Why the Best Vacation Policy is No Policy At All

A few days after a recent new hire started at TeamSnap, the two of us had this conversation:

EMPLOYEE: “I’m so sorry … I have to run out for a half hour to pick up a sick kid.”

ME: “Why are you telling me this?”

And then a few days later:

EMPLOYEE: “I need to leave a couple hours early today for a doctor’s appointment … I hope that’s not a problem.”

ME: “I don’t have any idea what hours you work, so I wouldn’t even know if you left early.”

And then after another week:

EMPLOYEE: “Would it be OK if I took Friday morning off to go to a park with my family? I’ll take my laptop and work as soon as I get there.”

ME: “No, it’s not OK. If you’re going to the park with your family you should spend time having fun.”

It usually takes a few more conversations like this until new employees truly believe what we say — TeamSnap really doesn’t have set hours or a vacation policy. We trust you to get your work done. And we’re dead serious about work-life balance.

Maybe it’s because I went to an alternative high school where students were treated like adults (open campus, no hall passes, calling teachers by their first names), but I have always had a visceral aversion to the idea that employees of a company should have to ask permission to live their lives. I remember in my very first job at an advertising agency, the company president suggested that we should restrict our extracurricular activities outside of the office so as not to tire ourselves for the work week. Needless to say, I didn’t last long there.

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Judging people on the work they produce and not on when their butt is in a specific chair at a specific time makes all kinds of sense. Our customers care about the features they see when they open the TeamSnap app; they care very little about whether the guy who designed those features was in the office at 3:20 p.m.

This kind of work flexibility is a big change for those who are used to playing corporate games or office politics. Being the first person at your desk and the last to leave means absolutely nothing at TeamSnap. Playing the “I worked on this all weekend” card is going to fall on deaf ears. We care only about the work you produce, not how you got there. Those who excel are rewarded — those who don’t quickly find themselves shown the door.

Flexible work hours make logical sense in a mostly distributed company like TeamSnap. Since we span every time zone in the USA (and some in Europe), the concept of “business hours” makes little sense. But even people at our HQ in Boulder play by the same rules. Some people come into the office every day. Some work from home half the time or drop in for the afternoon once in a while. And even the office manager sometimes works from home. We’re not tracking anyone’s hours and we don’t confuse being in the office (wherever that is) for “working.” Working is producing work. That’s the only thing that counts.

How and when you produce work at TeamSnap is entirely up to you. You can work mornings or nights or weekends. You can work from your home office or a coffee shop or a beach in Argentina. A few crazy people come into the Boulder office every day and maintain a strict 9-5 schedule. We don’t judge.

Of course this doesn’t mean you have unlimited license to disappear into a black hole. We’re split into teams and each team has regular (and irregular) meetings. We collaborate extensively via chat and email and Google Hangouts, and it’s not cool to vanish off the radar without being reachable if needed. With flexibility comes the responsibility to communicate and collaborate — be available when your team needs you and communicate clearly when you won’t be.

The TeamSnap Vacation Policy

For years, our vacation policy was basically “take whatever vacation you need.” In recent years, we’d refined that to suggesting “about three weeks per year” before opting for an unlimited vacation time policy. That basically means that if your workload allows, and you clear it with your team, you can take off as much time as you need. Nobody’s counting. As a manager, I’ve spent far more time badgering my employees to take time off than worrying about someone taking too much vacation.

Our flexible working model often blurs the line between vacation and working anyway. Employees will sometimes work part-time during a family vacation instead of checking out entirely. Would I rather have someone completely offline for three weeks or partly available for six weeks? Honestly, as long as they get their work done and coordinate with their team, I don’t care. The only thing I do care about is that people fully unplug occasionally. Everyone needs a break to recharge, and I will not hesitate to tell someone to take a real, non-working vacation.

By not having a formal vacation policy we get away from the time-wasting overhead of tracking, approving and reimbursing for vacation hours accrued, used and unspent. We do away with the ridiculous charade of calling in “sick” or taking personal days. We simply trust people to do what’s right.

But most importantly, when companies stop counting work hours and vacation days, employees stop counting those things too. So when the server suddenly blows up at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, everyone dives in to fix the problem instead of throwing up their hands and saying “I’m not at work.”

And when the Android app needs last minute QA and bug fixes on a Friday night, nobody cries that they’re putting in a 16-hour day. Flexible hours isn’t a perk we give to our employees; it’s a shared responsibility that benefits the people and the company equally.

Last week I had this conversation with that new employee:

EMPLOYEE: “Is it OK for me to take vacation the first week in October?”

ME: “Why in the world are you asking me? Coordinate with your team.”

And the beat goes on. Old corporate habits die hard. Luckily, by treating TeamSnap’s employees as responsible adults who are partners in building our company, my biggest worry as a manager is convincing people that they really have this kind of freedom to work their best way.

P.S. We’re hiring.

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