Need an Awesome PTO Policy Your Employees Will Actually Use?

Did you know that the U.S. does not have a statutory minimum annual leave requirement? Unlike many European countries that mandate companies offer their employees 20 to even 30 days of paid vacation each year, the U.S. has never instituted a similar policy.

This diligent work ethic that has laid the foundation for innovation and prosperity among American companies has also contributed to a “work hard play hard work harder” culture where fewer and fewer employees take vacation. Even those with “unlimited vacation” line-itemed in their contract find themselves limiting their days away from the office. In fact, one study showed that unlimited vacation days resulted in employees taking fewer days of vacation than those with specific allotments.

What does skipping vacation do to an employee? It turns out its adverse effects reach beyond burnout and job dissatisfaction.

A growing body of research has shown that working endless hours can undermine employee productivity and make a worker less likely to receive a raise or promotion. Taking advantage of paid time off, on the other hand, not only lowers stress levels and fosters better mental health, but it can reduce physical detriment to the body.

Why Employees Aren’t Taking Time Off

Much of the discussion around skipping vacation focuses on the employees themselves. Isn’t it their fault if they don’t make time for vacation? Shouldn’t they be the ones prioritizing work/life balance?

As the CEO of a leading software development company who has instituted a mandatory paid time off policy, I say no. It’s not the sole responsibility of an employee to make use of their paid time off. And business owners can certainly do more to help their employees see the greater value (for them and the company) in taking more than the occasional vacation.

It’s clearer now more than ever that cultural stigmas and psychological barriers get in the way of compelling employees to make the vacation leap. The idea of being a ‘work martyr’ has pervaded corporate mentalities throughout the world. You’re not working hard enough if you’re not killing yourself for the job, right?

Project overload, a fear of coming back to a mountain of work, not having someone to handle responsibilities while on vacation, and the guilt of filling your team up with extra work while you’re away, all contribute to vacation postponement. Even a lack of extra funds to take a short break all play a role in keeping employees at their desks with paid time off neatly tucked away in a drawer for another time.

How Our Company Made a Change

So how did I find a way to get employees to embrace a mandatory PTO policy?

It all started one evening over drinks with an old friend almost 7 years ago. We got to talking about company culture, and the friend mentioned how the company he worked for gave half of the employees every other Friday off during the summer months.

This regular three-day weekend sounded like a good start, but when I put my head together with our CTO, we decided to try something even more radical. In addition to about 10 national holidays, 25 paid vacation days, and as many sick days as were needed, we settled upon giving our entire team every other Friday off for the entire year. Half the team would get a three-day weekend one week and then switch off with the other half of the team the next week. We called this initiative “FriYays.”

Essentially, this equaled 26 additional paid vacation days a year or about two full months of time off each year per person.

It was a risky move because no companies were doing this seven years ago (except the few that did this for the summer months), and we truly had no data in the beginning to support our decision. What if output slowed down? What if the change couldn’t support the team availability we needed for our clients? Deep down, we felt like it was a move in the right direction for our company and our team, but only time would tell.

Happier Employees, Better Business

Since launching FriYays 2 years ago, we have seen a transformation in our team. On the work front, productivity has increased, burnout has lowered, turnover has gone down, and employees take fewer sick days. We inform all our clients of the Friyays policy when we take on new projects, and many of them have even reported seeing the positive effects this type of mandatory paid time off has on output.

On the employee front, our team members report feeling more balanced, motivated, and focused. We’ve seen improvements in job satisfaction and an overall positive shift in company culture, which has also been very helpful with recruiting and marketing our company.

When we surveyed our team to find out how the FriYays policy had impacted their life directly, some of the answers surprised us. We had team members who had used the time off to pursue creative outlets and complete projects at home that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered (including one team member who built their own sauna!). The FriYays policy also offered people more time with their families, which is especially significant for our employees with children.

Perhaps most uniquely, FriYays enabled some of our lead developers and our CTO to carve out time to work on open-source software projects they were passionate about, which in turn, has become a greater focus for our company. Not only did this allow them to keep their skills sharp, practice in new technical areas, and give back to the open-source development community, but some of the tools they built have positively impacted our business. Wippy AI and Spiral Framework, our PHP datamapper and modeling engine, and RoadRunner, a popular high-performance PHP application server, have been extremely useful in our client projects and well-received in the open-source development world too.

Unintended Benefits

Our mandatory PTO policy has positioned Spiral Scout in a new light, elevating our company in some respects above comparable software development competitors in the market. We have had employees join our team who told us that having a paid 3-day weekend every other week absolutely clinched the deal for them when they were job-hunting.

When other business owners ask me what ‘perks’ I offer that help my team thrive and grow, I always tell them to be more demanding about taking and making paid vacation mandatory. Establish company policies that prioritize time off and push employees to take care of themselves. You won’t regret it.

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