Back before everybody had the enforced experience of working from home, the concept of remote working was treated as something of a chucklesome curiosity. To many, it seemed like the ultimate dream; to those on the outside, it felt like a slacker’s paradise. While we’ve all now formed clearer opinions on remote working (we know what it is, and whether it’s right for us or not), there’s another equally-misunderstood perk which is on the rise: the idea of an Unlimited Paid Time Off policy.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: being empowered to take vacation whenever you need it, not based on arbitrary allowances. You can take it when you need it, without fear of having to limp to the end of December because you’ve spent all of your annual holiday allocation. And on the surface, there would seem to be two main camps: Surely it can only be beneficial for employees (more free perks!), and surely it can only be bad for employers (people will never be in the office?)

Yet from my experience, the positions are often reversed - here are a few things to bear in mind if you’re considering taking a role which offers unlimited time off (or if you’re an organisation who’s thinking of implementing such a scheme.)

Sometimes you need guidance

Most articles that I’ve read about the “pros and cons of unlimited PTO” have the same issue at the top of the Cons column: It’s a policy that’s open to abuse. If you previously offer employees 25 days of holiday, what’s to stop everybody from now taking 50 or 60 days a year, resulting in a huge drop in output for the company? In my past experience of working in an unlimited PTO company, the biggest risk isn’t employees gaming the system - it’s that (without an indicator of how much time off somebody is entitled to) people end up taking less time off: they’re less inclined to “spend” their allowances, and feel bad about taking arbitrary days off, because they’re choosing to “let the team down”. Consequently, unlimited PTO sometimes leads perversely to overworked and stressed teams.

The policy is clearer at my current role with Makers. Our unlimited time off scheme is also called a “minimum holiday policy” - we’re told to take at least 25 days off per year; to ensure we’re always taking 6-7 days’ holiday per quarter (rather than saving it for “quiet periods” which will likely never come), and even explicitly encouraged to take 6-7 days during our probationary period, to allow for restful learning. I’ve never worked anywhere before where we’ve been so actively encouraged to take time off in our first months with the company, and it’s certainly not something that I would have actively looked to do if the company hadn’t made it clear that they want us to take the time.

This, then, brings it back round to trust. Any “hands-off” policy like this is largely reliant on trust: the belief that people will make sensible decisions for themselves, while keeping the business’s needs in mind. Trust-based schemes are, by their nature, open to abuse (hence the phrase “abuse of trust”) and the fix is simple: hire trustworthy people and trust them. Two-way communication is essential, as employees also need to trust that an organisation will allow them to utilise their PTO policy in a healthy way.

An empowering reduction in admin

If you’ve ever line-managed people whose annual leave you’re approving, then undoubtedly you’ve often burned through hours of distractions in a week when people try to book or cancel holiday. I once worked with somebody who would “pre-book” holiday at semi-frequent intervals to ensure they were taking regular time off, but would then often cancel and re-book these days if the mood took them. I’ve also managed people who block-out their holiday at the start of the year, to cater for school half-terms and other parental responsibilities, only to then find themselves struggling when they need to take “actual” time off for recovery. (And, particularly regarding the latter, it should come as no surprise that women therefore face increased discrimination and fallout from holiday policies, as they’re more prone to be seen picking-up the childcare burden.) There’s an instant boost to morale and happiness when people know that they’re empowered to put their wellbeing first.

“When people don’t take a vacation, everything suffers—their work, their family, and team morale. No one wants to work for people who show them they can’t rest and be successful.”

– Katrina Kibben, LinkedIn: Pros and Cons of Unlimited PTO and Companies That Offer it

Compare that to an unlimited holiday policy, where people take time when they need it, with approval from their teams and peers, without needing to escalate decision-making or juggle arbitrary numbers. (Not that unlimited necessarily means unmonitored - it’s still important to keep a record of when people are on holiday, particularly if you’re working with clients who bill by the hour, or so that there is some way to ensure that leavers have taken “sufficient” holiday according to UK guidelines.)

So it’s great for managers, and it should be even more empowering for individuals. Whenever (and however or how often) you take time off, it’s critical to ensure that you’re still getting “good quality” holiday: you shouldn’t feel compelled to check your emails or Slack when you’re off. Processes should be in-place to allow people to cover, and it should be as straightforward as setting your Slack status to “On holiday - back tomorrow”.

And it’s a process where the onus is on managers to lead by example - if you observe your boss taking regular, clean breaks from their working schedule, you’ll be more compelled to see that as acceptable. And in return, people won’t take too much or too little time off - they’ll take the amount of holiday that they need in order to be their best selves in the workplace.

Key takeaways 📝

  • In unchecked Unlimited PTO schemes, employees are more prone to taking less holiday.
  • Consider a “minimum time off” policy, and let teams self-manage above that level.
  • Such policies should be supported by fostering a culture of trust and transparency.