Vacation

Scott Francis
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‘Tis the Season for vacations in the US, and in many parts of the world.  Many of the folks on our team are on vacation this week and next – but we have a skeleton crew keeping the lights on and supporting our customers. I have to thank these folks who have flexible vacation calendars for stepping up and allowing those with kids in school to get some time off.

BP3 has always had effectively a “no vacation days” vacation policy.  That was the policy at the first place I worked, and every place since. So it was natural for us to choose this vacation policy again. Our motivation is pretty simple:  minimal vacation policy overhead, and maximum trust in our team to manage their own calendars.  I’ve been really curious why this kind of policy has been so controversial in some circles – pro and con.

This policy has worked out really well for our team.  Our team doesn’t have to worry about taking a day off after working a long week – take it. Our team doesn’t worry about taking time out to go to a wedding or funeral.  Our team doesn’t worry about whether a particular day is a holiday officially or only unofficially.  A vacation request process is there primarily so that we don’t forget who requested vacation and (embarrassingly) schedule them for meetings or work with customers.

A lot of organizations seem to struggle with the concept of unlimited vacation. Many people who have worked at such places feel that the policy is some thinly veiled ruse to get people to work more days and take fewer vacations, and many company management teams worry that employees will abuse the policy and take huge vacations or inopportune vacations.  A recent blog post details one company’s struggle with it:

The cause was intended to be noble, as we didn’t want to get into the way of people taking time off as much time as they need to recharge. I myself am a big fan of disconnecting for a vacation and staying away for more than just a few days to free the mind, gain new energy and fresh insights.

Two years later, this idea turned out to be a failure, and we’re changing our vacation policy. Here’s why.

This is how most company founders look at it – the primary purpose being to create a culture of trust and low-overhead.  The author points out a few issues he experienced that really interfered with a noble idea:

Uncertainty about how much time is okay to take off.

We address this in our offer letters by communicating our expectations for vacation time.  We started doing this because almost every person who received an offer from us wanted to know what was “normal” or “expected”. That seemed like a reasonable request to us, so we took a shot at it in our offers.

Another thought: from our perspective, we don’t pay people for vacation days they don’t use – I don’t think money can compensate for lack of vacation really – everyone needs to recharge their brains, just as we need to recharge our bodies.  When you can’t trade days for dollars, you take the days! And you recharge.

People working on their vacation days

We haven’t solved this problem – other than to encourage people to truly unplug.  I think there are two vacations.  We have to keep an eye on people we think are at risk of burnout, and look for opportunities to give them some downtime, or to find help for a project that wasn’t affording them that opportunity.

The company needs to be able to function when key people are unavailable.

The third problem – functioning while key personnel are on vacation – gets easier as you get bigger.  You can design some redundancy into your work. I don’t know of any better way to solve it. Get big enough to be redundant, or have interchangeable players on your team.

The founders weren’t taking enough time off

We never had a problem with the fourth item – Lance and I have always been good about taking some time out with family when we need to recharge, and setting a good example (I hope).

So why did it work for us?

It really isn’t a super secret plan to steal our employees’ vacations.  Our genuine intentions are pretty clear.

As owners and managers, we don’t begrudge our team their vacations and vacation days. We celebrate them and talk about their great vacation experiences. We recommend places to eat and visit. We’re also realistic about accountability.  We need our team to be accountable, but we emphasize that that means taking responsibility for planning, and then helping us stay disciplined about keeping the commitments. Finally, our team has a spirit that has others step in when someone needs a break.  More than once I’ve seen a team member offer to cover for someone when they’re on vacation, in the various ways required.

We also have a self-selection culture for maturity.  We aren’t all about the ping pong table and beer bashes and parties.  We’re about personal improvement and accomplishment. We’re about customers. We’re about building something we can be proud of.  And it is nice if that pays for some nice vacations along the way.