Culture: Unlimited Vacation

Scott Francis
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A recent article in the Austin American-Statesman touts the “unlimited vacation” benefits that some Austin tech companies provide.  BP3 happens to be one of those companies, though we weren’t covered in the article.

“Indeed is one of a number of Austin technology companies that have begun offering unlimited paid time off to employees. Employees simply clear the time off with their managers and, as long as they get their work done, they can take as much time as they like.”

This has been BP3 policy since we started the company in 2007.  It is pretty simple: we communicate an expectation that our team members will take at least 3 weeks of vacation every year (4 is more typical).  We don’t worry about someone taking a day off here and there as they might need to, to deal with life.  We do ask our team members to be accountable – planning so that key members of the team aren’t all on vacation at the same time.  It works. We don’t find people taking advantage of us, and our team members are taking enough days off and vacation time.

One of the details that gets lost when discussing a benefit like this is the ability to just take a day off when you really need it, rather than just “showing up” at work.

Interesting data point that I’m not convinced on the research behind it:

It’s a workplace perk that started in Silicon Valley and is now becoming part of the culture of tech companies around the country, said Allison Berry, a community expert with jobs site Glassdoor.

“For employees in the tech space, that perk has started to become more of a standard,” she said.

I don’t know the origination of the benefit, but it was in Austin at 1994 at the latest – as it was the vacation policy of Trilogy when I joined the company in 1994.  The practice followed Trilogy alumni to many other companies in Austin, including Lombardi, where I worked next, and BP3, our own company. Did Trilogy bring the idea to Austin? I’m not sure. But for anyone thinking this is a new innovation, it is an innovation that has been at least 22 years in the works.

I found that unlimited vacation worked well at each place – but the culture of how vacations work still comes from the top. As CEO or management team: 

  1. You can’t punish people for taking vacation
  2. You have to help set expectations for accountability
  3. You have to encourage time off for those who need it
  4. You have to hire enough to make it possible for team members to responsibly take time off!

It’s actually the last one that is a big struggle for many startups.  Having spare capacity so that your team can get time off is a real struggle in today’s lean and mean environment. 

When does the unlimited vacation policy fail to work?

When the company’s team members don’t trust their leaders and managers, unlimited vacation is like a rejected organ transplant. . If they think that the management team is trying to get away with something by having no vacation policy, only one of two things can be true:

  1. The management team has good intentions and aren’t yet trusted – perhaps because of past history or previous management team.
  2. The management team really is trying to get away with something

So the short answer is, don’t do this if you’re trying to get away with something, or you haven’t earned the trust of your team.