How IT teams navigate unlimited vacation policies

IT leaders from Akamai, CA Technologies and VMware have mastered the balance between granting time off and keeping essential tech functions staffed.

Take as much time off as you'd like, so long as you get your work done.

That's the idea behind unlimited vacation policies -- a workplace perk growing in popularity among U.S. companies, particularly those in technology fields. This model is attractive both to employees, who cite it as a valuable benefit, and companies, which stand to save big money by switching to it.

Some 45% of respondents to Computerworld's 2016 IT Careers survey said that unlimited vacation time would entice them to change companies. This ranked far ahead of any other work-life perk, including paid sabbaticals, extended parental leave and on-site childcare.

Businesses benefit, too, by avoiding the administrative costs associated with managing employees' vacation time -- not to mention the financial liability associated with employees' accrual of unused vacation time, which typically must be paid to an employee in a lump sum if she leaves the company. The average vacation liability for U.S. companies amounts to $1,898 per employee, according to an analysis of public companies' 2014 SEC filings conducted by advisory firm Oxford Economics on behalf of the U.S. Travel Association.

But while those reasons alone may be good enough for some companies to consider the switch, it doesn't work everywhere, according to Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Companies that have successfully transitioned, he says, foster a workplace culture in which management trusts employees and vice versa, with clear two-way communication about expectations.

These characteristics are even more important within IT departments, which must navigate unique challenges: IT teams need to make sure that technology projects still launch on time and that help desks stay staffed year round -- all while affording their employees equal opportunity at time off.

Maintaining that delicate balance isn't always easy for IT managers. Here's how CIOs at Akamai, CA Technologies and VMware successfully maneuver unlimited vacation time, plus tips to make it work for you.

Schedules and communication are key

At network services provider Akamai, the transition from a traditional vacation policy with accrued days to an unlimited one was driven by recruiting strategy and financial reasons, says Jim Gemmell, chief human resources officer.

"The move was viewed as a recruiting component that the company thought would be attractive to prospective employees," he says. "It was also practical in the sense that it can be less expensive because you don't have to accrue and pay for unused vacation time."

Akamai's IT team, headed by CIO Kumud Kalia, doesn't have an official policy for tracking time off, but staffers do input it into a shared calendar. This helps managers remember who's out of the office for planning purposes, Kalia says. "The calendar gives us instant visibility so we can see if you're out of the office or at a conference or something," he says.

IT staffers at software company CA Technologies use shared calendars to keep track of employees' whereabouts, too, says SVP and IT officer Mahindra Durai. The company transitioned to unlimited vacation time more than four years ago, before Durai joined.

"I have a monthly calendar that I use with my direct reports so I can see who's on vacation. Employees send an appointment to my calendar so I know who's off on any particular day," he says.

Beyond shared calendars to track employees' whereabouts, staffers and managers at both companies work together to cover for employees who are out. That constant communication is key to keeping work flowing smoothly inside the IT department of cloud and virtualization company VMware, which adopted the vacation policy five years ago.

"We don't have any formal rules on tracking vacation. People will usually give me or their manager a heads up directly or through email," says Bask Iyer, CIO. "In most of the projects we work on, workgroups work together. They'll talk among themselves and say, 'I'm taking these days off; can you cover?' It works because we aren't so dependent on one individual."

Maneuvering holidays and staffing critical functions

Akamai, CA and VMware say that having a dispersed, global workforce helps them maintain their workflow while employees are out of the office.

Akamai imposes a moratorium on major project deadlines between Thanksgiving and the New Year to minimize the likelihood of anything urgent falling during that period, which helps take stress off staffers, Kalia says. Contractors often pick up the slack during these periods.

"There are some functions that have to be staffed year round, so the teams work it out among themselves," he says. "Holidays are really busy for our customers, and our teams understand that they may need to adjust their calendar for that. Those that work the year end take time off before or after the holidays."

CA uses a similar approach. "We have quarter-end blackouts where we freeze [technology projects]," says Durai. The company doesn't want deadlines or other project activity to disrupt business during these crucial periods, he explains -- "especially during the last week of the year. We talk about vacations before this period, and teams work it out with their global counterparts to figure out coverage. We don't typically take a project live in the last weeks of the year."

VMware's IT team appoints a year-end captain who ensures that there's coverage for essential functions like the help desk. "Certain people are required at the end of the year, but we rotate who's on so the same people don't get stuck doing it every year," Iyer says. "You'd be surprised by how many people are aware that they have critical skills that are useful during this time. Staffing has never been an issue for us."

Since the vacation policies have been in place for a handful of years at each company, the IT execs say that employees have self-regulated, and that they understand -- without the need for any reminder or conversation -- when it is and isn't appropriate to take time off. Likewise, none of the execs have dealt with employees who abuse the system by taking too much time off.

"One of the telling things about how well this policy works is that we don't have to talk about it," Akamai's Kalia says. "It never comes up in meetings, and we've never had issues. People are very good about managing their time in relation to the work they have to do, and working collaboratively with their team to make sure there's coverage. It's all very self-regulated."

Team members inherently know when the busy times of year creep up, and VMware's Iyer has never had issues with employees requesting time off during them, he says. "No one wants to miss project deadlines -- those aren't the type of people we hire. They're driven, always work hard, and take pride in what they do."

Workplace culture is essential to success

Elliott, of SHRM, says he's often asked whether employees take more or less time off under an unlimited vacation policy compared to traditional paid time off. The answer: It's about the same.

Iyer, Durai and Kalia say the companies don't officially track days off -- that's the whole point of the policy -- so there's no way to know for sure. They say they'd guess that employees take about the same amount of vacation time, if not a few days extra, compared to traditional policies.

The reason these policies work -- and the reasons they're not abused, Elliott says -- is because the companies employing them have ticked off a handful of essential workplace culture qualities: "Their employees trust them. Their employees are engaged, self-directed and know exactly what's expected of them," he says.

How do you move your IT department in this direction? These steps are key, according to the tech leaders we consulted.

1. Hire top-quality people. Look for prospective team members who desire a bigger purpose than just making money. Those are the people who work best under this benefit because they're self-directed, collaborative and work hard, says VMware's Iyer.

You need to convince such workers that your team is one they want to work for, he says. "We're all competing for those driven people who are committed and deliver extraordinary value," he says. "You need to be an extraordinary place to work for -- you need the culture, policies, management and salaries."

2. Work on your IT team's culture. Unlimited vacation policies fail in companies and teams that don't trust their employees, according to SHRM's Elliott. Telltale signs of a non-trusting environment include leaders who don't allow employees to work from home or take mental notes of when employees clock in and out, and staffers who feel obligated to prove that they're working hard, Iyer says.

"You need to show that you believe in your employees and want to trust them. That's when you will get the trust back," he adds.

3. Set the example. Execs at Akamai, CA Technologies and VMware admit that it took some time to get used to what was acceptable and expected of them when taking time off. Akamai's HR chief Gemmell says employees often look higher on the org chart for these cues.

"Taking time off isn't taboo here because our leadership team is good at taking time off," he says. "You need to set the right example for employees; it can't be something that leadership doesn't ascribe to themselves. Employees need to feel empowered about taking time off, not worried about it."

4. Trust the policy. For IT leaders and staffers who are used to traditional paid time off policies, navigating unlimited vacation might feel uncomfortable, CA's Durai says. "It sounds onerous and like things might get out of control, but with proper procedures in place, it doesn't," he says.

"Everyone has the goal of a work-life balance for their teams. A policy like this enhances [workers'] morale because they don't feel like they need to hoard vacation," Durai concludes. "It makes them better people, in and out of the office."


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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