A Vacation Policy to Reflect our Culture

Here at Aspire, we like upending workplace norms.

We wrote before about flat organizational structures and we relish the experiments at Buffer that are opening the doors on secret salaries. We recently installed a couple of standing desks to see if we could maybe not have sore backs by the end of the day. [Update: No sore backs. But man, we’re tired]. We love flipped meetings and we loathe that you have to be a rocket scientist to work the printers these days. And, of course, we’re fans of workplace perks.

So, we’re always looking for the newest trends in the workplace that fly in the face of tradition. Most recently, our thoughts have been filled with the intriguing possibility of minimum vacation policies.

If you’re a young, progressive company like ours, you might have the vacation policy that’s been popular for the last few years – unlimited vacation time. The policy emerged at many progressive companies in 2012 and 2013, from Netflix to Zynga and many places in between. The theory is summed up nicely by Mike Southern, Vice President of Human Resources at PatientKeeper,  “You just treat people like professionals and like adults,” he said, “and 99 percent of the time they’ll act that way.” 1 Why track vacation days meticulously, when little else about your office is rigid?

This made sense to us at Aspire. We’re building better workplaces for our clients, so ours should strive to be the best of the best. Part of that was reflected in our vacation days. Taking as much vacation as we needed, while still getting our work done, was the dream.

Then, we read this article about the realities of an open vacation policy at a growing startup, Travis CI, with whom we have much in common. What if the culture we build here with an open vacation policy is the opposite of the well-rounded, well-rested, creative atmosphere we want? What if the best vacation policy actually requires restrictions?

We all love vacations because we come back rejuvenated, with new ideas for problems that used to stump us. Companies with open vacation policies almost always institute them because vacation leads to higher performance and helps avoid burnout. These companies truly want their employees to take that week-long vacation to Bali, or to explore the rainforest in Colombia, and to come back tan and excited about work. When we separate our work and personal lives, we become better employees and better citizens. Open vacation policies are meant to maximize the benefits of time away from the office.

Unfortunately, we are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices with which an unlimited vacation policy leaves us. Quartz reports:

“Unlimited vacation time may sound wonderful in theory, but in reality, less is more. Too much choice is restrictive and confusing. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, calls this phenomenon “choice overload.” Some of her past research shows that when employees are deluged with too many mutual fund choices it overwhelms them to the point of paralysis. They become risk-averse or unable to make a decision, which leads them to either make a low yielding investment choice—or, worse, not sign up at all.”

Similar to financial choice overload, too many vacation day options can lead to more employees glued to their phones, not fewer. Our short experiment with an open vacation policy has yielded many of the same results so far. We don’t know when we should be disconnected entirely from work (and honestly, what does disconnected mean?) and who needs to cover our workload while we play. As predicted, we all take fewer vacation days than we would at a company with a firm vacation policy.

Because we are a startup, we put in longer hours, we don’t ever quite “turn off” and we live and breathe workplace perks. Side Note: Thanks for putting up with us, friends and family, as we tell you about super interesting new trends in workplaces … for the hundredth time.

As we look forward to growing our team and finding good cultural fits for our company, we know things will have to change. We’ll have to start watching late nights in the office, weekend work, vacation days left on the table, and burnt out employees to make sure we are maintaining a company that’s known for taking care of its people, not driving them into the ground. We don’t want to create “a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well rested and happy team.”1 

A minimum vacation policy – requiring employees to take a certain number of vacation days per year – can help reverse the paralysis unlimited vacation days can create. It levels the playing field between people who are great at vacationing and those who nervously check their email between snorkeling trips. The policy can remove the stress of choosing vacation weeks, wondering if you’ve taken too many, or if you’ll miss something big in the office. It replaces that anxiety with actual relaxation and rejuvenation – and that’s actually the dream.

As we experiment with new workplace trends at Aspire, we do so with an eye towards creating a space where employees love to work. In 2015, we’ll be looking for the best ways to build an untraditional workplace that we look forward to coming to each day. And, we’ll be chatting with you about how to test those changes in your office so that you can build your own better workplace.

Have you been experimenting with vacation policies in your office? Tell us about it at @aspireperks or drop us a line at hello@aspire.is. We love chatting!