Unlimited Holiday - Good idea or gimmick?
Unlimited holiday sounds like a dream to most people. Taking advantage of those last minute holiday deals, and getting paid to explore as much of the world as possible, funds depending.
I know I could certainly get onboard with sipping mojitos poolside for most of my year. But is this benefit truly benefiting people and company, or is it yet again another workplace perk that just gets people through the door faster?
I suspect if you’re reading this you have the task of understanding if unlimited holiday is going to work for your company, and if it’s worthwhile implementing in your company culture. Or perhaps you have one already and are wondering if you can make it better?
So let’s get down to what you need to know, to make that decision a bit easier.
The rise of 'leave without limits'
‘Leave without limits’, as it’s often coined has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s.
IBM was among the first high-profile brands to ditch traditional annual leave policies. Since then, many silicon valley tech brands have followed suit. Including Netflix, Google and LinkedIn.
Here in the UK, Virgin was synonymous with shouting about their unlimited holiday, and now many UK companies have followed the American hype.
According to the jobs site Reed, there has been a 20% increase in the number of new role openings that now advertise unlimited holidays as part of the benefits package.
For many companies, this boom in unlimited holiday has been prompted by the pandemic, as people demand new ways of working in the post-pandemic world. For others, it’s always been the way, regardless of outside influences.
Exactly, what is unlimited holiday?
According to most people, unlimited holiday is exactly what it says. Unlimited paid time off.
Some companies will claim that they have unlimited holidays, however, what they really mean is unpaid leave. A key thing to look out for in the fine print of your contract, especially if you’re looking to move companies.
With unlimited holiday there is absolutely no limit to how much time people can book off.
However, this isn’t the truth. The reality of unlimited holidays is that companies just aren’t counting how much time you’re taking.
After all, people have roles to carry out, tasks to complete, and deadlines to meet. So the language is very misleading when it comes to unlimited holidays.
Why has unlimited holiday become so popular?
To be clear, we cannot be naive enough to believe that the rise of the unlimited holiday began with the purpose to support work-life balance.
Remember where it started, silicon valley, and you’ll realise that unlimited holiday was simply a great way to compete with other firms for the best talent. How else are you going to up the ante, when everyone else around you is competing for the same pool of people?
Even other companies who have since adopted unlimited holidays have admitted the scheme was more about competitive advantage than workplace wellbeing, with one tech company openly revealing to the BBC that the choice to implement the work perk was to keep up with others.
“I’d love to say it was about productivity or ownership or autonomy but the reality is that we… had seen some companies doing it in America and thought ‘why not do that ourselves?'”
Of course, since then, companies have adopted unlimited holiday as an extension of their company culture. They have a strong belief that unlimited holiday not only supports work-life balance but also engenders a deep spirit of trust in their company culture.
Now, thanks to a push in new ways of working in a post-pandemic world, businesses are having to quickly change their ways of operating as people now demand more flexibility in their work-life.
Before the outbreak of covid-19, businesses could come up with all manner of excuses not to implement home working, remote working or unlimited holiday policies. But now we’ve all had a taste of what is genuinely possible, there’s really no going back.
Companies with unlimited holiday
Culture leaders have been offering unlimited holidays long before it became a trendy workplace benefit. In 2022, I don’t think anyone would even bat an eyelid about unlimited holiday, whereas before it may have been the envy of your friends as you revealed you were booking your fourth holiday of the year.
Here are a few examples of companies who have adopted unlimited holiday.
Netflix has had unlimited holiday since it began, and sees it’s policy as an expression of its company culture.
As working hours at Netflix have always been flexible, so too is the holiday policy.
People are trusted to take as much time off as they need, with no tracking of days and no restrictions enforced. It’s completely autonomous.
As Netflix openly states, “just as we don’t have a nine to five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.”
The dating app Bumble introduced unlimited holiday in 2021, after the company temporarily closed all offices for one week to combat workplace stress.
Speaking publicly about the new unlimited holiday, Bumble revealed that the pandemic had made them think differently about the ways people worked, and prompted them to change their approach.
Bumble president Tariq Shaukat told the BBC, “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the way that we work, and need to work, has changed and our new policies are a reflection of what really matters and how we can best support our teams in both their work and life.”
LinkedIn shifted to providing unlimited holidays to their teams in 2015. The tech company claimed it was a bid to give their people more flexibility and a sense of empowerment. In particular, LinkedIn believed it enabled them to truly live one of their core organisational values, ‘Act like an owner’.
However, rather than name it unlimited holiday, LinkedIn uses the term ‘Discretionary Time Off’ (DTO). Despite the more corporate name, LinkedIn’s leave without limits has no set minimum or maximum, but staff do have to work with their manager to request time off when they need it.
As Pat Wadors, then SVP Global Talent Organisation wrote in a LinkedIn post: “We believe DTO… will give our employees the ability to better meet their personal needs, which will then allow them to bring their best self to work.”
Sir Richard Branson announced unlimited holiday for his 170 Virgin staff in 2014.
Sir Richard even wrote a blog about it back in 2014 explaining how he was inspired by Netflix, and why it was the forward-thinking thing for any company to do.
Speaking out about what he called the non-policy holiday policy, Sir Richard said, “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked. Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy,” he wrote.
Virgin remains a company who provides unlimited holiday across all of its subsidiaries, including the UK and US.
In 2019, Sir Richard openly spoke about the power of unlimited holidays at an LA conference, and even condemned American businesses for the ‘disgraceful’ lack of holiday time given to employees.
As with many tech companies, Buffer has often been listed as one of the great places to work, which makes it no surprise that the company offers unlimited holiday time.
However, Buffer were very vocal about their adoption of unlimited holiday and discovered that many people were taking less than 15 days a year.
The solution for Buffer was to set a standard minimum holiday time of three weeks per year, in the hope that this would encourage the team towards taking more time off.
Buffer also collected data from all of their global teams to really shape their unlimited holiday policy so it would be a fit to everyone, as much as humanly possible.
In a detailed blog on the Buffer website, the company explains how they actually built a policy to encourage more people to take time off.
The employers view of unlimited holiday
Here are some thoughts from employers about why they decided to implement unlimited holiday and what it means to them.
“I think unlimited holidays is just one part of it. I didn’t really set out with that specific benefit in mind. It was about flexibility.”
“I’m not a school teacher, I’m a company owner who works in an industry where creative talent and ability is the product. I don’t rely on an innovative piece of software or a superior physical product or whatever – I rely on good people, good talent. So as a leader, the bulk of my focus has to be on finding, nurturing and retaining that talent. So they work when and where they want to.”
“My staff need to be available for calls with clients or team meetings, but beyond that, there’s only really one constraint to the flexibility: if work is done on time and to a good standard, I don’t care if it was done between 9 and 5.”
“It comes with its challenges, but those challenges are never trust/output of my team. The challenge is still ensuring they take advantage of the flexibility on offer. So we do track how many days are being taken, but that’s just so we can make sure they’re taking enough holiday.”
“I also do think it’s important to formalise things like the four day week – at first, I didn’t see the need to have that as a formal policy, because the idea conflicted with our “total flexibility” mindset. But when people are committed, good at their job, and trying to get ahead in their career – they’ll overlook their work-life balance. So by formalising things like that you take the temptation to work away. As a truly responsible employer, you have to be willing to do things like that. It can’t be for show. Faking it will create a worse culture than doing nothing at all.”
The employees view of unlimited holiday
Here are some thoughts from the people embracing their unlimited holiday, how they use it, and what it means to them.
“Having unlimited holidays has been revolutionary! Both my mental and physical health have significantly improved, as well as my overall satisfaction with my work/life balance.”
“Being able to take the time off that I need to genuinely rest, relax, and recover has really helped to improve my health. Better yet, it gives me the headspace to mentally switch off and step away from work, meaning I feel less stressed and able to enjoy the little moments around me.”
“Since I can take all the time off that I need, my relationships with friends and family have also improved. I don’t have to compromise with my time or pick and choose who to spend my holidays with. I can be there for all the important events in my loved ones’ lives, whether that’s my niece’s dance recital or wedding dress shopping for a friend!”
Holly-Jo Mork from 43ClicksNorth
“I mainly use mine to travel, but have also had the odd day to spend with family, help my nan through the pandemic to shop, and help her around the house — the purpose is never really questioned and the freedom comes with our trust based model.”
The benefits of unlimited holiday
I know what you’re thinking, why am I going to explain the benefits of unlimited holiday when it sounds so obvious. But the truth is, not everyone is convinced. And we all know that one person who sees every new idea as an optimistic endeavor.
The facts are in black and white that unlimited holidays are strongly linked to major reductions in time off for sickness, and staff turnover.
Companies that have introduced unlimited holidays claim that it helps create a better work-life balance in this messy hyper-digital world, especially where the lines have become increasingly blurred between work and life.
Holiday, that isn't holiday
One area of consideration is understanding that most people don’t book off holiday time, for an exotic beach holiday. Many people are booking that paid time off to juggle life admin, move house, take care of children, or even elderly relatives. And then there are always those odd days off where you have to attend a children’s Christmas nativity or a relative’s funeral. Not fun, but a necessary part of life.
Under any traditional holiday policy, these days quickly eat away at the time that should be reserved for genuine rest and relaxation.
Unfortunately, there is still an outdated perception that holiday is only used for fun when the stark truth is these days off simply help people keep up with the pace of modern life.
Before you’re quick to jump on the belief that implementing unlimited holiday would have your office as a ghost town with everyone booking time off to venture around the world, remember that the likelihood is, you’re simply decreasing the stress of people having to begrudgingly book a day off to just manage life itself
Reasons unlimited holiday can fail
You might be thinking unlimited holiday can fail because everyone’s booking time off at the same time and it’s become chaotic. Think again.
The real reasons unlimited holiday can fail has nothing to do with greed or even taking advantage of the policy. The reasons most often lay within the company culture you have created in the first place.
Less holiday gets taken
As you saw earlier from Buffer’s example, when you look at the hard data people very rarely take more holiday than they did before. And in fact, sometimes the reverse happes. People begin to take less holiday.
Taking less holiday is never good for us. Our bodies and minds need time to recuperate, and if people continue to work too hard for prolonged periods of time, it only edges you closer to burn out. And that’s a pandemic in and of itself.
Many companies have followed Buffer’s advice, and decided to put a minimum number of holidays within their unlimited holiday policy.
As we can all understand, sometimes when you have too much of a good thing, you actually can’t make a decision because you’re overwhelmed with choice. Like what to watch on TV, or which shade of white to paint your office.
Making it somehow ‘limited’ with a set number, enables people to take more ownership of those days. Meaning they value it more.
Unfairness and resentment
How much holiday do you need?
That’s a big question none of us can really answer, because no two years are the same.
If there’s a flaw in unlimited holiday it can be the unfairness piece.
One person might only want to take 20 days off in a year, while someone else might want to take 30 days.
But while one person is away, their work needs to be covered, and it’s the person who remains in the office who picks up the slack.
This unfairness can begin to cause bitterness and resentment amongst team members. Feelings that are never going to be conducive to a collaborative company culture.
It’s also worth highlighting that in your company you will no doubt have varying pay scales depending on people’s roles and levels of expertise. This may mean you pay people according to a very traditional model. If this is your practice, some people may be able to afford to go on more holidays than others.
While how much you are paid should not be relevant to how much holiday you take – after all, we’ve already covered that ‘holiday’ doesn’t always mean exotic beaches – it’s worth noting because it can come up in conversations when you start putting unlimited holiday on the table.
Do you dare take a holiday?
By all means you can offer unlimited holiday, but have you got the culture that truly empowers people to take it?
Are there unwritten rules about how much is too much?
Here’s what could be going through people’s heads;
“What is everyone else asking for?”
“I don’t want to be seen as the one taking too much, I don’t want to be THAT person”
“Have I got struck off the promotion list because I took those few extra days for my aunts wedding?”
Sounds agnising doesn’t it.
But this is what happens when there are no clear boundaries, or even worse, when the culture is so toxic people dare not to take normal leave.
Unfortunately, there are companies that offer unlimited holiday, but they create such demanding, all-consuming workplaces that people feel guilty for taking a day off. Especially if it shows to their boss or colleagues that they are not fully committed. While the policy may say one thing, their attitude and snarky comments say another.
Is unlimited holiday all it’s cracked up to be?
Unlimited holiday has been a big workplace benefit promoted by many companies trying to lure talented people into their business. This is especially true for companies in highly competitive sectors, for example, tech and marketing has seen a huge rise in offering unlimited holidays as a benefit. However some companies are still only offering the basic standard of 25 days.
In a study by cord.co, it was found that across 395 companies, only 19 offered unlimited holiday.
However, while you can offer unlimited holiday, it doesn’t always mean there is the culture in place to support people to make the most of such a benefit.
Without a doubt unlimited holiday can be a perk with pitfalls.
Unlimited time off, doesn’t mean that everyone’s booking holidays.
Things to consider when adopting unlimited holiday;
Unlimited holiday can work. In a world where we need greater flexibility, unlimited holiday builds greater trust, and provides a true foundation to give people work-life balance.
If you still want to take the plunge and adopt unlimited holidays, there are some words of wisdom to abide by.
Get the culture right first
As I’ve highlighted, you can have all the best intentions in the world for implementing unlimited holiday, but if your company culture doesn’t have the right mindset and attitude towards it, people will never feel comfortable enough to embrace it.
Know your ‘why’
All of the companies I know, and have reported on in this feature, knew why they wanted to give their team unlimited holidays.
If you’re just seeing it as another work perk, you won’t have the stomach to follow it through, or to grow through the challenges that may occur.
When you have a purpose about your unlimited holiday, you and your team can work together through the finer details to make it work.
Lead by example
If you’re a CEO, manager or leader within your company, you need to use unlimited holiday just as much as your team.
Leading by example is a must when it comes to moving unlimited holiday forward, because if there’s even a whiff that it may deter peoples career progression or influence their job security, it will quickly stop.
As highlighted by Buffer, their executive team takes the most time off in order to show their teams it’s possible to grow in the company and still take a break.
I don’t believe this is always necessary, but guidelines can help all of your team feel more confident in using unlimited holiday. Such as setting an absolute minimum that people should take.
Work with your team to define what some of the ground rules should be. Even if they’re scrappy and obvious, for example, don’t leave crap on your partner’s desk.
In a world that still praises the race rather than the pace. Where burnout has become all too common, and people want a life not just a job, unlimited holiday can be an antidote to our outdated working ways.
The new ways of working are alive and kicking, and it’s those who are embracing them wholeheartedly who will learn the fastest, and feel the true benefits in years to come.
If you’re ready to change the way you work, contact me today to guide you through the changes you want to make.