When a coworker isn’t firing on all cylinders, sometimes it has nothing to do with work. Life is heavy, in good ways and bad. We move, we get married. We lose loved ones, have surgeries, and go through divorces.
These twists and turns impact our work, yet employers and employees tend to avoid bringing their lives into the purview of the workplace; that inhibits communication and, ultimately, our ability to do what’s right for both coworker and our business.
We’ve had a lot of opportunity this year to practice what’s become a cardinal management rule: before jumping to conclusions based purely on at-work data (missed deadlines, peer feedback, etc.), make sure there isn’t something going on beyond work that explains a coworker’s recent behavior.
If we know that work isn’t the source of someone’s performance problems, there’s an explicit set of actions we can take. We can put them on a four-day work week, take them off mission-critical work for a bit, or give them a month away from work with out-of-band time off. Note how different this is from penalizing or even firing someone for not hitting deadlines or snapping at a coworker. The prior keeps a good employee’s seat warm; the latter makes it empty.
As hard as it is for employers to believe, work isn’t always the most meaningful thing going on in an employee’s life. When we incorporate the entire three hundred and sixty degrees of our lives into our communications at work, it tips the scale of people operations toward empathy and listening rather than policy and consequences. That leads to better community, better retention, and ultimately better business performance.
Creating a personal time off (PTO) policy that works for your company and your employees can be challenging. I’ve seen my fair share of policies while working with customers at Kin. Some create great work environments, others put employees into a panic and create a constantly churning workplace.
Before we begin, let’s define what personal time off means to our team as often times it can mean different things at different companies. At Kin, personal time off is a stand-alone policy our employees can use for vacation or time away from the office in general. We have separate policies outside of our personal time off policy that let team members take time for illnesses, bereavement, maternity or paternity leave, jury duty, etc. For a closer look at different policies, check out a previous blog post of ours here.
By now, we know that PTO policies do much more than allow an employee to take time off work without a financial burden. They allow employees to recharge and regroup. They even allow employees to do better at work, since studies link employees that use all of their PTO to being more engaged at work and more likely to receive incentives, bonuses or promotions. Time off policies are one of the top benefits employees look at and weigh when thinking about making a career move. At times it even surpasses salary as a factor.
With the weight of this benefit, what is the right answer when it comes to setting up a policy that gives your employees the flexibility to leave the workplace that they need, but also the stability that you deserve as an employer?
The answer may not be clear cut, so let’s walk through the models and how to come to a conclusion that works for your company.
Personal time off policy models
There are various personal time-off models out there, but the three most popular types are upfront, accrual and unlimited.
Upfront: An upfront time off policy gives the employee all the time they are owed for the year on the first day of the policy period. For example, if a policy runs January 1 – December 31 and I receive 20 days off per year, I am eligible to use all 20 days starting on January 1 of that policy year.
Accrual: An accrual time off policy gives employees more time as they work more hours. For every day or week worked, the time off policy accrues a certain amount of time. For example, if I receive 20 days a year of paid time off within an accrual policy, I will have about 10 days ‘earned’ to use by July, and my full 20 days by December. Often times, these policies allow you to ‘borrow ahead’ if you want to take a large trip before you’ve accrued enough hours. This is not always the case, however.
Unlimited: An unlimited time off policy allows the employee to take as much time at any point in the year that they so choose. Occasionally, an unlimited time off policy will have a minimum amount of days or weeks an employee must use each year.
How Kin does personal time off
Instead of just creating a pro and con list for each model next, I wanted to walk through some real-life scenarios I’ve uncovered when working with our customers and while working on our own people operations.
For the sake of transparency, Kin and our parent company, We Are Mammoth, currently operate on an upfront policy. Employees have the ability to use as much of their allotted them as they wish at any point in the year.
We also have a policy of paying out time out when an employee leaves. This is when our accrual policy comes into play. If an employee has used more than their allotted time earned to date at the time of resignation, we will deduct the ‘borrowed time’ from their final paycheck. If they’ve used less than what they’ve accrued, we’ll add the monetary value of that leftover PTO to the final paycheck.
It’s a win-win upfront/accrual combination for us: Employees can take the vacations they want when they need to, and we don’t lose money if an employee leaves in the middle of the year and has used more personal time off than what she or he has earned.
The problem with the unicorn unlimited time off policy
We’ve seen a lot of companies come to Kin starting with an unlimited policy. Many folks doing so complain that the opposite happens of what you’d expect: people just don’t leave the office.
How could an unlimited policy create such a problem? Studies show that when you have an unlimited vacation policy, you may actually be creating an environment where people compete to take the least amount of time off as a way to show who is most loyal to the company.
There is no competitive, driven employee on this earth that will take advantage of the policy. And in turn, folks who don’t enjoy their job or feel ownership over their roles will be the ones likely to use it most.
Companies who see this deterrence are quick to put in a minimum time off amount per year employees must hit. Unfortunately, many great employees do just that and stop once the quota has been achieved. It sounds great – giving a benefit that our best folks don’t use? Talent acquisition through the roof, costs reduced and additional output! Yes!
Nope, not so fast.
When an employee doesn’t use their PTO, they’re more likely to burn out and perform poorly at their job over time. It’s proven time and time again. It’s extremely beneficial for both you and the employee to encourage and – in some cases – make them use their personal time off.
The scarcity mentality with upfront and accrual
Now that upfront and accrual models look like much better options, we have to talk a bit about their dark sides too. If you do not give enough time to employees each year, they are likely to have a scarcity mindset and not take it at all, or take a long vacation at the end of the year when they finally feel comfortable enough to know something couldn’t possibly go wrong in their personal life that they would need to take time off for.
For example, if your team only gets 8 paid days off a year, they may choose to ‘save’ those days for if their child is sick, or if an unexpected doctor appointment or family emergency comes up. None of the events I listed above are truly allowing the employee to take time off to unplug and recharge, yet that’s often what ‘eats up’ their personal time off balances. As an employer, is it worth adding a few more days to their compensation package to switch their mindsets to abundance versus scarcity? At Kin, we believe so.
We offer 15 days upfront the first year of employment. The second year, an employee receive 20 days and the third year on they receive 25 days a year. This is in addition to paid holidays, sick time and other basic policies such as maternity/paternity leave, jury duty, bereavement, conference time off, etc.
Most of our team takes their time away from work without hesitation, though we do frequently remind them to do so. It’s important to us that our team uses the benefits we provide them. At the end of the day, it makes them better at work and better family members and friends at home. No one loses.
With accrual, the scarcity mindset only gets worse. Since all of the time you can accrue in a policy year doesn’t come to you at once, you have employees forced to calculate how much time they’ll have at X date to see if they can take a vacation or not. It’s also tough on employees who may have a family emergency or another reason to leave, but not have enough time to take to adequately deal with it.
It gets even worse when accrual employees are left with a bulk of their time earned at the end of the year. Companies often tell us that they see massive exits of employees for vacation in the last quarter due to this, leaving a time when you should be finishing strong in the office and hitting those annual goals as a ghost town instead.
Should you pay employees to take a vacation?
Now that you have an idea of all the benefits that good vacation policies have other than attracting quality talent to your company, the question becomes, how do you incentivize folks to actually use PTO? Some companies have decided to go the route of actually paying employees to leave the office and dubbing it a ‘paycation.’
“I think this comes back to the idea of what is the purpose of this benefit? The business reason for me is to ensure that I have more T-shaped employees, meaning that they are very deeply knowledgeable in their expertise from their work experience, but that they also have a varied-interest personal life that allows them to bring different perspectives to the table. Far things allow for that better than vacation. And if paying for it makes them more likely to take it, I’m all for it,” Mary Ellen Slater, an HR consultant and business owner, told me a few months ago during a chat.
Paid vacation stipends can range from a few hundred dollars to lavish multi-thousand dollar checks. It all depends on your budget and your goals. While it is a great way to get people out of the office, it also does come with its own sets of worries. What’s deemed a ‘vacation’ to be paid for? Does a ‘staycation’ count? Make sure you address this thoroughly prior to implementing it so that you nor the employee are disappointed come time to redeem the stipend.
After reviewing the pros and cons of the three major time off models, which will you choose for your company and why?
Working remotely affords a lot of flexibility in the non-work part of our lives: we travel, move, and have more time for our personal life without worrying about our job security. That doesn’t come at the cost of purpose, productivity, or cohesion though. If anything, the fact that we’re all somewhere else, as we put it, means we have to double down on the upkeep of our company’s mission and organization. Strangely enough, that’s disappointing for some job candidates.
Some people look for remote work as a way to, what seems to me, work but not be a part of a company. They seek the security of a full time job with the flexibility of being a freelancer. They want work into the cracks in their life, with none of the risk. That may work for some companies, but we’ve learned to avoid hiring people who view remote work as their most important job criteria.
So how does a remote workplace like ours feel like day to day? How do we ensure there’s cohesion in a void of colocation? And what, in turn, are the core tenets of a team member who will be both fulfilled and successful with our company?
What we strive for as a remote team
As a remote workplace, we need to be accessible for each team member wherever they are. For us, that manifests itself in the following ways operationally:
Our workplace operations need to be digital in every form: communication, documentation, paperwork, and productivity.
The technology platform which drives #1 above needs to have near perfect uptime, but downtime does happen (as demonstrated by Slack recently) and there needs to be a fallback plan for how the team works and communicates when our virtual office disappears for a bit.
Building on #2 above, job and project expectations need to be explicit. We have fewer meetings, but that means there are fewer chances to catch signals about someone or something being amiss. Being ultra-clear with role and project-level objectives is mission critical. When we fail to do that, we lose good people.
Remote work is not to be confused with flex work: we require our team to be present for a majority of our six core business hours each day, regardless of time-zone. This helps avoid too much asynchronous decision making and the feeling that the company is nothing more than a loose network of freelancers.
A rock-solid mission, vision, and business objectives written down, shared, understood, and bought into. It’s too hard to lean on oratory-style torch carrying style of on-site visionary leadership.
What to strive for as a remote team member
Working remotely requires every team member to work harder to contribute to the team’s culture than they might otherwise need to in a physical workplace. Because of our lack of physical center, each individual’s contribution truly is an important piece of our company’s personality.
Be present, don’t be an island. Your communication, be it written, audio or video, is your lifeline to our community. If you aren’t proactive with communication, you’re on an island. If you’re on an island we can’t see you, hear you, or know what shape you’re in.
Be disciplined about work and family separation. This is a hard one for a lot of people. The allure of working for a remote company is big for parents who want to be present with their new family. That’s great. In fact, it’s the biggest perk. But, there is no way to be a full time new parent and a full time team member at our company unless you’re a seriously organized person with your private life. Note the use of “new parent.” Once kids are older and in school, this gets more manageable.
We want to know you beyond work. There are no team lunches or after-work drinks at a remote workplace and, while we get together as a team once in a while, it’s the daily stories and anecdotes we share about our remote lives that bonds us all together. If you think your non-work life has no business in a remote workplace, think again.
Working remotely affords us more time – via less commute time, fewer meetings, and more efficient business operations (generally). What will you do with that extra time? It’s important to create a non-arbitrary divider between work and life, lest work follows you around wherever you go.
Working remotely is a two way street
Remote work enables us to live our non-work lives more purposefully, but that only happens when we run our remote workplace with equal purpose. As Lisa recently wrote in a post, work is a constant in our lives regardless of where we do it – when times are tough, work can be there for us. The opposite is true as well, which is perhaps the biggest benefit of working remotely – we become workplace that blends more seamlessly into the canvas of our lives, rather than being the geographic anchor of it.
Understanding what we want from work as employees is as important as knowing what our workplace expects from us.
Some people want structure and direction, while others thrive without it. If a manager knows, for example, that someone not only performs 3-4x better w/ rigorous delegation but that they’re also much happier being delegated to, they’ve uncovered a powerful alignment that’s good for both business and employee. Likewise, some people are wired to roam where they’re needed most, so the style of management they need is more akin to opening doors than explicit direction.
The challenge for employers is finding the right alignment for each employee without grinding the business to a laborious halt doing so. The challenge for employees is to to figure out how we’re wired to work, and working candidly with employers to make our jobs as fulfilling as possible.
Moving beyond job descriptions
A simple, effective tool that’s helped us figure out how people are wired is a short character assessment called Thinking Wavelengths. The assessment places people on a spectrum ranging from task master (the assessment actually calls them “Grinders”) to conceiver and, with the entire company plotted, we can get a full picture of how to tailor management style on both the individual and team level.
Task masters, for example, get fulfillment working on clearly defined assignments and bringing closure. Conceivers like blank canvases and high-stakes decision making. There’s a range of archetypes between the extremes as well and every company requires a unique mix of people and corresponding management tactics.
We use other tools as well (DiSC, Strengthsfinder), but just as important is good old fashioned conversation and, ultimately, a document (we’ve begun referring to ours as canvases) for each person that speaks to their unique strengths, missions, and objectives at work.
Explicit insights make explicit work
Once we understand how an individual is wired (at Kin, we share these insights across the company) and what their unique mission is with us, we can get more explicit in communicating and managing one another, which saves time in a few ways.
When something just isn’t working well with a team member, we first look to whether they’re well aligned with type of management and work they’ve been receiving. Are we being too vague with our expectations? Likewise, are we delegating too much detail to someone who finds fulfillment in connecting the dots?
We also can cut to the chase in one-on-one employee reviews. A helpful side effect of knowing what people want from their employer lays the runway for meaningful work objectives and troubleshooting challenges together.
Intra-team communication thrives too – knowing who will work well in which types of situations (think quick fire problem solving, or long term design planning) helps keep meetings short and people focused.
Exhibit A: me
I’m a conceiver (I’m a Di in DiSC, another assessment we use) and I’m also the company founder – it means my words carry a lot of weight with the company but that I tend to speak in broad, sweeping terms. At times, that’s led to our company being full on strategy and ideas (the what and why of a company’s mission), but short on operational clarity (the how) which is frustrating for the task masters on our team.
So, in our case, knowing how I’m wired has taught me to be mindful of how other’s perceive my ideas and broad visions, as a lot of people on our team will understand it, but spin their wheels figuring out how to operationalize it all, which leads me to the second insight. In terms of what I want to get out of work, I’m happiest when I’m helping my team see big challenges, creating futures for our product and business and, naturally, optimizing our team’s culture.
All of the work that’s gone into learning how I’m wired and letting others know about it has shined a light on our need to staff people wired to operationalize strategies plans and schedules which, in turn, keep our task masters productive and fulfilled. I’m happier, they’re happier, and work gets easier.
Finding baselines for humans working with humans
There’s no fail-proof recipe for getting a team resonating perfectly. What we reach for at Kin though is a baseline to describe each individual’s strengths, challenges, and needs in relation to everybody else. It’s made us quicker to the punch in figuring out what works and what doesn’t on a per-employee, team, and organizational level. In a company wholly dependent on the quality of the people we have building our business, any extra time it takes to individually tailor each employee’s role and contributions is time more than well spent – it’s critical to our business succeeding.