in Technology

Unlimited vacation. Minimum vacation. Aren’t we right back at the beginning?

South Beach. CC-BY-NC, by Thomas Hawk - https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk

South Beach. CC-BY-NC, by Thomas Hawk – https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk

A couple of weeks ago, Mathias Meyer wrote an article entitled “From Open (Unlimited) to Minimum Vacation Policy“, detailing how his company, Travis CI, has moved from away from an “unlimited” vacation policy. Mathias found that the dangers of unlimited vacation policies were coming true: Engineers weren’t taking any or enough vacation to avoid burning out. So, he decided to move Travis to a model where a minimum amount of vacation is required. Sounds great, but doesn’t it seem like we’re right back where we started? Isn’t this just a traditional vacation policy couched in different terms? And what was so bad about traditional vacation policies, anyway?

Many column-inches have been consumed by articles and presentations about the purported benefits (and criticisms) of open vacation policies. Beyond the sense of freedom and responsibility that such a policy conveys, I can boil down the benefits to two tangibles:

  • CFOs like open vacation policies because the company isn’t carrying a liability on the books. If vacation days aren’t accrued and carried over from fiscal year to fiscal year, the company isn’t responsible for paying out employees at the end of their tenure.
  • HR and employees both like not having to keep track of how many vacation days a person has taken and how many remain.

I’ve never been particularly bullish on open vacation policies, for exactly the same reasons Mathias describes. Without an incentive to take vacation, employees won’t; Travis CI’s experience over the last two years proves that out. I am personally guilty of this. Chef implemented an open vacation policy earlier this year, and I have taken fewer vacation days than I normally would, because I’m always “busy”. Yes, I know it’s unhealthy — one is always “busy” — but without an incentive to take vacation (“use it or lose it”), I’m just not motivated to step away from the computer.

Travis’s new policy of minimum vacation smells a lot like a traditional vacation policy, only the semantics are inverted. First of all, if vacation days are being tracked one way or another, that negates the purported second benefit. The only thing that an enforced vacation policy does is achieve the first goal: it limits the company’s financial liability to employees by preventing accruals. But isn’t a traditional (“maximum vacation”) policy without accrual exactly the same as what Travis has implemented? Haven’t we just come full circle?

I’m not sure that all the messing around with vacation policies has really been that useful, beyond the pure marketing value to potential employees. (Obviously, my employer and I have differing views.) For example, CNN reports, quoting the Society for Human Resource Management, that approximately 1% of American companies offer open vacation policies, and that number hasn’t changed in years. Structured appropriately, traditional accrued-vacation policies with the right incentives in place to strongly encourage employees to take vacation (i.e. no carryovers) can be just as effective as open policies.

They just won’t get the same marketing buzz.