Unlimited Vacation vs. Unlimited Work

Can unlimited vacation policies bring us closer to an *actual* vacation from work?

Recently, Richard Branson has made the “startling” claim that he wants everyone to have unlimited vacations.

At first glance it seems like any and all anti-work advocate should be behind this but let’s take a closer look.

First off, on that ABC link there’s a piece about Branson himself and at one point he says he’s more of a “big picture” guy than someone who handles the small details. And when you’re going to propose something like “unlimited vacation” then hat sort of tendency shows.

Because one of the big problems with “unlimited vacations” is exactly in the small details. What does that exactly mean? Do employees just take whenever off and don’t need to inform management? Are they still going to get paid for a set number of vacation days? Probably not. And who gets it? Is it just for management and no one else? Or does everyone really get the full benefits of the policy?

One of the biggest problems is that giving someone a non-policy is basically giving them more questions than answers. Eventually problems may arise or questions that either can’t or won’t be answered by the higher-ups may come up from the workers about what exactly this means in practice.

Now, I’m not saying this can’t have good benefits. Branson says,

I have a friend whose company has done the same thing and they’ve apparently experienced a marked upward spike in everything –- morale, creativity and productivity have all gone through the roof,” Branson recalled his daughter telling him.

And it appears that it has helped other companies (though the sources on that one are mostly from spokespeople and personal stories rather than empirical research) and also seems to generally help people (though, take note that this blog points out the study doesn’t say that the length of the vacations matters so much as the planning of it and anticipation of it). Though the trouble is that the larger American culture (and Britian’s culture as well I’d suspect) is very much interested in the work-ethic.

So when people take time off they bring stuff from work , worry about work, stress out about the work-load they have when they get back and some even work while they’re on “vacation”.

So to a certain extent, taking vacations or trying to give the workers more free time can be a nice bandage…but it’s still just a bandage.

After all, if the corporate-culture you’re involved in is very production based then it can prove to be very difficult to actually take vacations. Especially if you feel guilt about it (as some people do) and think you’re somehow desecrating your duties to the company by not being there 24/7 as you normally would.

There are ways around the lack of clarity in policies of course. You can give incentives for vacations or have group dialogues with employees and make things more explicit, etc. etc.

But, giving your employees more vacation time doesn’t make them necessarily any more free. Contrary to what Reed Hastings of Netflix says, a culture of “responsibility and freedom” would look more akin to Morning Star which is largely employee owned and is self-managed. Not a place where employees can subtly be shut down about vacations on the basis of vague policies and hierarchical power that management and bosses have over them.

There are both pros and cons and it seems at least in one place some Netflix employees gave it positive reviews (which, who knows, they may have been paid to say so take it with a grain of salt) and I’m not saying we should be inherently against it. Just that the story is a bit more complex than the CEOs who make these bold proclamations about work in the 21st century would like to have us believe.

And there’s even speculation on the part of Matthew Yglesias that these policies are specifically made because the companies know that the employees won’t take them:

Take me, for example. Slate gives me a finite number of vacation days. But even if they got smart and gave me unlimited vacation days, I wouldn’t drastically alter my vacationing pattern. After all, you can call them “paid vacation days” if you like but obviously nobody’s paying me to go on vacation. Slate pays me to create value forSlate through a mix of attracting readers, being helpful to colleagues, and, in some larger sense, being part of the Slate brand. To the extent that I’m able to do those things, it makes sense to pay me. If I started taking half the year off, my traffic would plummet and I’d have a problem with the bosses. Not a “too much vacation” problem exactly but a “not delivering the goods” problem.

And so we come to the obvious problem that the “unlimited vacation” policy (or sometimes non-policy) isn’t even really that applicable to a lot of industries. Whether it’s because the sort of industry it was or because the culture in the given company is simply not amenable to this type of idea. Whatever the case may be so far the tech start-ups and other more “hip” companies tend (with exceptions of course, like IBM) to be the ones who do this. And the percentage I see for this sort of policy is around 1% of all companies, so there isn’t too much data on how this works or is implemented for the most part. Mostly stories from CEOs, spokespeople and workers (who may or may not have been paid off).

There are also people who do this:

I have a guy on my team who takes off almost six weeks a year,” she says, “but he works enormously hard the rest of the time.” That isn’t the norm, she points out, but it’s the schedule that he wants, and the policy works for the company.

And others don’t mind “living and breathing” work:

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about Enplug, an advertising-technology company based in Los Angeles, that rents a house where 10 employees live and work together. “This practice is not uncommon, as many startup companies have combined their workspace and living space to save money and increase production,” notes the Journal.

“We don’t try to separate work life from our personal life,” says Nanxi Liu, the 23-year-old co-founder and CEO of the company. “It’s a little bit cultish.”

A little bit?

As that article helpfully points out however:

The trouble is that it could develop into an unhealthy lifelong pattern of workaholism, where people’s entire lives revolve around the office. It will be hard for those people to form and maintain good personal relationships. It will be a detriment to the neighborhoods in which they live because it leaves them no time to participate in community building activities. It could also literally make them sick. On top of that, it is not likely to be an effective or efficient way to accomplish innovative and creative work.

That last part is especially true given that the more hours we work the less likely we are going to be to be productive and capable of getting the end result desired of us.

I’m not against the “unlimited vacation policy” (which Daniel Jacobson says doesn’t even exist for Netflix) but I am very skeptical. This just seems to me to be a big corporate-management band-aid on the problems of work in today’s society. And I’m no sure how much it will actually help when work dominates so much of our waking (and sometimes even non-waking) thoughts.

What I am against is treating policies like this as some sort of sign that workers are necessarily getting treated better, that work is somehow being culturally curtailed (yes and no) and that anti-work people should be all for these types of policies.

You just can’t fundamentally abolish work as it stands by relying on managerial decrees from on high that, in practice, are actually a lot more complicated than some of these “big picture” CEOs think.

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2 thoughts on “Unlimited Vacation vs. Unlimited Work

  1. You’re absolutely right that it comes down to corporate culture and corporate culture is pro-work/anti-leisure. If you have set holiday time, the company can’t pressure you to work all year round, as you can always say (while trying to keep a straight face) well I really want to be in the office this week but I have to use up some of my holiday time…

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