Summer is well and truly underway — though frighteningly some people are talking about autumn as if it’s already here — and it’s an interesting time to revisit the vacation policy debate that came up again recently.
Hubspot, a marketing software company in Cambridge MA, were recently back in the news concerning their unlimited vacation policy. This isn’t a new story for Hubspot — it was covered as far back as 2011 and probably before — and nor is it a new discussion for the tech industry in general. Perhaps most famously, Reed Hastings got similar press coverage around a very similar policy that he put in place at Netflix, one that has been copied at startups around the country beyond just Hubspot (Chegg is another good example).
The argument in favor of unlimited vacation boils down to the fact that in most startups people work really hard, and the concept of a 9-5 day, Mon-Fri doesn’t really make a lot of sense. When you’re launching a new product, which team isn’t burning the midnight oil as well as working weekends too? That’s normal. As such, tracking vacation in a formal manner makes no sense in this context, and people should be empowered to make decisions that they believe are right given their responsibilities, and what they are trying to achieve as a company.
The other side of the argument posits that the absence of a vacation policy in fact results in pressure to take no vacation at all. None. Zero. Indeed, there are some pretty scary comments on TechCrunch below an article MG Sielger wrote in 2009, which definitely suggest that the policy, rather than being one of freedom at Netflix, can become one in which you get fired for taking time off (I treat this with a very healthy does of skepticism, and it’s good balance to read the answers on Quora around the same topic — all very positive).
My personal view is that this is one of those situations where you can have your cake and eat it.
I love the idea of being empowered, and empowering employees to make decisions for themselves about how much time they can take off. Manage people and teams based on the product they deliver (be it software, technical documentation; whatever “product” means given the job role), and don’t micro-manage how they get there. If an employee is abusing the system it will be obvious — they will be under-delivering — and there should be a process in place to deal with these performance issues.
However, the “policy” should be augmented to deal with the concern that no policy = no vacation. So, set a clear expectation with employees that they must take x number of days off a year, and that y is the target they should strive for. Hopefully this will create a culture whereby people are comfortable taking time off and informing their colleagues of this. There’s no stigma as people are required to take at least some time off.
It’s also important to implement this as an honor system, rather than through a formal tracking tool. I spent 10 years in large corporate companies, and they never managed to track vacation time correctly or efficiently. It always came down to an agreement with my boss about when to take time off, and I stuck to the rule of how much time I could take. The systems implemented to track this were inefficient and largely a waste of time and money — exactly the reason Dharmesh Shah, Hubspot Co-founder/CTO, wants to stay away from this “solution”.
I am now going to practice what I preach and book a trip to Maui with my wife and daughter for the fall. Head over to Expedia and plan to visit somewhere new — it’s unlikely you will regret it.