There has been a lot of talk about Unlimited Vacation policies (or the absence of a vacation policy) and frankly it is driving me nuts. Not so much the notion of more companies moving that direction but the fundamental misunderstanding of the entire principle behind it. And moreover, how looking at the work environment that narrowly ultimately hurts the company and the employees. I’ll explain more in a minute.
Another similar phenomenon in business is the adoption of a Results Only Work Environments, or ROWEs. The premise of a ROWE is that work can get done anywhere at anytime the employee feels most productive. The focus is on the results achieved and nothing else. So as a corollary vacation time is something that not tracked, monitored, or managed. And while they seem similar, a ROWE and Unlimited Vacation policies are not necessarily the same. ROWEs also abolish the 8-5, in the office, work paradigm. If someone gets their work done sitting in a coffee shop at 5am, then so be it, no need to come in to the office.It also addresses the cultural complications that Unlimited Vacation policies do not – primarily guilt around not being in the office, and accountability.
Unlimited Vacation is a policy shift and while its roots are in good places, it is a transactional change. It does nothing to address how people behave or think about work. It is always easier to sell a company on a transactional change such as removing or amending an archaic policy, primarily because the change really only happens on paper. Unlimited vacation policies can sometimes be easily sold by extolling its cost SAVING benefits when people leave the company (no vacation to pay out)…but it would be naive to think this is transformative change.
Here is why a ROWE is a better solution if you are looking to transform your workplace:
A number of articles have recently lauded the productivity boom that companies who’ve switched to unlimited vacation have enjoyed. But embedded in each article is the undercurrent that people end of working harder than before. Which I am not saying is a bad thing. But taken to its conclusion, it causes burnout, especially of your passionate and hardworking top performers. Simply telling people they can take as much vacation as they want doesn’t mean anyone takes more, in fact, quite the opposite has been proven – they take less. Though, the “perfect attendance” award is not given officially, people who work long hours or never take a vacation are still revered as being hard-workers and they wear self-sacrifice like a badge of honor.
ROWEs take that away by focusing on what people get done – always, always, focusing on what people get done. During the migration or integration process a large chunk of time focuses on training people on shifting the mindset through language. If someone asks where I was when they tried to call, I can respond, “What did you need? I’d be happy to get it to you.” By refocusing the conversation on a performance-based action, where I was is immaterial. If my response time becomes an issue, that is discussed in terms of performance, not place or time of day. If you need me to be more available during a project, I can make certain I carry my cell phone.
By taking the eyes off the clock and putting them on achievements, the badge of honor moves from how much you work, to how much you get done. If I am getting my work done, then no one (including myself) makes me feel guilty about taking time for myself. If it takes you 6 hours to get the same results it takes me 3, well, then if anything, I feel kind of bad for you while I am out mountain biking. And I want to help you and make you faster so I can go mountain biking WITH you. Which brings me to my next benefit. Efficiency.
Unlimited vacation policies by themselves have a rather myopic focus that doesn’t focus on what the company really wants, better productivity or better results – because the focus of the policy is solely on time off and not results. Results Only Work Environments could care less how much time you take off but they do care about results. And because it is a daily shift in priority, people get to manage their time according to their ability to get things done. And if benefits them to be quicker and more efficient in their work. Most people think of vacation in larger chunks of time – days, weeks, months; but ROWEs make it more accessible with the chance of having more of EVERY day back – so long as your work gets done.
Here is a big problem I see in many organizations today – the political passive voice where “things got missed”, “delays occurred”, and “circumstances made it difficult”. None of these statements has a subject – that is no one is responsible for what got “missed”, who was “delayed”, or who couldn’t overcome the “circumstances.” So ultimately, no one is accountable when deadlines get missed or objectives are not reached. Unlimited vacation policies have nothing to do with addressing this, but ROWEs do. Again, the shift is away from time and towards results – and it has a ubiquitous influence. The conversation is not about how you did not get that proposal done because you had X to do, or you chose to do Y, it is simply you did not get the proposal done. That was your responsibility and you didn’t do it. That is a performance issue. Where you were or why (unless it was a resource issue) has nothing to do with the fact that you didn’t do it. ROWEs by their very nature increase accountability and remove the passive voice.
The difference is about control – giving versus taking. Whenever your workplace uses the term “allowed” or “policy” it is about control – even if they are “allowing” you unlimited vacation. There is that tiny sliver of a message in there that says “but we can take it away at any point” that keeps you on edge. Unlimited vacation policies are great for the company in the short-term – if you want to save money and burnout talent. But if you want higher productivity, better accountability, healthier employees, and drastically reduced retention rates – your solution is not to change a policy, it’s to change your culture.