Every August, I wish I were a European citizen. It seems like everyone takes the month off. Go to Paris from late July through early September and I challenge you to find a native Parisian walking the streets. They just aren’t there. They’re on holiday (chart).
What a nice thought: A four-week vacation!
In my career, I've been lucky to get 10 days off per year...and only after the first six months of work. I think this is très regrettable (or highly unfortunate in French), and I'm not alone. In fact, several U.S. business owners are starting to offer (gasp!) unlimited vacation time.
How is this possible? I sat down with three of these business owners to find out.
Less than 10 years ago, Blake Shipley was working at a large grocery store chain and struggling with his vacation days.
“The company had a ‘use it or lose it mentality,’” he says, adding that workers would wait until the end of the year to use days off, regardless of the work that had to be done. The system proved to be ineffective and caused extra stress on workers.
In 2009, Shipley went out on his own, launching CoupSmart, a back-end technology company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Among his top priorities: giving employees unlimited vacation time.
“In our employee handbook under vacation policies, I literally have the line, ‘Don’t Be Stupid,’” he says, adding that he currently has seven employees. “Basically, it means that as long as they can get their work done in an time-efficient manner, they can do whatever they want.”
Shipley says the process works because, “We are a very results-based business with strict deadlines. We need to keep our investors happy. If they don’t finish their work, they will be fired.”
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In practice, Shipley claims most CoupSmart employees end up taking around two weeks vacation anyway, but like knowing there is an option for more.
“One of our employees is taking three weeks off this year because he has a fiancé in Paris,” he says. “He ends up mixing vacation with work and gets everything done on time, so it isn’t a problem.”
How does this model benefit the business owner?
“It’s all about incentives,” Shipley says. “I’ve found that when you give people the right incentive, they find better and more efficient ways to do their work. It gets people to think about what they need to do to fill their personal desires.”
What tips can he give small business owners?
“Make sure to hire people you can trust,” he says. “If you don’t trust then, I’d never recommend this.”
“When you are thinking of implementing this, be really upfront,” Shipley says. “Tell them you trust them to make the right decisions. That usually instills an attitude of empowerment."
Mike Samson is the co-founder of Chicago-based crowdSPRING, a marketplace for creative services. Sampson also believes in empowering employees to make time-off decisions independently.
“People take time off when they want—as long as they work in coordination with their team and their responsibilities are met, it is up to them,” he says. The company has 14 employees.
“It makes people happy and takes away a layer of anxiety,” Samson notes. “We’ve never had a problem. Instead of making it about how many days of vacation you can squeeze in, the model makes it about personal time and productivity management.”
The model also ensures extra time for non-HR related tasks, he says.
“I am not having to track vacation days; it frees me up to do more important things,” he says.
Still, Samson admits the model may not work for all businesses.
“It wouldn’t work for Burger King; they need their employees at the restaurant at a scheduled time,” he says. “I can also see it being a problem in manufacturing settings. But a lot of service-based businesses, such as accounting firms and law offices, I think it could work really well.”
Ben Kirshner is a small business convert from corporate America. In 2004, he launched Elite SEM, a search engine marketing firm, with a dedication to offer something he never had: limitless time off.
“In former jobs, I always felt like I couldn’t travel when I wanted to; I couldn’t even run errands unless it was before or after work, so when I started this company, I wanted it to be different,” he says. “I understand that things come up in the middle of the day that are outside of your work duties. If you need to get a haircut or your suit dry-cleaned or watch your child’s soccer game, you should do it. Life is too short.”
Krishner has one rule: abuse it and lose it.
“No one takes advantage of the benefit because they don’t want to lose it,” he says, adding that he has 25 employees across offices in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. “It is a self-policing policy. Here, everyone holds everyone else accountable.”
As a result, employees are happier, which cuts down on turnover costs.
“The cost of hiring, interviewing, and retraining people is huge,” he says. “I don’t have HR issues. The benefit to me is happier employees. And happy employees make profitable companies.”