What If You Had Unlimited Vacation?

Last Updated May 27, 2011 12:30 AM EDT

Life would be perfect, wouldn't it? You could take time off whenever you wanted--or needed to. What's the catch? You still have to make sure that all your work done.

There are companies that are trying this approach. The Wall Street Journal reported on companies that had "name your own vacation" policies. Aruba Networks is one such company. Their CEO, Dominic Orr, admits that it requires managers to manage properly and employees to take charge of themselves.

And therein lies the real reason why most companies will never implement this type of vacation policy. I think it's a fabulous idea. I'm a fan of flexible hours, flexible locations and flexible vacation schedules for most white collar workers. Technology today means that you don't all have to be in the same place to work together as a team.

But to make this work you have to have good teams. Here are some of the necessary qualifications:

  • Managers have to communicate goals and expectations to their employees, clearly.
  • Employees have to be able to communicate back.
  • Employees have to be cross trained and participate in cross training their coworkers so that it's possible for everyone to take time off.
  • Managers have to stop managing by rewarding the people who work the longest hours and instead reward the people whose work helps the business the most.
It's a different way of thinking, but there's some fundamental logic behind it. Why on earth should we think that every job requires 40 hours of work per week (or in some industries/professions 50/60 hours per week) no matter who is doing it.

That makes no sense. Remember back in school when tests were handed out? Some students could whip through those babies in no time at all and get great grades. Some people were much slower and took much longer to finish the exam but (and this is the important part) still got great grades. (Conversely, there are both fast and slow test takers who got rotten grades.) Yes, there is undoubtedly a bell curve in test taking and there is probably a bell curve of any given job. But, no one is striving to measure what that is. And even if you did, who cares?

I understand that people will scream about fairness if their coworker appears to be able to take more time off than they do. I can see managers saying no, because if they say yes they will appear "weak." These types of people don't really want flexible vacation time--because it requires responsibility on their part. They would rather put the policy in the hands of senior management or (gasp!) HR. "Well, Joe, I have to let you take the time off, or my boss will kill me. We're not allowed vacation carryovers, so I guess you can take time off."

Gee, generous. And it's not even that people are taking all the vacation that they are "entitled" to. CareerBuilder is reporting that 24% of full time employees can't afford to take a vacation this year. Now, they don't clarify whether that "afford" is because they don't have to cash to take the kids to Disney World, or they feel like their careers will suffer if they take a day of here and there.

The first problem is vastly different from the second. Everyone should take time to relax, whether it is in your own backyard or on a beach somewhere. The second is a problem of bad planning and bad management. If your employees feel guilty for taking a vacation, you're doing something wrong.

If your company has the culture that says, "Gee, if you can take time off, your job must not be important," this type of policy would not work for you. Not that that attitude works for retaining the best employees anyway. People perform better when they've had some down time.

The key to vacation success is the same as the key to success in general. You hire the best employees and then give them the freedom to do what they need to do to help the business grow. If this means that your marketing analyst is going to take long weekends from time to time and your IT director is going to take a 3 week trip to Europe this summer, so be it.

Would the idea of unlimited vacation work in your office, or are your coworkers and managers (or you!) not capable of all that responsibility?

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