Australian island and calling it “work,” and even the dreaded buzz word “staycation” that was born out of the recession. But yesterday local entrepreneur Maggie Fox opened my eyes to something new: the concept of unlimited vacation.

Yes, you read that right. Some companies are doing away with set amounts of vacation time – usually a paltry two weeks annually for new hires in North America – and instead letting employees dictate when they should take off for some R&R. Maggie’s company, online marketing agency Social Media Group, announced yesterday that they’re following in the footsteps of companies like Netflix and offering unlimited paid time off.

It sounds exciting, right? Taking off whenever you want, not having to plan your trips around how many vacation days you have left – pretty ideal for an employee, especially one who likes to set their out-of-office and forget it. And in the age of social media the 9-5 workday has evolved into 24/7 availability – it makes sense that vacation policies should change along with workload expectations. I think it’s a smart idea on the part of the employer, trusting employees to take vacation when they need it so they’re rested and always working at their optimum levels.

Well, not so fast, eager travelers. Netflix offered the following reasoning for offering unlimited vacation:

“The 400 salaried employees are evaluated on their individual performances, not face time. Still, they must be able to balance work and vacation responsibly to get their work done. And they must be able to work without constant supervision.”

And Maggie says that there are guidelines in place for the program, and that each employee is “responsible for your own mental health, your clients and your colleagues.” If you’ve ever worked at an agency, and if you can read between the lines, then you know what Netflix and Maggie are saying is “sure, you can have unlimited vacation. As long as all your work is done and you’re not imposing on other employees to pick up your slack while you’re away.”

Obviously that’s fair to a point – employees can’t expect to just pick up and leave in the middle of a big project, or to leave their colleagues with a pile of their work. But at the same time, is it really ever a good time to take a vacation? In my year at a PR agency I took two trips, both over long weekends. Before each trip I felt guilty for asking my colleagues to cover my daily work, and I felt inundated by e-mail and requests when I returned. And now at Sprouter I’m 25% of the company and the entire communications team – it seems impossible that there will ever be a time when my work subsides long enough to get away without worry.

We kind of work with an unofficial ‘unlimited vacation’ policy at Sprouter. I’ve never entered my days off into a book, or submitted a proposal. In fact I honestly couldn’t tell you how many days I’ve taken in the past two years – but I would guess it’s under the two weeks per year I was promised. But Sarah is awesome about giving us days when we need them/ask for them, as long as I make sure work is covered off – she doesn’t care about the number of days we’re away, just that we’re taking time to relax occasionally and still getting our work done.

Since Social Media Group just implemented the policy last month it’s yet to be seen if it’s going to revolutionize the way they do business. Maggie says she’s already seen a difference: “I feel like it’s really lightened the load in our high-pressure, high-quality, top-notch delivery environment: no more worrying if you have enough vacation time saved to keep yourself healthy. Take time when you and your family need it; you have earned it.”

Whether employees take advantage of this program or not, I think it’s a positive step towards empowering employees to balance their work with their personal time. As anyone who works at an agency or at a startup knows, there’s not much downtime – you have to take advantage of it when you can. I’m sure there will be the occasional bad apple who takes advantage of the program, but they weren’t meant for agency life anyway. But my real question is with no maximum in place, will there be a minimum number of days you’re required to take? Because that’s a policy I’d be interested in hearing about.

Read more about the trend in this article from Boston.com (photo credit Boston.com).