Friday, July 27, 2012

Unlimited vacation? My company offers it…

This afternoon, I’m taking off at noon for a couple of days getaway to The Cape, my first such bolt since my husband had major cancer surgery in mid-May.

When Jim was in the hospital, I pretty much took two-weeks off, spending maybe an hour a day doing a bit of here and there. My clients knew I’d be out of commission for a while. They were actually more sensible than I was about this. My fantasy was that, since Mass General has wi-fi, I’d just plunk down with my laptop and do work while Jim dozed in the Surgical ICU or, later, his bed on the floor. Well, hardee-har-har to that. I did bring my laptop in a couple of days, but I think I managed to get a total of 45 minutes worth of work done.

A few weeks before Jim’s operation, we took a week long trip to Rome with our nieces.

So I guess between take-care-of-the-sick days and vacation, at mid-year, I’m running at about 3 weeks.

I’m not sure how I would have handled those bedside weeks – or the fact that I would have had to work from home for a couple of weeks after Jim was sprung – if I had a full-time job. (When my mother died in 2001, I was working, and spent a good slug of the weeks before her death at the hospital, and that time off didn’t count against anything. Since I never took any sick time on my own, I guess it was just chalked up to sick leave. But who knows what a less loosey-goosey employer would have done.)

Fortunately, the point is moot, as I now work for myself. While some of the benefits suck – no 401 matching, no medical insurance, no dental – the vacation policy is excellent. Whether it’s taking a day off to plant tulips on my parents’ grave, or a week wherever, my time’s pretty much my own. I just need to make sure that I get everything I promised delivered, and I’m free to go. Of course, I don’t get paid for my vacation days, but that’s okay.

I will generally check my e-mails while on vacation, and maybe take a look at something or other, but I don’t do work-work. In fact, I did more work-work on vacations when I worked full time. (The only time in recent memory when I violated my rule on doing work while on vakay was when I was doing projects for a crazy client whom I ended up firing. Interestingly, as my husband had predicted, this client-from-hell approached me a few months back to do more work for her. No, the answer is no, a thousand times no.)

Through most of my career, I got three weeks off a year, which was okay. Three weeks lets you take at least a week off at once, maybe bracketing it with an extra day on either end, plus allows for a few long weekends and just-because days. When I worked at Wang, I got a draconian two weeks vacation, which was dreadful. I never felt like I could take a just-because day off. (Not surprisingly, Wang was the only place I worked where I ever took a mental health day. One day I woke up and just said no-can-do. I stayed in bed reading all day.)

Personally, I feel that with the way professionals work these days – working long hours half the time, checking and responding to e-mails and other requests on nights and weekends, and when they’re on vacation – everyone should get at least four weeks off (three weeks plus five personal days to run errands, see the doctor, or just chill).

I was talking about this the other day with a client, and she believes that, if folks work crazy-hours when there’s some big project underway, they should be able to just stay home and stay lightly connected with work when there’s not all that much going on.

She’s apparently on to something.

According to a recent article in Business Week, the new trend in the tech world is unlimited vacation.

One such company is Evernote, a start up that operates on a “trust-based system.” Of course, the Evernote employee that was quoted was Ben Zotto, “the creator of a popular handwriting app that was acquired by Evernote earlier this year,” who says that Evernote “treats people as if they can run their own schedule.” So Zotto’s not exactly the receptionist at the front desk. But at Evernote, unlimited time off is for everybody. (And forget what I said about a receptionist. I doubt they have one. Everyone works in one big room, and there are no phones (other than cell phones and a phone in the conference room). Source: NY Times interview with Evernote CEO Phil Libin.).

Evernote’s not alone.

And it’s not just little start-ups. NetFlix and Zynga both have this policy place. Beyond the Silicon Valley tech world:

Pioneers including electronics retailer Best Buy and financial services firm The Motley Fool have learned that giving staffers free rein over their schedules helps improve their productivity.

I don’t suppose this works for Best Buy store clerks, but still…

Anyway, unlimited vacation is a central element of the Results-Only-Work Environment, which 3 percent of American companies have put in place formally.

Obviously, there are some environments where Results-Only-Work won’t.

I’m thinking it might be hard for, say, Mass General, to put this in place.

But even hospitals could – and, for all I know, do – have teams of, say, nurses get together and figure out coverage. Other operations where people really do need to be at work at certain times – like branch banks and call centers – could do it, as well. Which is not the same as offering unlimited time off. I just don’t  think that unlimited vacation would work every place. But for a lot of work – tech is the obvious candidate, but pretty much any type of work where you have more or less control over your own output, and/or that’s non-hierarchical and/or do a lot of collaborating  – it sure makes sense.

One company cited in the article, Xobni, has 35 employees, and 15 of them are on the limited vacation policy.  Xobni’s CEO didn’t have any particularly noble and philosophical reason for going to unlimited:

Those reporting directly to Xobni CEO Jeff Bonforte were the first to be switched over. The boss is already enjoying one benefit: “It’s my job to administer the vacation schedule of my own employees,” Bonforte says. “And I’m too lazy to do it.”

Whatever works for ya!

Meanwhile, I’m off in a few hours for some limited unlimited time off of my own.

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