I used to work at places where vacation was limited and tracked carefully, and it caused problems. Then I started a company and decided to offer unlimited vacation and other paid time off. Sounds good in theory, right? But that caused other problems. At this point I’m half-persuaded that enforced vacation might be superior.
At the first few jobs where time off was limited and tracked, I saw a number of problems. Limited flexibility for life situations, for one. Despite that, I never used all my vacation, and it accrued, and some of it didn’t roll over. And, the company had to track time off as a liability, and pay it as salary when I changed jobs.
After a while of this, both as an employee and a manager/executive, I decided unlimited vacation must be the answer. It was, for a while in the early days when it worked well for every person I hired who had enough life privileges and few enough life complications. But then edge cases came up, and they turned into a hassle. I don’t need to enumerate them for those of you who’ve been there. How do you handle the person who’s taking a lot more time off than others? What about the person who heard your explanation of “just get your work done” as “if you’re highly productive, this is a part-time job with full-time pay?”
Obviously these are Management 101 situations. Management 201, of course, is how to design a company so you aren’t dealing with Management 101 situations on a weekly basis.
More complicated are the people who take no time off. And this is one of the dirty secrets of unlimited vacation, the unintended and unforeseeable side effects. All sorts of counterintuitive things happen. One of them that seems to be pretty universal is, given unlimited vacation, people take less vacation.
Why is this a problem? Well, burnout for one thing. You end up with a lot of unproductive, tired people with no buffer for life’s ups and downs, and no creativity.
Another, less intuitive, one is that a lot of people are always available, leading you to start operating as if they’ll always be available. It’s subtle and unconscious, and you’re neither intending nor aware of it. But you do it. And then when they do take vacation, or have a family emergency or whatever, you discover that you have a crisis: the person who’s unavailable for the first time in 18 months is the only one who can do something vital that has to be done frequently. Like running payroll.
Having lived through a couple decades of fixed-time-off and unlimited-time-off, I’m really getting persuaded that enforced-time-off could be a good thing. It should deal with a lot of the problems mentioned above. The part that appeals to me the most is the idea of forcing people to take time off not just in certain quantities, but with some specific regularity. Single-point-of-failure people are a risk. Not only to the business, but to their colleagues. Enforced time off seems to me like Chaos Engineering, but for teams. It should help root out and fix problems before a true crisis strikes, and teach everyone to continually create redundancy in the team in a variety of ways that should carry a lot of other benefits—like cross-pollination of knowledge and skill in general, which should create more autonomy and less dependency. This should have a lot of benefits in everyone’s daily work, not simply when someone’s away.
I’ve heard others express similar sentiments, but thus far I have no direct experience with it. It’s just a theory. But it’s an attractive one, and one I want to look into more deeply at some point.