Companies loosen vacation policies, but 'martydom' affects how workers use them
Brittney Borowicz was only on the job for 60 days when she was offered the chance to travel for free to Singapore.
"My uncle lives there, and he offered to use his frequent flier miles to fly out my father, my two brothers and me. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity," Borowicz said.
She was apprehensive to ask the time off from her job at Grid Connect Inc.
"I was extremely nervous. Here I was, only two months on the job, and I was asking for a two-week vacation," she said.
Fortunately, the Naperville-based company has an "unlimited vacation" policy, and quickly approved the time off.
"My boss said, 'Sounds great.' They were very excited for me to go," said Borowicz, 27, the company's vice president of marketing.
Grid Connect, which manufactures and distributes networking products, has had an unlimited vacation policy in place since it was founded in 2003. Employees can take off as much time as they need, with pay, whether it's for an overseas trip, to attend a child's soccer game, or leave early for a doctor's appointment.
"We don't want to administer vacations here. It's all based on trust," said Adam Justice, vice president of Grid Connect, which has 23 employees.
Grid Connect is part of a small, but growing number of companies nationwide offering unlimited paid vacation time to employees. The practice is especially popular among firms eager to attract young talent, boost company morale and avoid employee burnout.
But the trend is growing slowly, with only 2 percent of U.S. companies offering the benefit.
Among the national leaders in offering unlimited vacation: Netflix, LinkedIn, Virgin Group, Hubspot and GrubHub. Locally, besides Grid Connect, Grant Thorton and Golin, both based in Chicago, offer unlimited paid time off.
Often, employers are fearful that unlimited vacation time could lead to workplace chaos, with employees taking off six months to backpack to Machu Picchu.
As an alternative, more suburban companies are offering time-off options such as flexible schedules, additional vacation and personal days in summer, and even making it mandatory for workers to take a certain number of days off.
Many companies also try to create a vacation vibe at work during the summer, giving workers half days off, throwing parties and hosting special contests and events.
"You try to offer employees some extra perks to make work fun," said Justice, whose company caters in lunch each Wednesday, provides workers with free massages, and sponsors Ping-Pong and Baggo tournaments.
When it comes to summer vacations, the concept of "unlimited" time off may seem foreign to American workers, compared with their European counterparts.
Many European workers are guaranteed 20 days of paid vacation a year, with some receiving 30 days, according to a study from the U.S. Travel Association. American workers take an average of 16 vacation days, according to the study.
Even more sobering, 55 percent of American workers don't use all their allotted vacation time, which adds up to 658 million unused vacation days a year, according to a study by Project: Time Off, a Washington, D.C.-based organization trying to change America's thinking and behavior about vacation time.
America's vacation habit becomes more disheartening when you consider that workers are finding it harder to shut down their laptops and cellphones when on vacation, said Katie Denis, senior director at Project: Time Off.
"In the last 15 years, the American 'work ethic' has transformed to a 'work martyrdom.' Technological advancements means the workplace is at our fingertips, which can be good or bad. We need to be intentional about how we use our time," Denis said.
Unlimited vacation time also can be good or bad, Denis said. If a company is truly supportive of the concept, it will work, she said. But if the top executives make workers feel guilty for taking off time, it will fail, Denis said.
At Grid Connect, employees reserve their vacation days using Google calendar, and communicate with their supervisors and fellow workers to make sure their duties are covered.
"No one has ever abused the policy because they don't want to ruin it for everyone else," Justice said. "No one has ever taken more than two weeks."
Ironically, the technology that sometimes ruins people's beach vacations is also the tool that allows companies to offer workers unlimited vacation.
Consider Grant Thorton, the Chicago-based accounting firm. It moved to an unlimited vacation model in 2015, in part because the firm realized that its 6,000 employees could complete their work in any location at any time, and didn't need to punch a time clock.
"Our goal is to further enhance our culture of trust, where employees are empowered to manage their own time," Pamela Harless, Grant Thorton's chief people a culture officer, said in a written statement.
Similarly, Golin, the Chicago-based public relations agency, rolled out its new Life Time policy in April for its 1,500 employees. The policy allows unlimited vacation time and the ability for employees to work from home one day a week.
"Agencies have long expected staff to fit their lives into their careers," Golin President Gary Rudnick said in a statement. "We have made the bold decision to instead help ours fit their careers into their lives."
But unlimited vacation time is not without its critics. Companies that traditionally have allowed workers to "bank" their unused vacation time, enabling them to receive a cash payout when they leave, are criticized when the switch to unlimited time because it eliminates accrued time. In 2014, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing rescinded its unlimited vacation policy after only one week when employees complained they would lose accumulated unused vacation time. Companies with an annually use it or lose it vacation policy don't face the same heat when they switch to unlimited time off.
Other companies have ended unlimited vacations because the culture just isn't right. Kickstarter, the online crowd funding site, killed its policy last year. Employees at the hard-charging company were taking less time off because they were uncertain what their managers found acceptable.
"If your overall culture doesn't lend itself to unlimited vacation," said Denis of Project: Time Off, "it's probably not going to work."
But there definitely is a summer vibe in many suburban worksites, a time when the atmosphere is a little more relaxed, and workers are thinking about vacation and ways to make the workday a little more fun.
At Assurance, the Schaumburg-based insurance brokerage, there is the Assurance Olympics. It's an annual summer event in which employees dress in costumes and use clever ways to play games and exercise. Activities include a hula hoop contest, jump roping and a pool noodle javelin throw.
"It's a fun way to practice wellness and do some team building," said Michele McDermott, Assurance's senior vice president of human resources.
Assurance has long been known for its extensive employee benefits, such as yoga classes, massages, a variety of company-sponsored athletic events, on-site "latte ladies" and a monthly craft beer sampling.
But the perquisites really shine in summer, kicking off with the June Assurance Olympics and stretching through August.
Consider summer perk days, in which workers are lowed to choose a half day off each month in June, July and August.
Throughout the year, Assurance, with 440 employees, allows its workers to adjust their work schedules to their needs, be it picking their hours to working from home one day a week.
"This company is very supportive of a work-life balance," McDermott said.
Employee Elissa Jenkins enjoys the flexibility. Jenkins, 26, a senior client services representative, chooses to work from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. so she can beat the evening rush hour traffic back to her home in Palatine. On Fridays, she works from home, which is especially appreciated by Roxy, her pet pit bull.
"I really enjoy the flexibility. And Roxy really likes having me home on Fridays," Jenkins said.
Assurance has examined the unlimited vacation idea, but has yet to make the leap, McDermott said. Instead, it has taken vacation time and personal time and placed it into one bucket. For example, an employee with 1-4 years of service gets 21 days of paid personal time, plus holidays.
Sikich, a Naperville-based firm offering accounting, advisory and investment banking services, has a similar vacation policy.
Employees start with the company with three weeks of vacation and in addition to holidays, they receive the day off for their birthday and two more "thank you" days. Sikich is studying the unlimited vacation concept, said Janel O'Connor, chief human resources officer.
Additional company perks in Sikich's Naperville headquarters include a pool table, a Wii console, health club, 1.1 mile running/walking track, private garden plots and an on-site Starbucks and convenience store.
Other programs include a wellness challenge, where employees can run, walk, garden, read and other activities to achieve goals and earn gift cards; a relaxation room outfitted with a couch, fish tank and soothing music; and plenty of recognition, including daily email salutes to outstanding employees.
The company also offers its 700 employees flex time: they decide their own hours and can work from home some days.
"We want our employees to be able to adjust their work schedules to strike a good work-life balance," O'Connor said.
The company even opened two offices in Chicago to shorten the commute for workers who live in or near the city.
I think the flexibility is vital,' said Kyle Adams, 30, a senior account executive in marketing from Evanston, who mainly works in one of the Chicago offices. "We have the technology to be flexible, and Sikich allows us to take advantage of that."
- John T. Slania