When Unlimited Vacation Policies Fail (And Why That’s Okay)

Kickstarter is one company that reversed its unlimited vacation policy and returned to a 25-day cap on vacation days for employees. The company found that a set number of days actually promoted better work-life balance for employees—the purpose of going to unlimited in the first place.

“What we found was that by setting specific parameters around the number of days, there was no question about how much time was appropriate to take from work to engage in personal, creative and family activities,” a Kickstarter spokesperson told Buzzfeed News.

It’s something we at Project: Time Off have heard from the many employees we’ve talked to about the concept of unlimited vacation time. There is a great deal of discomfort with that kind of freedom that leads to employees playing it safe—and taking less time than before.

There’s also a tremendous amount of suspicion around businesses that introduce unlimited policies. The reaction of many people seems to be that they are up to something or are actually hoping employees take less time. In everything that we have learned, most companies don’t introduce unlimited vacation because they want employees to take less time. Rather, they see it as an opportunity to show trust in employees’ ability to get their job done as they see fit and gain a competitive advantage in attracting talent enticed by a flexible work environment.

There is no one-size-fits-all vacation policy, and Kickstarter realized unlimited didn’t meet its objective of promoting greater work-life balance for employees. Kudos to the company for realizing that it wasn’t working and making a change that was in the best interest of its employees and its business.

One of the newest companies to introduce an unlimited policy is Grant Thornton. The 91-year-old accounting firm with 6,000 employees is not the typical adopter of unlimited vacation, but this established company is forward-thinking when it comes to getting the best employees.

“This is a modern move for an industry where these types of benefits aren’t really common,” said Pamela Harless, chief people and culture officer for Grant Thornton told Bloomberg. “We are convinced it will help us to be far more attractive in retaining talent as well as attracting talent.”

The question now: will it work? It’s in Grant Thornton’s favor, as it didn’t make this policy change overnight. Bloomberg reported on how the company took a phased approach over the last year and a half to get to a point it felt unlimited vacation could be successful:

Grant Thornton has been working for the last 18 months to emphasize personal responsibility as part of its culture, Harless said. In December, the Chicago-based company added bonus days off ahead of a busy season from January through May, she said. After the U.S. tax season, employees created their own, more flexible schedules. Removing the limit on vacation days was the next step, Harless said.

As an accounting firm, Grant Thornton understands well what vacation liability can mean to the bottom line. American businesses were carrying $272 billion in unused vacation on their balance sheets. It’s not a number that grows at a slow and steady pace either—$48 billion of the total was accrued in the last year alone.

The vacation policy a company chooses to implement is far less important than what happens afterward. What is important is that policy is communicated, encouraged, and, as Kickstarter found, used.

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