Previously published on Forbes.com.
Last year, one of our highest-performing employees, Shanon, came to my business partner and me and asked us to implement unlimited paid time off. To be honest, I freaked out a little. Turns out, I have some outdated ideas about how people “should” work.
Here’s what’s always been drilled into my head: You earn time off by putting in a certain amount of time and sweat equity. You start out with getting one week off a year. Then you work up to two, then three, etc. You earn it as you go.
But as a leader, I am continually learning about how to create a highly accountable, creative and happy team. And my way of thinking about paid time off doesn't make sense for the times we live in or for my team in particular. My team works hard. Letting them set their own time off is really the reciprocal gift I can offer.
The reality is, working a certain number of hours per week with set time off is a thing of the past. Consider Shanon’s typical schedule: She frequently starts her day before the sun comes up so that she can take a break when her young children need to get ready for school. She is often back online in the evenings after the family has gone to sleep. Given our access to information and new ways of working, flexibility and accountability are the way of the future. Shanon has proved herself to be a true leader who produces and often exceeds her accountabilities. She doesn’t need strict structures for a workday.
Having rationalized all this, though, I wanted to better understand my own resistance to the idea. What was I so afraid of? Well, that stuff wouldn’t get done. That the collective goals of the business would suffer for the individual’s needs. And it also didn’t seem fair. I had to work to earn my time off and had finally just come to a place where I felt comfortable taking six weeks of PTO per year. How could a relatively new employee have the same benefit?
I know I’m not alone in struggling through those thoughts. The idea of unlimited paid time off has gained lots of media attention in recent years, and to some, it seems excessive and a true luxury. Many argue that it’s not pragmatic for a large business to implement.
But I’ve come to realize that you have to trust your people.
In a recent HBR article, "The High Price of Overly Prescriptive HR Policies," Sue Bingham writes, “If you believe employees need strict rules and enforcement to be productive, hiring and retaining high-performance people will be a challenge for you. You hired these people for their tenacity and talents. Get out of the way and let them be great. Deal with any people who choose not to meet expectations on a case-by-case basis.”
Just as important, your employees have to trust your motivation for the policy. Is it a policy in principle or in practice? Does the policy have leadership buy-in? Is it really okay to take more time off, or am I going to be (subtly or outright) punished for it?
Here’s what will make it work for both you and the employee:
Communicate your expectations clearly.
This is vital. Talk about what is really unacceptable for you as a leader, and figure out what isn’t. If an employee lets you know that they are taking eight weeks of vacation and it tweaks you, talk about it. Don't make your people guess at what doesn’t work for you.
Nathan Christensen, CEO of MammothHR, an HR technology company and consultancy headquartered in Portland, Oregon, shared his experience in a recent Fast Company article: “Communicate that time off is a two-way street. We offer our employees flexibility because we want to invest in their personal lives. But the investment needs to be mutual. In return for flexibility, we ask our employees to invest themselves in our mission, making sure their work gets done and gets done well, so our organization can thrive, our customers are supported, and our colleagues can balance their lives, too.”
Offer signals of trust.
David Burkus, author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual, suggests that unlimited paid time off actually creates a relationship of mutual trust between employer and employee: “The majority of people respond to signals of trust with more trustworthy behavior. We know from motivation research that when people feel trusted, it dramatically affects their feeling of autonomy. Autonomy tends to increase motivation and morale and usually, that correlates to increases in productivity and often to profitability.”
Check in monthly or quarterly on performance.
Sit down with your employees one on one to talk about their accountabilities to ensure they are moving forward and all aspects of their role are being well tended to. General Electric, which in 2015 became the first Fortune 500 company to implement unlimited PTO, says it still expects employees to “coordinate all time off with your manager, continue to meet your goals and maintain satisfactory performance.”
Require 100% transparency.
You don’t want surprises. Institute clear policies that preempt potential issues. For example, employees must post all “off days” on a shared calendar, and they should notify you of vacations lasting a week or longer at least two months ahead of time.
Building a culture of creative, accountable employees requires that you unlearn some of what may have made sense to you in the past. You have to be willing to embrace new ways of working and trust your people. This is the formula for success in the 21st century.