Why we abolished our vacation policy

by · July 2, 201418 comments

We recently made a big change for all of our employees of Social Media Explorer | SME Digital. We completely abolished our vacation policy. That’s right, we just blew it up completely. There were a lot of reasons for this decision that really go to the heart of how we treat our employees that I thought were worth discussing with our readers.

Too many times companies hire adults and then treat them like children

The biggest reason for this change was because our former vacation policy was based on how other companies do it, not our culture. We gave employees a certain number of days, which they accrued each pay period. However, we are really big on hiring adults and actually treating them like adults. We never actually counted vacation days so it seemed arbitrary to have an official policy on how much time someone could take. Ultimately, we want our employees to take time to replenish whenever they need it because we always want them to bring their A game to the table for clients. Giving employees a set number of days doesn’t allow them to be creative with how and when they use their time or let them do what we really want them to do; replenish. This resulted in changing the name of our policy from a vacation policy to a replenish policy.

We wanted to flip old vacation policies on their head

VacationToo many companies act like an employee’s vacation time is a privilege. This mindset can make employees feel guilty about taking their vacations. I wanted to have a policy that made taking time off from work a requirement, not a privilege. We wanted employees to feel good about taking time for themselves so they could bring their best selves to the table when they got back. The only way to do that was to completely transform how we talk about vacation and what it is designed to be used for. This is one of the reasons the name replenish policy was selected.

We want employees to experience life while they are working

If you work in a corporate setting you might feel like I did. It seemed that we work really hard so we can get to retirement and do all of the things we really love. I didn’t want to build this company that way. I want our employees to live their life NOW and have a career that supports it. One of the goals of the new replenish policy is to encourage employees to take advantage of their ability to travel and have amazing experiences in the here and now instead of saving it for later. This is why we decided to remove the accrual method for the vacation policy, we want employees to take the time they need.

Too many vacation days are spent going to doctors appointments and taking care of sick kids

Replenish time is sacred and it should be treated as such

I’m a mother. I get it. We need to take care of our children and doctor’s appointments are important, but we all know this time isn’t spent replenishing. I wanted our new policy to make it clear that while these roles are important and employees should take the time they need to manage their family, they wouldn’t count towards the minimum replenishment requirement. Replenish time is sacred and it should be treated as such.

We want employees to bring their A game and their best work to the table, all the time

Stressed out and overworked employees simply can’t deliver the best value for our clients. We only hire A players and that comes with a drive to deliver amazing work. The challenge is that A players are also prone to overworking themselves. I wanted the policy to make it clear that replenish time is critical to success with clients and with the company because we only accept their best work. The only way to make sure that they are delivering their best work is to properly replenish whenever they need to, which is another reason they no longer have to stay within a set number of days.

We don’t want employees to feel like working all the time is rewarded

Let’s face it, in most company’s employees who work the hardest at all hours and never take time for themselves is rewarded with promotions and salary increases. This is not the type of culture we want at SME Digital. Instead, we wanted the new policy to encourage employees to actually take time to replenish and have a stopgap for employees who didn’t take enough time. We still reward great work, but never taking time to replenish isn’t the message we want to send. Therefore, instead of accruing vacation days we decided having a minimum requirement for replenish time was more appropriate. Each employee must prove they’ve taken enough days to meet their minimum requirement or have plans to take them before the end of the year in October.

We wanted employees to truly take time to replenish

 The goal is to make sure employees completely unplug from work and come back energized

A question came up asking if they could just take a bunch of long weekends and meet the minimum requirement. This was an important thing to consider. The answer was no. We’ve all been on vacation and know that it takes at least two days to fully unwind and let work thoughts fall away. Therefore, there is an additional requirement that 5 days must be taken consecutively at least once a year. The goal is to make sure employees completely unplug from work and come back energized, a bunch of long weekends simply wouldn’t make that possible.

We wanted to make sure clients and team members are excited about working with us

The last requirement goes to the core of our culture. At the end of the day, the thing that matters most is that clients love working with us and that this policy doesn’t put an undue strain on the rest of the team. It was important to include that a condition of satisfaction for this policy that the employee’s clients and team were happy and expectations are being exceeded. If those two conditions aren’t met we will have to start asking questions, but if they are everyone wins.

If you are interested in our policy, I’ve included it below.  If you could design your own vacation policy what would it look like? If you are a manager, what type of policy would you design for your team? Does your current policy reflect the type of culture you want to create or the type of culture you want to work in? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

By the way, if this policy excited you, SME is currently looking for an amazing strategic account manager. If you are interested you can check out the job description and follow the instructions to apply here. We are building our bench for future hires for other positions too. You can check out all of our roles here.


How SME’s replenishment policy works

For those interested, here’s how we created this policy. I told the team that I wanted to stop counting vacation days and then crowdsourced it with their feedback on how it could work. Then an email was sent to employees explaining the new policy. The email is included below.

Hi Team -

I wanted to make everyone aware of a new replenish policy that will go into effect immediately.

We have made a decision to reframe our vacation policy in the following ways. This is a rapid prototype and will be iterated over time as necessary.

At SME you don’t accrue vacation, you take vacation and replenish yourself when needed.

  1. We now have a Replenish Policy in replacement of our old vacation policy
  2. Employees will control how much replenish time they take and are not restricted by the number of vacation days earned under the prior policy. You are all adults. We expect you to manage your replenish time so that it ensures clients and the team is happy and their needs are being exceeded. Personally, we don’t care how much replenish time you take provided those two conditions of satisfaction are met.
  3. While you will not be earning vacation days, we are proposing a minimum replenish requirement. Full-time employees will be required to take at least 10 business days off per year. Part-time employees will be required to take at least 5 business days off per year. To keep things simple this policy will operate on a calendar year (Jan-Dec)

Questions you may have:

How do I make sure my replenish time doesn’t stress out my team?

  1. Plan ahead when possible, but if you get an amazing opportunity to go somewhere by all means take it and communicate with the team.
  2. Communicate with the team. Make sure your replenish time will not cause undue stress on other team members, conflict with important client meetings that require your presence, or overlap with other team members that could result in client’s needs not being able to be exceeded. We aren’t curing cancer here. Most of the time schedules can be worked out, but for this to work communication is essential.
  3. Be guided by a spirit of teamwork at all times. Most of the time things can be covered, but if you hear stress from another team member when you tell them you are taking replenish time, be respectful and act with a spirit of teamwork to overcome any challenges that may arise.

What is the time frame to take my minimum replenish days? 

To keep it simple your minimum replenish days will be counted from January through December in any given calendar year.

What counts as a replenish day?

Carting the kids around to doctor’s appointments isn’t going to cut it. Replenish days are intended to actually replenish. If you aren’t doing something you love outside of work or rejuvenating in some way it’s not going to count toward your minimum requirement.

Can I take single days or is a full week required? 

It’s okay to take a few single days, but never taking a full week through out the year isn’t going to cut it. We all know it takes at least 2 days to relax and get into full replenishment mode. Make sure you take at least one full week each year.

How do I make sure my clients are happy while I’m replenishing?

Communication is key. Manage expectations by making sure clients are aware of the dates when you will be away and who they should contact in your absence. Also, set an out of office reminder before you leave with a note on who to contact while you are out.

What is the difference between a workation and a replenish day?

A workation means you have chosen to go to an amazing place and work from there. This is part of the culture we are trying to instill at SME Digital. We don’t want you to wait until retirement to live your life. It is absolutely acceptable to stay in a cool place for an extended period of time and work while you are there. However, this doesn’t count as a replenish day because it wouldn’t satisfy the requirement for the next question.

Am I allowed to check email or work on projects during my replenish days?

No.

Can I split a workation and replenish days?

Absolutely. If you decide to work for a few days and take a few days for replenishment that is totally cool. Just make sure you meet your minimum requirement for replenish days by the end of the year.

If you aren’t counting my replenish days how will you know if I met the minimum replenish day requirement?

You manager will contact you at the end of September or early October and ask you to prove that you have taken the minimum amount of time and/or have plans to take the minimum amount of time prior to the end of the year.

Your proof could include a list of dates you’ve taken, photos from your vacation with the dates you were out or any other creative way you want to prove it. The goal here is to ensure you have had enough time to refresh throughout the year and that you aren’t working like a fiend and not enjoying your life outside of work. Your manager and/or co-workers may decide to rate your photos with how much fun you were having to determine if they count as a replenish day. This part could get interesting!

If you have not taken enough time or have no plans to take time off your manager may select dates that you will be required to unplug from work and thereby force you to refresh. If we find you emailing or doing work during these dates ugly things will happen. It’s always better when you select your own dates so we recommend that in all cases. We will run into a challenge meeting our client’s needs and making sure they are happy if no one takes their required replenish time until the end of the year. We ask that you plan ahead and communicate with your team to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Creative tips for keeping track of your replenish days:

Keeping a calendar of your replenish days is so 1996, if you want to be creative try some of these ideas.

1) Share photos of your replenish days on Facebook, Instagram or Flickr with the hashtag #SMEreplenish You’ll be able to quickly look up your photos and reference the dates the photos were posted to make it easy.

2) Send an email to the team with your +EBIs (answer what really worked for you and what would have made it even better) and favorite moments from your replenish time when you return. The team would love it if you rate the place you stayed and have tips for them if they ever decide to go there.

3) Save your trips with an app like TripIt with a note or in a folder called SMEreplenish. Don’t be surprised if there are complaints from your lack of photo sharing! The team gets joy from actually seeing you replenish!

So that’s it. We like to keep things simple here. What do you like most about this policy change? What would make it even better? Did I miss any questions that new employees might have?

Nichole Kelly
CEO, Social Media Explorer | SME Digital

Helping marketers become business rock stars by proving marketing’s effectiveness.  

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • J.G

    I’m three years into a similar policy and my employees are productive and work hard. However, the problem with this is that employees will start to judge others use of this freedom. Also, employees who have earned additional time off will feel as if something was taken from them. I am now having to implement a defined policy in order to reduce resentment among employees and feelings of guilt in others.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      I agree the challenge of judginess (i just made that word up!) comes into play. This actually came up on our team call when we discussed how this would work. We agreed that the only time judging another would come into play is if they were constantly pushing their work off onto others. We also have the luxury of a work from anywhere culture. So I’ve noticed that employees are doing a combined workation with a few replenish days built in between. This allows them to keep up from a beautiful place and replenish too. I’ll update with how it goes once it’s in full swing!

  • YevP

    We have a similar policy at Backblaze, we don’t have vacation days and are instead asked to be professional and make sure that we have a good work-life balance. When I was interviewing I was coming from Wells Fargo, so I asked about vacation times and time off, and was told, “try to be out of the office less than 100 days a year”. That seemed like a pretty good guideline.

    It does happen on occasion that some folks with fewer familial obligations will take more vacations, but overall it leads to a pretty healthy work-environment. We also often get travel vouchers that we are forced to use throughout the year.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      I love the idea of travel vouchers. So are they vouchers that pay for hotel or air? How does that work? It’s really freeing to know you aren’t tied to arbitrary policies when you do great work, isn’t it!

      • YevP

        The vouchers are for a local (down the street) travel agency, and can be used for whatever we want. I fly back home to Des Moines a lot, so I use mine primarily for that. Others go on Hawaii vacations, some go to Tahoe. It’s basically around $1500 that we have to use by years end.

        • Nichole_Kelly

          This is a fantastic idea! Hmmm…brain working. ;-)

  • Nalani Sheils

    As others have mentioned, I think it’s so important that you have established a floor that people have to meet! This help dissuade people from never taking a day off and knowing that they must take some time off. Have you ever had someone not take the required days? Or do they tend to see you that you’re serious about it and actually take it?

    • Nichole_Kelly

      We just implemented it Nalani, so I don’t have any trend analysis yet. The minimum days were specific to a request by an employee who rarely uses time off, the person wanted a minimum threshold to make sure that they were forced to take time for themself. I thought it was a brilliant way to ensure it was clear that we don’t reward working like a fiend and never taking time for yourself. ;-)

  • James Lewis

    I would like to see an HR professional’s take on this and how this works with hourly staff, time cards, and especially in a strict employment law state such as CA.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      I’d love to hear what an HR pro’s take is too. My understanding is that we have to track accrued vacation time in order to pay out if someone were to leave, but beyond that there weren’t any other restrictions.

  • http://www.kingged.com/ Sunday

    Its really cool to learn about the SME’s Replenishment Policy! From all the reasons given, it become really obvious that a employees are given free hand to become creative even as they don’t ignore what the organization is expected from them. I am sure many organization will borrow a leaf from this company’s culture.

    I have shared this comment in kingged.com where this post was found and “kingged” for its value to Internet marketers.

    Sunday – kingged.com contributor

    http://kingged.com/abolished-vacation-policy/

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Thanks so much for the feedback. It is a policy we are really proud of. :-)

  • Maya Weinhart

    I like your angle of “replenish days”. I currently work at a company that doesn’t count vacation days, which is good on one end but also makes it difficult to know when it’s ok to take a day off. I like how you hold employees accountable for taking “replenish days”.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Maya – I totally agree and understand the dilemma. This is why we felt having a minimum requirement was so important. We want our team to understand that taking time to replenish is celebrated provided the conditions of satisfaction are met. Thanks so much for commenting!

  • SpencerPadway

    The biggest issue I saw with these policies is that because vacation is unlimited people work through their vacations to make sure they don’t fall behind. This way they never truly take off and have workcation instead of vacations. I’m interested to see how you deal with this and if employees can truly disconnect.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      I totally agree Spencer. We definitely thought about this. That is why we made it clear in the frequently asked questions that a day would NOT count towards a replenish day if the employee checks email or works on a project during that day. We have a work from anywhere culture so it’s common for team members to enjoy workations from all over the world, but we wanted a clear distinction between a workation and a replenish day. Thanks so much for commenting.

  • brussell

    What a nice change that must be! Not having to feel guilty about taking some time off. You were saying that you have a minimum requirement for vacation days, is there a maximum? How many replenish days can you use a year? What happens if you do not take a replenish day, do you force an employee to do it at the end of the year if they have not done so? I can’ t complain at my work, we do get a lot of leave. Sometimes you do get the guilt trip though.

    • Nichole_Kelly

      Thanks for commenting Brussell – We do not have a maximum number of days. Employees can use as many replenish days as they need each year. If they do not take the minimum number of days or have a plan to by October, they will be required to do so by the end of the year. I hope that helps answer your questions. :-)