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Expert Q&A: Encouraging Employees to Take PTO When It's 'Unlimited'

Tell workers to take at least one consecutive week of vacation to recharge

A smiling woman in a green top.
​Whitney Hoffman-Bennett, SHRM-CP

A problem with unlimited paid time off (PTO)—when employees can take any number of days away from work, after getting approval from their managers—is that often employees end up taking little or even no vacation time.

CallRail, an Atlanta-based provider of marketing analytics and business communications software, was worried that just offering unlimited PTO wasn't ensuring its employees were taking time to de-stress and emotionally recharge. So, in 2019, the company adopted a policy that "strongly encourages" everyone to take, at a bare minimum, one continuous week of vacation every year so they can completely unplug from work. "Whether that's accomplished by a one-week trip to another state, another country or even just one week at home with family, it's important that employees are able to close the laptop," explained Whitney Hoffman-Bennett, SHRM-CP, the firm's vice president of talent and culture.

Hoffman-Bennett discussed the policy and other time-off issues in a Q&A with SHRM Online.

What were some of the challenges with unlimited PTO?

Hoffman-Bennett: When we adopted unlimited PTO a few years back, we found that some people were taking too much time off, and some people were not taking enough time. We decided to create guidelines to encourage people to take vacations, to make PTO a more equitable practice, and that now includes communicating to managers and employees that we expect them to take no less than one full week of vacation every year.

In addition to the week off, we clarified that sick time is not vacation. If you're sick, stay at home and don't work. There's no prize for being hardcore and taking the rest of us down. We also called out that if you need to take a mental health day, then we don't need to see proof, we trust you, we want you to be well.

As for the full vacation week, everyone needs time to truly recharge and avoid burnout, and you don't necessarily do that a day or two at a time.

How are you encouraging workers to take time off? 

Hoffman-Bennett: It is in our employee handbook. We talk about it in the offer process and go over it during employees' first week of employment. It's posted on our website. We also put up blog posts highlighting the vacations that people take and our value of "turn it off." It gets communicated across the board.

We have five culture statements and "turn it off" is one of them. Respect for everyone is another. Those kind of go hand in hand.

Any problems with the new policy?

Hoffman-Bennett: We ran into some complications with our customer-facing roles—sales and customer experience—where we need a certain number of people to be on the phones talking to customers in order to serve our customers well, which is another one of our value statements. We've now created a capacity calendar so everybody knows, based on the month, the week or the day, what the staffing expectations will be, and we've asked team members to submit their PTO requests in advance, when possible.

Our managers and leadership team also do a great job of communicating this policy and modeling it by taking vacations themselves, and I try to as well. For example, when I took a family vacation, I used my out-of-office message to say, "I'm practicing our value of 'turn it off' right now."

Employees and their managers are expected to work out the details. Before I left on vacation, I communicated to my boss, the CFO [chief financial officer], "Here's what's going on when I'm gone. Here's what you can expect from me when I get back," so everyone was clear.

What else can managers do to make this policy work?

Hoffman-Bennett: Good people leaders are intuitive and can sense when someone is feeling burned out. It's important to be proactive and ask, "Hey, when was the last time you took time off? It seems like you could benefit from that. Let's figure out when we can make that happen."

Have you seen an increase in employees taking vacations?

Hoffman-Bennett: We began encouraging everyone to take a consecutive week off in 2019, and then we had the pandemic and people were working from home and not traveling. Our focus shifted in 2020 and instead of expecting people to go on traditional vacations, we encouraged them to take the week off for mental wellness or to focus on something they felt passionate about, something other than work.

Those are called "staycations."

Hoffman-Bennett: Yes! In 2020, we also gave everyone an extra $500 as a holiday present, to be used toward a curated activity, vacation or staycation, so people could do something special even if they couldn't get away. We did this through Blueboard, which is a service that curates vacation experiences and offers virtual experiences as well, such as at-home cooking classes or lessons in playing a musical instrument, so that everyone had an opportunity to take some time off and come back refreshed.

Now that things have started to settle down—we expect a hybrid return to the office in April, with a mix of remote and onsite work—we want everyone to enjoy their summer and, hopefully, to take real vacations.

Related SHRM Article:

Making Sure Unlimited PTO Is Done Right, SHRM Online, March 2022


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