Thursday, October 13, 2016

Unlimited vacation days? Bet that’s not an unalloyed good.

A couple of weeks back, there was an article in The Boston Globe on local companies that offer unlimited vacation days to their employees.

Writer Scott Kirsner asked around and:

…found a number of tech companies — startups and more mature employers — that offer an unlimited or “open” vacation policy. They include home goods retailer Wayfair; marketing software provider HubSpot; the security and content delivery firm Akamai; Acquia, which makes software for running websites; and Kronos, which provides workforce management software. (Source: Boston Globe)

Back in the day, there was no such thing as unlimited vacation days. Most places I worked for offered three weeks for starters, increasing to four weeks after five or ten years. I never quite made it to ten years at anyplace I worked, but I did grab the four week goodie a couple of times. Although I never used it all up, four weeks was great. Psychologically, it meant that you could take here-and-there days off without worrying about it eating into your “real” vacation. And back in the day, I often took two weeks off for that “real” vacation. The theory at the time was that, in order to really wind down and get the benefit of a vacation, you needed to get away for two weeks. Doing so meant that, during the first week, you could relax just knowing that ‘a week from today I’ll still be on vacation’. As opposed to sitting there fretting that ‘a week from today I’ll be back at work.’ Three weeks pretty much worked the same way.

(This was, of course, back when you weren’t connected 24/7, which was just coming into vogue as my full-time career ended and I became a free-lancer. Now, I guess I get unlimited vacation – an upside of working for yourself. On the other hand, if you’re not working, you’re not making any money – a downside of working for yourself.)

But when I was at Wang, you started with a measly two weeks, which was just terrible. I guarded those days so closely, I was barely willing to take any time off. Forget those stray here-and-there days. They were impossible. But Wang (to me, anyway) was such a miserable place to work, you absolutely needed time off. (It was the only place where I worked that I ever felt entitled/compelled to actually take a mental health day.)

Unlimited? Unfathomable for us oldsters.

But these days,

“It’s definitely a trend,” says Marcus Tgettis, vice president of global talent at digital services provider Endurance International Group of Burlington, which has an unlimited vacation policy…In part, Tgettis says, it’s a way to “encourage employees who are generally working more hours — they’re plugged in all the time — to take time off, break away, and decompress. We see it as important to productivity.”

Theoretically, anyway.

For as Kirsner found – as I surmised he would, knowing what I know about present day tech culture, even if I only see it at the remove of being a contractor – unlimited vacation days are not an unalloyed or universally popular good.

At companies that moved away from fixed vacation day policies, some folks didn’t like it because they could no longer bank days and save them for a big payout day when they decided to quit. Meh, who cares about the quitters? Some long-term employees, who’d earned their four- or five-week vacations by staying put were pissed that all of a sudden newbies had the same benefits that they’d earned.

But the real downside is that a company might offer it, but not really. What they’re making is a real fake offer. The company’s culture is such that no one would think of taking advantage of unlimited vacation. In fact, some folks found that, with unlimited, because of cultural/peer pressure, they ended up taking less vacation time than when they had a fixed amount.

Brendan Caffrey of the Cambridge e-mail delivery startup Litmus Software said his company “explicitly chose not to offer unlimited, because anecdotally, we heard bad things,” like that it can create “a culture of discouraging/shaming those who take time off.”

Many years ago, when I was still a full-time working girl, I had a long planned vacation that involved a movable feast of friends and family, renting a house on a charming cove in Maine. Long after these plans were made, a new CMO swung into town, and he had plans of his own. BIG PLANS. We were going to have a product launch to end all product launches, one that would introduce an entirely new product category. I was anointed the launch captain for this launch to end all launches, which pretty much made me the overall project manager for all the elaborate bits and pieces for what was a very elaborate and exceedingly expensive product campaign for our company.

A few weeks before my vacation – which was scheduled for a few weeks before the mega launch – Mr. CMO announced at a meeting of his direct reports that he wanted all of us to cancel our vacation plans.

A couple of suck-ups went right into will-do mode, but I told him that, in my case, I had no intention of changing my plans. After all, it wouldn’t be necessary. I was planning on leaving the project in good shape, and I trusted the person who would oversee things while I was gone. Mr. CMO didn’t like it, but, what the hell.

As I said at the time, twenty years from now, I was going to be a lot happier that I went on vacation with my friends and family than I would be if I’d stayed put to work on the dumb-arse product launch on which the company spent more than $1M (which was an extraordinary amount to spend on a B2B – i.e., non-consumer – product). Which didn’t result in any new category creation. (Hah! I’d told Mr. CMO that it wasn’t a new category.) And, most amazing, we didn’t sell ANY of the exact product that we launched. We only produced revenues by deciding to attribute everything that we sold that was anything like the fizzled out product (which was actually a set of services, not a physical product) to the fizzled out product itself,

So happy to be out of the fray where I have to worry about someone vacation-shaming me…

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