Protocol | Workplace

People with unlimited PTO aren’t taking it. These companies are making it mandatory.

From $1,000 vacation stipends to surprise weeks off, here are some creative solutions to burnout.

A set of scales with a heart that reads HEALTH on one side and a stressed out worker on the other

More and more companies across tech now offer unlimited or "flexible" PTO policies, a break from the traditional capped number of vacation days a year.

Illustration: IconicBestiary/Getty Images

Unlimited PTO sounds like a dream come true. You can take as much vacation as you want. But is it really? And can you actually?

These are questions employees are asking themselves as the once whimsical policy has officially entered the mainstream. More and more companies across tech now offer unlimited or "flexible" PTO policies, a break from the traditional capped number of vacation days a year, with job postings listing "unlimited vacation" increasing 178% between 2015 and 2019.

One unusual predicament that these companies are running into: People aren't taking enough vacation. One 2018 study found that employees at companies with unlimited PTO policies took fewer vacation days on average than employees at companies with traditional PTO policies. Without guidelines around how much time off to take, employees are unsure how many days is "too many," and norms end up being set by individual managers, who might not be taking enough themselves.

So what's the big deal if people don't max out their vacation days? For some executives, the problem is burnout. When COVID-19 happened, "well-being became more of an issue," said Leslie Pendergrast, chief people officer of Outreach, a Seattle-based startup that offers flexible PTO and which has instituted some policies to ensure employees actually take enough time off.

The simplest solution: Set a minimum number of vacation days.

That's exactly what they did at Lessonly by Seismic, a software startup based in Indianapolis, which recommends that employees take a minimum of 20 days off a year. That's on top of the two weeks off that everyone gets yearly — the week between Christmas and New Year's, as well as the week of July 4th — and the other observed company holidays.

Lessonly Co-Founder and President Conner Burt characterized the journey of reaching that number (20) as "more of an art than a science." He also emphasized that it's just a recommendation, and that people are welcome to take more or less than that if they want to. "You can't force people to take vacation," he said.

Another campaign that Lessonly tried out at the end of last year when "everyone was burned out": "Take five by 12/5." In October, the company asked all employees to find five days off by Dec. 5. The impetus came when quarterly surveys and check-ins revealed that "it was clear we'd seen fatigue."

San Francisco-based tech company HOVER also set a minimum on its unlimited PTO policy: three weeks. One of those weeks also has to be a full consecutive week off, according to Brit Malinauskas, the company's VP of People & Workplace. According to Malinauskas, the majority of employees are meeting that three-week minimum.

Pay people to take vacation. You read that correctly.

Younger people have embraced the idea of "work-life balance" and taking time off, said Susan Stick, SVP of People and general counsel at Evernote, but for employees who've been in the workforce for a while, "it can be hard to make those people take time off."

As a result, Evernote has taken perhaps the most unusual approach to tackling the problem: The company gives all employees a $1,000 bonus to incentivize them to take five consecutive days off. Nearly three quarters of Evernote employees submitted for the stipend in 2020, according to an Evernote spokesperson.

Mandate a week off for everyone. Make it the same week.

In a recent internal survey, an employee at HubSpot wrote, "Unlimited vacation is great, but not spending your whole day back from vacation going through Slack messages and emails is even better." As a result, the company implemented a "Global Week of Rest" annually, held during the week of July 4, according to a company spokesperson.

The issue of pings and notifications while on PTO is something that Dropbox has taken on as well with its "Unplugged PTO" policy, which allows employees taking PTO to pause access to their accounts via mobile. "The idea is to remove the temptation to have a quick glance at your Dropbox, email, Hangouts, or Slack so that you can truly disconnect," wrote a Dropbox spokesperson in an email to Protocol.

If you can't spare a week, make it a day.

Outreach offers employees what it calls "refresh days" once a month that they can use as time off. It's up to team leaders to decide which day that'll be, but everyone on the team gets the same day off, so the rest is coordinated, according to Pendergrast. They also make sure to coordinate the day off so that people who work together get the same day off: For example, the People team takes the same day off as the teams that they support.

Hover has put a lot of work into manager training to "help people respect time off," said Malinauskas. "Overall, we care a lot about trust, and we think about that in terms of a culture of self-sufficiency and autonomy in decision-making," which is key to an unlimited vacation policy that works, she said.

Perhaps the greatest thing managers can do to encourage time off is to take it themselves. "Leadership needs to model the work culture that you're trying to promote," said Burt.

Or, just don't have an unlimited PTO policy.

Let's be clear: Companies that offer unlimited PTO aren't just doing it to be nice. It's also a smart financial move, since doing so sidesteps the cost associated with paying out for unused vacation days when an employee leaves the company.

Couple that with the recruiting benefit of getting to tout a seemingly fabulous perk, and offering unlimited PTO is a seemingly brilliant HR move. Except when it isn't.

Some companies coming to terms with the pitfalls of unlimited PTO are choosing to ditch it altogether. The new move? Stick with a traditional vacation policy; just make it more generous.

The pandemic permanently changed Black Friday. Here’s how.

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Click banner image for more Shopping Week coverage

Shopping is changing. It's not just the influence of COVID-19 altering what products we buy and how we buy them. It's also the many shifts in consumer behavior and retailer strategy — from the steady rise of ecommerce to the boom of on-demand delivery — years in the making, which have all been accelerated by the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that by 2026, the shortage of engineers in the U.S. will exceed 1.2 million, while 545,000 software developers will have left the market by that time. Meanwhile, business is becoming increasingly more digital-first, and teams need the tools in place to keep distributed teams aligned and able to respond quickly to changing business needs. That means businesses need to build powerful workplace applications without relying on developers.

In fact, according to Gartner, by 2025, 70% of new applications developed by enterprises will use low-code or no-code technologies and, by 2023, there will be at least four times as many active citizen developers as professional developers at large enterprises. We're on the cusp of a big shift in how businesses operate and how organization wide innovation happens.

Keep Reading Show less
Andrew Ofstad
As Airtable’s co-founder, Andrew spearheads Airtable’s long-term product bets and represents the voice of the customer in major product decisions. After co-founding the company, he helped scale Airtable’s original product and engineering teams. He previously led the redesign of Google's flagship Maps product, and before that was a product manager for Android.

It’s time to rethink Black Friday

The pandemic didn't end Black Friday, but it'll never look the same again.

We can expect Black Friday to stick around but lose relevance as retailers effectively dilute its meaning and purpose.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Click banner image for more Shopping Week coverage

"I'm selling meditation, so I shouldn't be stressed," said Charlie Rousset, the co-founder of sleep and relaxation gadget-maker Morphée. But even deep breathing can't help Rousset feel less on edge this Black Friday.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

The pandemic permanently changed Black Friday. Here’s how.

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Here are the five biggest trends that will affect Black Friday and the holiday shopping season.

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Click banner image for more Shopping Week coverage

Shopping is changing. It's not just the influence of COVID-19 altering what products we buy and how we buy them. It's also the many shifts in consumer behavior and retailer strategy — from the steady rise of ecommerce to the boom of on-demand delivery — years in the making, which have all been accelerated by the pandemic.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Fintech

The pandemic keeps changing ecommerce. That makes fraud harder to fight.

As the second holiday season under COVID-19 gets underway, fraud finds new forms.

Online fraud is frustrating consumers and merchants.

Photo: fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Click banner image for more Shopping Week coverage

The second pandemic holiday shopping season is underway. That means cybersecurity experts get another chance to figure out how fraudsters operate in the COVID era.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Latest Stories