When Matt and I started Timetastic we didn’t have a written policy for taking time off. With just the two of us involved we didn’t need to clarify this kind of detail. We had our heads down building Timetastic and took whatever time we needed.
It's when you grow, start building a team, that’s when you start to feel the pain. It’s the lack of clarity, crossed wires, head scratching, the inconsistency.
- How much time off can I take?
- When can I take it?
- Do I need to save days for Christmas?
- What about bank holidays?
- Can I take 3 weeks off?
- Do I have to give minimum notice to take a week off?
I could make an endless list of possible questions about time off policy, but what I’m talking about is the need for clarity. You need it, your team needs it, everyone needs it.
We've experimented with a few different time off policies over the years and we’ve finally settled on a version that has a minimum recommendation yet takes a fairly flexible approach to time off.
I’ve included a link to the full policy example later in this article and you’re welcome to steal it for your organisation. But I don’t want to share it without some context, as with many of these things there’s a lot unsaid: the reasons and research. It’s been a journey. To understand how the current policy works, you need to understand what didn’t work, what we didn’t choose.
And with that you’ll understand if a similar policy will work for you.
So here's what we didn't choose, and why..
A fixed holiday allowance
This is the standard time off policy example for most employees around the world. You probably have one, usually in your contract of employment - maybe 28 days, maybe 30 days per annum. Chances are you and your colleagues all get the same allowance, because that’s fair right, we all get the same?
But, no, we don't think so.
People have different lives, with different needs. Indeed what people need changes year on year. For some 28 days per annum is generous, others find it restrictive. People save up time off to carry to the next year so they can get married, they take shorter holidays than they really want, they stress over childcare arrangements during the summer holidays, they say no to events, family get-togethers, friends’ birthdays.
As an employer you’ll never hear about this. It’s a hidden problem of this time off policy. People don’t tell you about the things they didn't go to, or the problems of finding an 11-night holiday because that’s all the allowance they had left, or how disappointed their partner was because they wanted a 14-night holiday.
That doesn't sit comfortably with us. We want our team to enjoy their life outside work, without feeling that work is a restriction. If we want to attract and retain good people, if we want their best work, it’s not simply a matter of paying a huge salary or dropping them a fancy macbook pro (although those things definitely help), it’s more than that. We need a time off policy that reflects the reality of work and life and how they intersect with each other - because they do.
Here’s another thought. The idea that it’s fair that everyone gets the same amount of annual leave each year. Is that fair? Does everyone get the same salary? Is everyone full time?
No, of course not. We negotiate these things to suit our experience and qualifications. Financial commitments come into it, childcare comes into it, family commitments.
One person might be happy with 28 days per annum, for another it’s not enough.
I can recall a number of people I’ve worked with that never took all their time off, they simply didn’t need it. Didn't have that many outside commitments. Didn’t like long holidays.
On the flip side I can think of people that needed it, people with large families, lots of outside commitments, someone getting married, those with family and friends on the other side of the world.
So if someone is knackered and needs to rest up, then so be it, take some time off. The last thing we want is a tired team with poor productivity, making mistakes.
So a time off policy with a fixed cap was never going to work for us.
All the rage since Netflix et al. went public with this apparently generous benefit.
But all the evidence suggests people take less time off. They don't know what's acceptable. What's the norm? Can you take 360 days off? I suspect not. What about 180 days?
Gareth was our first team member, he spotted it straight away.
We told him, “don’t worry, we don’t have a time off policy, just take whatever you need, it’ll be fine”.
But it was paralysing for him - he didn't know what that really meant; didn’t know what was acceptable. Surely there must be a limit? At what point would we feel he was taking-the-piss? It simply can’t be unlimited. And that great unknown leads to an uncomfortable difference, but it’s not discussed.
The common problem with unlimited allowance is that people end up taking less time off and edging towards burnout. Dig around the web and you’ll find plenty of stories explaining why it didn’t work out.
We hear of people not knowing what’s acceptable, so erring on the side of caution. We hear of people following the crowd - crab theory, looking towards their coworkers to see how much time they take, and inevitably they align with the person taking the fewest days.
Narh, too risky, we’re not jumping on that bandwagon. It’s all very well and good if you’re the owner/ Director, but for the rest of your team, they need clarity.
Undoubtedly a good example of a time off policy. Instructing everyone that they need to take at least 5 weeks paid holiday each year, mandatory.
And I agree with its premise, it certainly overcomes the problem of overworking that we see in unlimited allowance policies.
I just have one reservation, will people see ‘minimum’ as ‘maximum’, Will they feel comfortable taking more than the minimum?
You see it’s an easy confusion. The law in the UK provides all full time employees with a minimum of 5 weeks holiday per annum. I’m stressing the word minimum here.
But for most employees this legal ‘minimum’ is actually their contractual ‘maximum’. Yes, their employers (maybe you are one of them) take the legal minimum and stick it into an employee's contract as their maximum.
We don’t want that confusion, we want people to take a good amount of time off, but we don’t want them to feel hesitant or restricted once they’ve hit a threshold. Our minimum is not the maximum. We need a policy that leaves the door wide open to more time off.
A flexible time off policy
Our time off policy overcomes these two issues: it doesn't have a cap, it does have a suggested minimum, and it does have guidance for what’s acceptable.
Everyone on the team should take at least one week off per quarter (doesn't matter if that's one full week off or five separate days), and at some stage in the year take a two week holiday. That alone should get you to five weeks off, and spread nicely throughout the year.
You also get all public holidays and Christmas off (subject to a bit of flexible working to make sure everything is running smoothly).
But you can take more, that's fine, we make that clear.
You can read our full time off policy here. It’s easy reading, and if you want to use our example then please do. Of course a little attribution is appreciated :)
No carry forward
One of the nice things about a flexible time off policy is there’s no need to mess about with carry forward. No one needs to save days to use in the following year, or bring them forward from a future year.
Carry forward can be a faff. Some companies allow it subject to a certain cap, maybe 5 days. Some make you take it in the first few months, use it or lose it - harsh.
And it’s just more stuff to track and manage, more admin and bureaucracy. It doesn’t actually contribute to the overall goals of the company.
With our policy, no one needs to think about saving or carrying forward, no one needs to be told to use them in the first 3 months, we don't need to keep track of it. Just take a week off each quarter and a 2 week holiday at some stage, take more if you need.
Here’s our carry forward setup in Timetastic - zero days, zero hours.
What about Public Holidays?
Included in the time off policy is we don’t work on public holidays, get out there and enjoy the sun, well, in the UK maybe the rain!
We’re a remote team so no matter what your region we set these as non-working days in your Timetastic profile.
It’s a great feature because it means you don’t have to do anything to book the time off. All the public holidays in your region are automatically shown in your calendar as non-working days. And they update as and when they are published by the various regions around the world.
How we keep track of time off
Clearly we use Timetastic as our team holiday planner.
The most important view for us is the Wallchart.
We can see who’s off and when, it means we can plan better and avoid any clashes. And because everyone can see this view they have a natural tendency to plan their holidays around one another. It works well - obviously :)
Then you have the calendar view for each person:
We can see their full year, that they’re spreading their time off evenly, we can see a summary on the right with how many days they’ve taken.
I reflect on my time before Timetastic, trying to organise and keep track of holidays using a spreadsheet. What a faff, so many errors, so many questions. And I’m an accountant, I breathe spreadsheets - this should be easy for me.
Booking time off
Booking is simply a matter of heading into Timetastic and selecting the time you want off. The book form will pop up, complete a few fields and click send!
All done, calendars and summaries updated instantly.
Sabbaticals, sickness, parental leave
Our time off policy covers all these things too, but for this post we just wanted to focus on the annual holiday allowance side of things.
Don’t underestimate the value of your time off policy. We’re seeing more successful companies take a more flexible attitude towards time off work.
Think of your own situation:
- How many times have you said no to doing something outside work because you didn’t have enough time off?
- Has it ever caused stress because you didn’t have enough time off left?
- What would you have done if you could have taken 2 or 3 more days off?
- How much happier would you be if you had more flexibility?
Because if you feel any of these, you can bet everyone else at your company does too, and maybe with a few tweaks to your time off policy you’ve got the power to make everyone's life a little nicer.
Here’s our full time off policy, feel free to use it, and if you do, attribution would be appreciated :)
Got questions? Ping us on Twitter.