What This Company Has Learned From Making It Mandatory for Employees to Take 4 Weeks of Vacation Per Year
Editor’s Note: In this series, The Way We Work, Entrepreneur Associate Editor Lydia Belanger examines how people foster productivity, focus, collaboration, creativity and culture in the workplace.
The number of paid days off that Americans take annually began declining in the mid-1990s, dropping below three full weeks a year, according to the U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off initiative. The record low was an average of 16 days in 2014, and now, it’s creeping back upward, with the average American redeeming 17.2 vacation days in 2017.
However, the cumulative number of vacation days Americans left on the table in 2016 was 662 million, and in 2017, that number jumped to 705 million. That’s because the average number of days employers granted per employee increased year over year.
So even though Americans are getting more vacation time -- chances are you or someone you know works at a company that offers “unlimited vacation” -- they’re working more than they’re required to. This is despite the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country where allotting paid days off is legally optional for employers.
The reasons will likely ring a bell: Employees are worried about seeming less invested in their work, becoming dispensable or losing consideration for a raise or promotion. Some refrain from being absent because they don’t know who to delegate their work to while they’re out. However, studies show that vacations boost happiness and reduce stress, if they’re well-planned and any travel is stress-free.
Research by HR platform Namely revealed that taking more vacation days counterintuitively correlates with earning better performance reviews at work. To corroborate these findings in a 2017 report, Namely cited a study out of the University of Mannheim, which similarly found that work-free vacations boosted job performance.
True to its name
Jon Staff, founder and CEO of 3-year-old cabin rental company Getaway, has made redeeming 100 percent of vacation time mandatory for his employees since just three people worked at his company. Today, with a headcount of 33, the policy still stands.
Staff tells Entrepreneur why he instituted this policy, beyond the intuitiveness of a travel planning company being pro-vacation. He describes how it’s evolved and expanded into nights and weekends, and why it’s important to uphold, even though it’s sometimes challenging or inconvenient to do so.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with this practice?
I started this company because I was burned out. I wanted more time off, and I wanted to get away from my phone and my email and be in nature.
We were three people then, and now we’re 33 people, but even then, we needed a vacation policy. Everybody was doing unlimited vacation, everybody being all the cool new startup companies. But I think unlimited vacation is the most nonsensical thing in the world, because obviously it does not mean unlimited vacation. Unlimited vacation creates real psychodrama around, “how much vacation can I actually take?” “What does ‘unlimited’ mean?” “Have I been working hard enough?” “I would take more time off if my boss smiled at me more.”
Studies prove to us that when we take real time off -- going away and not being on conference calls, not being on emails -- we come back to work more productive, more creative, better to be around as a colleague.
Every person in the company gets 20 days vacation, and it’s required that you take them. We track it and it comes up in your performance review, so if you’re not on track to take all of your vacation by the end of the calendar year, then we talk to you about it.
By making vacation mandatory, you’re setting the expectation. And we’ve also been explicit about, when you’re off, you’re off. That could be vacation or on the weekend. We have a lot of folks who work non-traditional schedules, so their weekend is actually Wednesday/Thursday. So somebody in the company is assigned to send out a message every day about who’s off. You can email them, but you can’t expect a response.
What does that talking-to look like?
I have had conversations with people, saying, “You haven’t scheduled any vacation days. I’m expecting by, two weeks from now, that you’ve scheduled some more.” Or, I’ve had interactions where it’s like, “You’ve had two days off, but you sent me a whole bunch of emails, so those don’t count, and you need to make those up somewhere else.”
Does that conversation ever help you diagnose issues with people’s workloads?
I don’t mean to make it sound easy, because we are ambitious company. We’ve had high goals for ourselves, we’re very objectives oriented, so it’s really difficult, and people struggle with it, but we try to have conversations about it.
People will go on vacation, and I’ll be like, "Ahh, it’s really hard that that person’s going on vacation right now." But it’s the rules of the game, and now, I don’t have to make a decision about, does this person get to go on vacation or not? Well, that’s the reality, so we have to figure out a way.
It’s not just guilting you for, “Why were you answering emails on the Fourth of July?” It’s “OK, let’s have a conversation about what’s going on, and how do we fix it?” If somebody calls you on your day off, we should assume best intentions, but if that’s continuing to happen, then that’s cause to have a check-in and figure out, why is this happening? Is it that somebody isn’t on board with the values, is it that there’s just no bandwidth? Is there some other reason?
How do you make sure that people stay offline when they’re out?
Cultural norms are a real thing, so it kind of polices itself. We all know Nico is off today, and if Nico’s emailing someone, we’ll reply and say, “quit emailing.” We don’t have an HR person monitoring email accounts or something.
We also insist on everybody setting an autoresponder if you’re off, even for a day. At my past companies, that was a no-no. It showed that you weren’t committed, or revealed to our investors or whomever that you're taking vacation. But by making it mandatory, we’re trying to chip away at work martyrdom.
We’re in the process of trying to get everyone to install this email extension that prevents your emails from coming in after a certain hour -- it batches it all and they show up in your inbox the next morning. There’s a workaround for that, because, God forbid, something could burn down or something else could happen, and in that case, I have a telephone, and you should text me or call me. But don’t abuse that privilege.
In what other ways have these practices evolved?
Everything is written out, workshopped with and voted on by the team. There’s a feedback process to decide whether each practice is one we want to commit to or not.
As the boss, I really didn’t want people asking me questions while I was sitting around the campfire or reading a book when we were up in the Catskills as a team, so that’s where the rule came from that you’re not allowed to talk about work after 7 p.m. We also occasionally have a team happy hour or team activities, and at those, we all follow the rule.
People slip up, no doubt. We had a team activity outside recently, and somebody brought up some work topic to me, and somebody else was eavesdropping and said, “I think you’re talking about work right now…” So, again, the power of norms.
Have fewer and fewer people violated the policy? Do you track how many days have elapsed since the person who took a vacation day longest ago took one?
Of our 33 full-time employees, I think there’s one person whom I’m concerned about taking all of their vacation, and I will force it to happen.
I don’t have the data on how long has it been. It seems like everybody’s taken some time off recently, but I’ve had to learn to be careful about insinuating that you need to take all of your vacation at the beginning of the year, or in small amounts or big amounts. I don’t need to micromanage it, nor should I to that degree.
So, for example, one small change is, we used to put up on a scoreboard who’s gone the longest since taking a vacation. Now we measure, how many vacation days have you scheduled? We put that on the board instead. Because folks are rightfully saying, look, my family’s coming to town in November, and I’m saving up my vacation for that, so don’t shame me for not taking vacation in the first half of the year.
And by the way, I really had to train people out of working -- or showing they were working -- on nights or weekends. I thought it’d be enough to say, “Boss says, don’t work at night or on weekends unless it’s really urgent.” It actually took months and months to get those first few colleagues to quit calling me on Saturday at 9 a.m.
How do you lead by example?
I was at a beautiful resort recently, and I took a carefully composed photograph, the cottage we rented had a bathtub on the porch overlooking this beautiful bay. I was taking a bubble path and made sure the photo didn’t reveal too much but I sent it to my colleagues and said, I’m not thinking about work.
That’s a silly example obviously, but I was trying to show the company that, I’m on vacation. And it was the only message I sent while I was away for 10 days.
Why do people have misconceptions about the benefits of taking time off?
I don’t have the full answer on that. I wish I did. My speculation on that is, we’re all anxious creatures. Even if we’ve read the studies, we have the ability to go, “but I’m new here,” or, “I’m very junior” or “my boss and I just had a difficult interaction.” We’re anxious, risk-averse people. So companies should correct for that by putting policies in place and staying true to them.
Then there’s the idea of work martyrdom: We’re all just competing with each other.