Unlimited PTO (Flexible Time-Off) is great for proactive, empowered workers, not so much for passive employees

The unlimited PTO policy — also referred to as Flexible Time Off — has gone from an edge perk that technology companies used to stay competitive when wooing talent to their organizations to being adopted outside of that industry.

On the surface, Unlimited PTO presents the company as progressive and at the least, the appearance that they care about work-life balance.

Maybe the company is progressive and genuinely care about their employees’ well-being, but being forward-thinking and truly caring about your workforce requires more than offering a perk to make it seem so.

The cons of an Unlimited PTO policy

Whether the consequences of unlimited time off are intended or not, we have to understand and respect that those problems can arise. And that is especially true if the company’s goal is employee happiness.

Some believe that an Unlimited PTO policy is actually chipping away at your hard-earned right to paid time off.

In other words, many workers feel less empowered to take PTO when they feel as if they haven’t “earned” those hours. No longer can they look into their PTO balance, see that they have 14 hours of PTO leftover that will expire at the end of the month. That triggers the decision to take a quick long weekend to Vegas to play free no download slots and enjoy some time off.

That feeling of needing to “earn” your paid time off is due to the built-in power structure that capitalism instills in us when we enter the workforce, but that’s a topic for another time.

On top of that feeling of losing power over your own “free time,” studies have shown that employees tend to take less vacation time under an Unlimited PTO policy.

A limitless PTO policy also means that Human Resources no longer has to track or police PTO hours and the company no longer has to pay out thousands of dollars from that accrued paid time off at the end of the year or when the employee decides to leave the company.

What do workers actually say about Unlimited PTO?

Also known as an Open Vacation policy, it all comes down to how the workers and employees adapt to the new program.

In order we cover all angles, we actually surveyed and interviewed workers and participated in forums on the topic. These workers all worked for companies that went from a traditional accrual system for time off to an Unlimited PTO policy and here’s how some of them responded.

Some weren’t sure how the new system would translate or didn’t really understand that “Unlimited” actually means “unlimited:”

So how will it work with those that have earned 5 weeks a year? Should we continue to take 5 weeks a year? What if our managers decline to let us take that amount?

So PTO is now NEED based, so if I need only 2 weeks I lost 3 weeks of my PTO benefits.

Others wanted a choice to pick between the new and old policy.

Can we opt out of the Flexible Time Off? I am not a fan. I have been here over 10 years and like my 5 week a year entitlement. With Flexable Vacation plans, it all up to the manager or the workload of the team and could not be applied equally.

While many were concerned how the policy would be applied company-wide, specific managers, workload, etc.

How are you going to ensure that PTO allowances are applied fairly? Will there be guidelines for managers to allow for min and max.? I have seen from other companies some people take 5-6 weeks and others due to workload can only take 2 weeks. Some managers are more liberal and others are not. Having worked at my company for over a decade, I like to know I have earned PTO.

And there are some edge cases that make Unlimited PTO a problem. Say for example, imagine that you planned out a vacation and then were laid off – zero payout for that planned vacation.

How it gets administered matters, my friend at another tech company had a manager that implemented and unspoken policy of two to three weeks of vacation max in one year.

Concerns of how the policy would be administered and potentially-abused (by managers) was a common concern that popped up in our conversations and interviews.

Yeah, this is going to get abused like crazy. I already know a few managers who aggressively discourage PTO even when they are required to let their people take it. Now that it’s optional I can only imagine the creative reasons they will come up with to deny it. Will be interesting to see what impacts this has on attrition long term.

The key is to change your mindset; own your time off

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with Unlimited PTO because I never had an issue taking vacation whenever I wanted to. I worked. The company profits off me. I deserved as much time off as I could get. If I wanted to take a three week trip to Thailand or spent my time off playing free casino machines like sun and moon slots, Candy Crush or binge 56 hours of Netflix, I never flinch to request that time off. Ever.

Nor should you. This is about flipping a small part of the power structure (that’s been developed in American workplaces) on it’s head. That said, I understand that not everyone is down to fight that battle nor want to rock the boat, so getting out of that old capitalist mindset is difficult.

While I appreciate the spirit and idea that goes into Unlimited PTO Policy, I understand that people don’t take to change and especially ones that force them to be more proactive than passive.

So unless the new FTO policy comes with a minimum amount of PTO, it seems subject to causing a reduction, not increase, in PTO taken. At least in the mid term as workers get used to how to manage that additional freedom.

We’ll leave you with one of respondent’s replies to a fellow workers complaints about the new unlimited system.

What I’m getting at is the main opposition to this model is based on the idea that the previous model somehow protected you. If you’re truly worried about being able to take your time off, challenge yourself to take a minimum amount of PTO. If your manager rejects your requests without good reason and/or doesn’t approve your PTO request multiple times, that’s a direct violation of our corporate culture guidelines and should be brought up with a higher authority.

 

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