Monday 18 December 2017

Why tech firms' boasts of 'unlimited holidays' are a sham

Netflix now offers
Netflix now offers "unlimited"
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Are tech companies' "unlimited" holidays and maternity leave real or fake?

Last week, Netflix and Microsoft announced extensions to their maternity leave cover. In Netflix's case, it now offers "unlimited" maternity leave until the child is a year old. This comes as a growing number of tech companies offer "unlimited" holidays as a recruiting perk.

But is it all just for show? Will anyone actually be brave enough to tell their manager they're taking the summer off?

Or is unlimited, paid time off the latest equivalent of the office snooker table - symbolic and rarely used?

There is mounting evidence that telling people to regulate their own holidays makes them take less time off.

"When people are uncertain about how many days it's okay to take off, you'll see curious things happen," said Mathias Meyer, chief executive of Berlin-based company Travis CI. "People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don't want to seem like that person who's taking the most vacation days. It's a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well-rested and happy team."

Meyer should know. Two years ago, his tech startup decided to adopt an 'open vacation' policy. The company would not set any limits on holidays, instead leaving it up to employees to decide how much they should take themselves. It turned out to be a disaster: people felt they couldn't take a break as their work was never completely finished.

"Forgetting about holidays... pushes people to the edge of burnout and unhappiness. They'll eventually leave your company.

"This almost happened in ours, we pushed someone too far. They pulled the cord eventually, and we asked them to take off as much time as they need."

In productivity-obsessed tech workplaces, holidays are becoming a conundrum for HR departments. Time off is time away from completing a 'mission critical' project, a project that someone else might step in to work on.

"As we ask our employees to bring their A-game to work every day to achieve our mission, we believe it's our responsibility to create an environment where people can do their best work," said Microsoft last week, as it unveiled even longer maternity leave for employees.

Microsoft means well. But even here, it throws down a subtle gauntlet. This extended benefit, it's implied, is for those who bring their A-game to work every day. If that's you, go ahead and take the extra time off! If not, well... we'll leave it up to you on whether you think it's right to take your full allocation...

In general, the tech industry has a time-off-is-for-slackers tone that is set at the top. When Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer gave birth, she took just 14 days off before returning to the office. She also admitted to having worked during those two weeks and to being "available" in case of "an issue".

"The guilt of taking time off takes over, and you 'just check in' or promise to be available if anything comes up," said Travis CI's Meyer. "You respond to just one email or just one GitHub issue. This ambiguity trickles through to everyone on your team. When someone starts checking in during their vacation, it lowers the bar for others to do it, and it increases the uncertainty of whether or not you should be checking in."

But for some tech companies, unforeseen consequences to holiday guilt are starting to rear up. A growing number of firms are now having to pay staff extra to take holidays, such is the fear among employees that they'll be negatively viewed if they skip a couple of weeks.

That includes productivity software firm Evernote, which has had to start paying staff an additional $1,000 to take holidays after its unlimited vacation policy resulted in staff not taking breaks. Another software firm, FullContact, gives a $7,500 bonus if staff take holidays. Meyer's Travis CI tech firm now takes a hard line on holidays.

"Starting in 2015, we've implemented a minimum vacation policy," he said. "Rather than giving no guideline on what's a good number of days to take off, everyone now has a required minimum of 25 paid vacation days per year, no matter what country they live in... It sets a lower barrier of days that we expect our employees to focus on their own well-being rather than work."

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