New trend in benefits: unlimited vacation

Originally published by News and Citizen by Andrew Martin


So, all your relatives are in town for a big get-together, but you’ve already used up most of your vacation time.

You can use up the rest of that vacation, take a few unpaid days off, try to squeeze in a few hours of family time, or just give up.

Unless you work at Green Mountain Support Services, where you can take as much vacation time as you want.

 

“The whole concept of vacation time, it’s an outmoded thing,” said Josh Smith, executive director of the Morristown-based nonprofit that works with developmentally disabled individuals.

Under conventional policies, “basically you earn points to be with your family. The more time you spend at work, the more you can spend with them,” Smith said.

That system doesn’t make sense to him, and he wanted to give his employees a better option. So he began looking into the idea of “unlimited vacation,” which a lot of tech companies have adopted. How does that work?

“It’s set up so that if your work is done early and you want to, you go home,” Smith said. That can apply to one specific day or a longer stretch of vacation.

Smith switched to unlimited vacation in July 2016, making Green Mountain Support Services the first nonprofit in Vermont to adopt it.

“It’s interesting to see this starting to pop up at the local level,” said Dan Barlow, the public policy manager at Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. Unlimited vacation is growing in popularity and has been successful with larger national companies, such as the entertainment giant Netflix.

“It’s great to see smaller organizations having success as well,” Barlow said.

“I don’t want people having to decide if they want to spend time with their kids during the summer or spend time with the whole family at Thanksgiving,” Smith said. He wants them to do both.

“You shouldn’t have to pick and choose when you can be with your family,” he said. The new setup also allows employees to work remotely much more.

“There are two things that tie people to the office. Managers and meetings. If you don’t have either of those things” keeping you in the office, you can just work from home, he said.

However, not all 50 staff members at Smith’s organization can take unlimited vacation time. Some have to be in the office or on call and available to clients a certain amount of time each week, so for them he made a few other alterations.

Those employees now have all of their vacation, sick and personal time rolled into one larger package.

“There’s more flex time,” Smith said. So, if those frontline staff members have used up all their allotted vacation time for the year, they can take unused sick or personal days as vacation instead.

“It just allows us to be more flexible,” Smith said.


Boosting morale

One big goal of unlimited vacation is to make employees more productive and happy by allowing them to spend as much time as possible with the people they care about.

“There’s no sense in having people sit there, watching the clock, wishing they were someplace else and being unproductive,” Smith said. “No one has ever said ‘I wish I spent more time at work’ on their deathbed.”

“It’s more about getting your job done, not clocking in and out” at the right times, said Raven Walters, the clinical director at the nonprofit.

“It’s really about employees’ mental health and stability,” said Fawn Lanpher, the director of administrative services.

Smith himself is the biggest supporter of employees taking the time they need for their own health and wellness.

“Josh always says, if you are saying you don’t have time to take a day off, then you are the one who needs a day off,” said Brenda Donley, a program director at the nonprofit.

“It boosts morale. I’m more energized when I come to work. I feel grateful,” said Danielle Boissy, a service coordinator who started working at Green Mountain Support Services a month after the change.

Employees at the nonprofit say the new policy has been a big hit.

“It’s been amazing,” Walters said. During past summers, she had to take unpaid time off to spend more time with her kids, but not so since last July.

“I didn’t have that worry and stress this year,” she said. “I took a full month last summer, Christmas week, and I have two two-week stints this summer along with a few scattered days off,” she said.

Everyone says the employees are more thoughtful about when they take time off, now that it’s not something they have to earn and keep track of.

“People are more thoughtful because they have more flexibility, and they connect with their team to make sure all the work that needs to get done while they’re gone is done,” Walters said.

The one major drawback to the new vacation system? Getting people to change their mindset and accept the fact that they can take more time and aren’t obligated to be in the office for eight hours a day, five days a week.

“For me, it was an internal struggle of transitioning my thought process,” Lanpher said.

“People were nervous at first. They are used to having to be at their desks. Everyone had to switch gears,” Walters said.

When the switch was made, most employees felt badly about taking time they hadn’t earned yet — at least, not under the old system.

“It took me months to believe it,” Boissy said.

Christina Bell thought the new vacation setup was pretty unbelievable when she started work in February as the lone nurse on the staff.

“It’s taken a lot of time to get used to; you almost feel guilty,” Bell said.

“I’ve just started to finally lose that feeling,” Boissy added.

It took some employees so long to adjust that Smith imposed a new requirement: Every employee had to take at least two weeks off per year. He sends out weekly reminders, too, asking people when they are taking that mandatory time off.

It’s easy to assume that, with unlimited vacation, people would take advantage of the system and productivity would go down.

The opposite has happened at Green Mountain Support Services so far.

“Happy employees make productive employees,” Lanpher said. She points to an afternoon a few weeks ago as an example. She had a few things that really needed to be done at home and was struggling to focus at the office. Her coworkers told her to go home and take care of those home issues. She did, and once she finished that, she was still able to do the rest of her work from home.

 

“When you’re working in an environment where you’re appreciated and you can take the time you need, you feel valued,” Donley said. “You go above and beyond when you’re here.”

There are weeks she still logs quite a bit of overtime, and she’s more OK with that now because she knows she can take some extra time off the following week to bounce back.

Family first

The new system is also great for employees with children.

“If you have a sick kid, they can’t go to day care,” Lanpher said. Now employees don’t have to struggle between staying home to take care of their child or going to work.

“It removes that problem,” she said, and the ability to work from home makes it even less of a worry.

Boissy has two young children, and she really appreciates not having to decide between sending them to school sick or staying home with them.

“I can just stay home and not worry about getting in trouble when I come back, or getting fired,” she said.

The same philosophy applies to maternity and paternity leave. Sonja Crowe is a program manager at the nonprofit, and she had a baby seven months ago.

“I was able to come back slowly,” Crowe said. “I could come in for a couple of hours, then go home and be with my son.”

She also oversees an employee who is pregnant, and she likes being able to send her home to work remotely if she’s getting a bit too stressed.

“She works really hard; I know the work is getting done,” Crowe said.

Being able to spend the time she wants to with her family helps Walters “focus on being here” when she’s in the office.

“I’m happy to be here. I feel well nurtured as a person and an employee,” she said.

The new system is a boon for employees without young children, too. Donley has had quite a few family emergencies since the spring. The new vacation system “has allowed me to feel I can go and do what I need to do to take care of my family. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I have the time built up. And, I can be more focused when I am here.”

Flexibility like that is a big draw when Green Mountain Support Services is hiring, too. Janet Germaine, the human resources coordinator, says “it’s definitely a draw and a big plus when we are searching for new employees.”

Unlimited vacation is a big plus for potential employees, but the most common response she gets when she first tells people about it is: “Are you for real?”

The employee retention rate at the nonprofit has risen since the change. Betsy Bishop, the president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, sees benefits like unlimited vacation as a great way for Vermont businesses and nonprofits to attract and keep good workers. The Vermont economy can sustain “thousands of more workers a year, but we don’t have people coming into the workforce,” Bishop said.

“That puts a lot of pressure on businesses to keep the workers they have and attract new ones,” she said. “These types of benefits will emerge as a way to help attract” those employees.

Barlow agrees and thinks a benefit like unlimited vacation “has a lot to do with the new workforce.”

“Millennials are looking for different things in employment,” he said, such as a flexible work schedule.

Green Mountain Support Services may be the first nonprofit in Vermont to adopt unlimited vacation, but Smith knows other, similar agencies are looking into the setup and he expects it to spread over the next few years.