What do General Electric, Netflix, Twitter, and ATR International have in common?

Well, one thing we share is a vacation policy! Commonly referred to as unlimited vacation, flexible vacation is more accurate. The “flexibility” part is that these policies generally do not strictly proscribe the amount of time off, they don’t dictate when or how time off has to be used, or carefully track that time. In general the policy applies to salaried workers, and has been offered mostly at startup or smaller companies but that’s changing.

People’s first reaction is often, “so you never have to come to work?” They’re joking of course, but there’s also a real question underneath. It seems too good to be true. Taken to the extreme such a policy would result in bedlam but in the extreme isn’t where or how it works. For starters, you still have to get your work done, just like you did when you had a set number of days. If you are taking time off, things need to be in good shape and/or appropriately covered in your absence.

But beyond that, it is up to the employee to make the decision on when to take time off. If you want to take every Friday and beat the traffic to your cabin in the mountains or beach house, and you can get things done with that schedule, that’s fine. If you want to take the month of February and July off so you can ski and surf, that could be ok too.

Not every company does it the same way. Some still require approval from a supervisor for longer periods away, at others no prior approval is needed. You can’t expect to take 3 weeks off in your first six months of work and not have issues. Common sense has to rule. But at the heart of it, the individual has significant autonomy over their own schedule.

There are several reasons why it works:

It is empowering to your employees to be treated as adults and trusted to make smart decisions. You are giving people full autonomy over their schedule, with the only stipulations being that work is getting done and commitments are met or exceeded. Overall it makes them feel a stronger commitment to the company and helps build a culture of trust that increases satisfaction and productivity.

It recognizes the changes in technology and the way we work.  With our increasingly connected world the boundaries between being at work and not being at work have blurred. This is not always a bad thing. Many employees relish the opportunity to leave the office at 3:00 to attend a child’s dance recital or coach a team and then check email when they return home to stay on top of things at work. Others beat weekend traffic and happily join a conference call from their back porch.

Some might question whether this is just a management ploy to get people not to take as much time off, again, funny but a serious question at the same time. These policies usually encourage a minimum amount or have other levers in place to ensure this doesn’t happen. Also, like any policy, it must have the full support of management and be modeled in their behavior for it to be believed and succeed.

But isn’t that true of any vacation policy? If the company culture discourages leaving work, expects people to be always and instantly available, and discourages taking time away, it doesn’t matter whether you have 2 or 200 days, you won’t take them. For those who worry that no one would ever come to work, there is a similar answer. If your company is not providing a respectful workplace with the opportunity to do interesting work for reasonable compensation, than people are not going to come to work whatever your vacation policy is – morale will suffer along with productivity and eventually they’ll quit.

The point really is that people want to work; they want to do the job they were hired to do and they want to do it well. Most of us take pride in what we do and want to work hard and succeed as the company succeeds. Instead of monitoring and scrutinizing people, companies should encourage them, trust them, and provide the best environment for them to succeed.

The flexible time off policy at ATR is just another part of our efforts to treat our employees as the adults we all are; with dignity and respect. It’s the same reason that we greatly changed our performance review process several years ago (The End of Performance Reviews). It’s the same reason that we give our employees a week of time to use to volunteer in the community if they want. I want to provide the best possible work environment that encourages everyone to try and achieve their best, to contribute to the collective success of the company.

At the same time, I want everyone to have a happy and successful personal life. Work life and personal life don’t have to be in opposition. They can not only co-exist, they should support each other. Work/life integration may be a better description than work/life balance. But the integration will only truly work when people have significant autonomy and are trusted to be the talented wonderful people they were hired to be!

Jerry Brenholz
President and CEO

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