Unlimited vacation -- the one benefit workers want more than anything

  • Employees have a new favorite perk, and it's not free craft-brewed beer, student loan repayment benefits or eco-friendly roof gardens at the office. It's much simpler: More time off.

    Employees have a new favorite perk, and it's not free craft-brewed beer, student loan repayment benefits or eco-friendly roof gardens at the office. It's much simpler: More time off. (AP Photo/Anna Johnson, File)

 

Employees have a new favorite perk, and it's not free craft-brewed beer, student loan repayment benefits or eco-friendly roof gardens at the office. It's much simpler: More time off.

In its 17th annual employee benefits trend survey released this week -- just as Spring Break season hit its peak -- MetLife found that more people are interested in having an unlimited vacation policy than any other "emerging" perk, such as on-site medical clinics, subsidized egg freezing benefits or even paid sabbaticals. The policies' implicit flexibility for taking time off, the survey found, was more appealing to employees of every age group than any other new benefit (with the exception of a phased retirement program to Baby Boomer-aged workers).

Yet despite that popularity, many companies are hesitant, said Todd Katz, executive vice president of group benefits at MetLife. While 72 percent of the 2,675 full-time employees who responded to the survey said they'd like to have an unlimited vacation policy, "only about a third of employers are considering offering it."

The reasons may be obvious: Employers could fear that workers will take advantage of the policy and lose control over employees' schedules. Or, they could worry -- quite validly -- that the opposite will happen, and too little guidance on vacation time could deter face time-driven workers from stepping away.

But whether they actually offer an "unlimited" policy or provide other ways for giving workers more time off, experts on work-life policies and organizational behavior say today's always-on work environment makes the benefit that much more important.

"I think the value of time away from work has increased exponentially for people because there is no boundary -- or there's very little boundary," said Cali Williams Yost, founder of Flex Strategy Group, a workplace consultancy. "The promise of a chunk of time where they can just forget about work is increasing at a rate that organizations are not leveraging."

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While employers have been adding family leave or responding to new state requirements for paid sick time, that's different than making sure people feel that their vacation is protected or that an always-on, all-in approach to work is the only way to get ahead. More and more, people are rebelling against a "hustle culture" world, hoping to unplug in digital detoxed or turn their weekends into vacation since actual vacation time remains tethered to email.

"They want a break and they want it to be that they are off the clock," said Yost.

Yet the challenge for employers in choosing what benefits to offer is that while workers may say they want more time off, they don't always choose it when faced with a decision.

Harvard Business School assistant professor Ashley Whillans analyzed more than 42,000 employee responses in a Glassdoor survey, and found that benefits like parental leaves and flex time had more of an effect on job satisfaction than even tens of thousands of dollars in additional salary.

"Time is one of our most valuable resources that we often squander -- we often don't think it's as important as it is," Whillans said in an interview. "By focusing on non-time benefits, [employers] may be doing employees a disservice," trying to cater to the benefits they think will make people happier, but don't necessarily lead to better job satisfaction.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yet employees also tend to choose money over time, consistently choosing a higher salary over more time off when presented with a choice, Whillans said. She studied employee rewards programs where workers got to spend "points" on items ranging from cash bonuses, movies passes or a watch to timesaving rewards like a housekeeping service, Task Rabbit gift card or even the ability to leave early from work for a period of time. They only chose rewards that gave them more time in 6 percent of cases.

"It's one thing for companies to offer these kinds of fun or timesaving rewards but it's another thing to get people to take them," she said. Referring to surveys like the one from MetLife, she said "so many employers rely on these surveys to know what employees want, but they'll say one and choose another."

She said unlimited vacation policies can be particularly fraught because employees are accustomed to the idea that face time signals commitment.

"There's no social norms around [unlimited vacation] -- we assume if we take any time off we're going to look bad," she said. "It's up to management to set the norms. This is the next step for companies on incentives -- not just what I offer, but how do I offer it."

Chris Litster, CEO of a 200-person software company based in Boston, said that's been a focus ever since he started an unlimited vacation policy for his workers in 2011. He shares openly about the three weeks he takes off each year as CEO, posts employee vacation photos on company messaging tools and social media, and periodically offers the reminder that at least three to four weeks is standard, to help anchor employees with a sense of how much time others are taking.

"It's not to set the upper limit," he said. "It's to set the baseline."

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