A decade ago, when we formed People Centric Consulting Group, we decided to implement a strange policy that was not widely used at the time. We installed an “open time off” policy. Essentially, this means that if you work at People Centric, we don’t track your time off. Employees don’t get a specific number of days off for vacation or sick time. We don’t even require people to work certain hours during the day.
If an employee wants to take more than a few hours off, they simply ask for it and almost every time, they get it.
While I recognize that an open-time off policy probably can’t work for every organization, I would challenge many executives that it might work for them. Here are some tips for implementing a successful open time off policy:
1. Set Clear Expectations - When we onboard a new employee, this policy gets significant attention. We set a clear expectation that when we take time off, we have to consider our team and our clients. If a team member (including myself) decided to take 6 weeks off to explore every bourbon distillery in Kentucky (random example), it is that team members responsibility to have a plan for their absence that doesn’t put too much strain on the rest of the team or on our clients. Of course, this is why nobody has ever taken more than 2 weeks off at a time (and seldom more than 1). It’s not reasonable or practical to expect other people on the team to pick up their workload for that length of time. With clear expectations set, I find that our team does a great job of selecting reasonable vacation duration and even in selecting timing that works well for our team and our clients. They will even work together to coordinate time off so that we aren’t missing too many people at once.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Say No - I hate it when managers hide behind policy. I’ve made that mistake before and it’s a big mistake. I understand that it’s nicer when a manager can point to a rule or policy rather than making a potentially unpopular judgment call, but management by policy is very damaging to culture. The most important safeguard to a successful open time off policy is the willingness of a manager to say “no” to time off if needed. To be clear, I have seldom had to do this because we have been successful in setting expectations. However, there have been a few times where I’ve had to challenge an employee on the timing or duration of requested time off. I’ve even had to challenge employees who were working very strange hours and weren’t available to clients or to the rest of the team to shift their working hours. Our open time off policy includes a statement that emphasizes the importance of employees making good decisions and managers holding that accountability. The line states, “failures in this policy will reflect on the employee and not the policy”. If an employee tries to take unfair advantage of the policy, it is up to the manager to realign the employee.
3. Take Vacation Yourself - When we first implemented the policy, I was working long and hard trying to build the company. I rarely took time off and put in long days and often weekends. I started to recognize as a leader of the company that other team members were following my lead and not taking time off. I learned that a key to a successful open time off policy is for the executive to use the policy well. For me, this means taking periodic long weekends, afternoons off, or scheduled vacations while still coordinating with the rest of our team. If you own the company, the employees' use of the policy will mirror your own use of it.
When other business owners and executives hear about this policy, they sometimes ask me how it works and even tell me how it can’t work. However, it works great in our company and has become one of the most valuable benefits for our team. It also prevents us from needing all the tools, time, and rules for tracking time off.
I will share some observations on the results of 10 years under an open time off policy at People Centric.
1. You Have to Help Employees Use It - New employees who are used to more traditional benefits may struggle with finding ways to take full advantage of an open time off policy. Veterans of the policy find ways to take advantage of smaller chunks of time off rather than always looking for full weeks. A savvy supervisor should watch for new employees who might not think about taking time off when things are slow.
2. People Make Themselves More Available - I’ve noticed that giving flexibility to employees on taking time off makes them more likely to give you flexibility on when they can work. Our team never complains about taking an early morning meeting, an evening meeting or even occasionally traveling on the weekend. I’ve even seen our team take quick calls or respond to emails during their time off.
3. It’s Not a Problem - We work with a lot of companies who have more traditional Paid Time Off (PTO) policies and they seem to struggle more with their policies than we struggle with ours. That may be because we are a small team. I’ve also been told, “yeah, but look at your team and how dedicated they are.”. When I hear that, I tend to chuckle. It’s true, but I think our open time off policy has played a role in helping us create the culture where our team can successfully integrate their work and home life, which creates dedication.
I’m a big fan of the open time off policy. Maybe it could work for your company!