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The People & Culture Platform | Culture Amp
Lexi Croswell, author

Lexi Croswell

Writer, Culture Amp

Automattic is the team of people behind, WooCommerce, Jetpack, Simplenote, Longreads and more. Their goal is to democratize publishing so that anyone with a story can tell it and make the web a better place to be.

With a completely distributed team of nearly 500 “Automatticians” in more than 50 countries, they value the work people produce, not just hours that are put in. Lori McLeese has been the HR Lead at Automattic for the past five years working to make sure that Automatticians are set up to succeed. As a Human Resources expert, McLeese shares her wisdom on a popular topic affecting companies today - vacation policies.

Why an Open Vacation Policy Best Fits Automattic

A few years ago, Automattic only had one employment entity, the United States. People outside the U.S. were hired as independent contractors and they billed Automattic only for hours worked. In 2010, independent contractors were asked to bill a monthly stipend, and take the vacation that they needed. The company quickly realized that vacation and accrual under this system wasn’t equitable for their global company.

Lori says, “We also realized that a lot of people in the US were actually maxing out their PTO and not accruing additional PTO, because they were saving it up for either a big vacation, or because the next year they wanted to do something, and so we decided to go the route of Netflix and have an open vacation policy.” They also offer a paid two to three-month sabbatical every five years.

Among the 51 countries represented at Automattic, there are different views about what is an appropriate amount of vacation. “What we think is perhaps excessive in the US is quite normal in, say Europe. US employees will often cite the vacation policy as one of the things they love about working at Automattic. They see it as something very unusual, whereas people in other parts of the world are like, well of course we get to take this much time off. We're supposed to.”

Tracking Unlimited Vacation Usage

Automattic uses one internal blog that lists everyone's away from keyboard (vacation) dates. This blog is used by HR to pull information for reports sent to countries that require it for payroll. The vacation information is automatically populated to team calendars and blogs as well.

They also use Slack to notify each other when they’re on vacation, by putting the dates of their vacation into their profile.

How An Unlimited Vacation Policy Can Fail

When a company values facetime (simply showing up in an office or on-screen) and sees it as a point of pride to work long hours, it can be difficult to have a successful unlimited vacation policy. McLeese says, “Those are two very conflicting messages of ‘we reward people that work all the time’ and ‘take as much time off as you need.”

One of the reasons an unlimited policy works at Automattic is because all of their employees are salaried. “There are very strict regulations around what constitutes work and when you have to pay hourly employees. I think it would be much more difficult, if you had a large population of hourly employees, to implement this,” McLeese says.

She adds that the leadership team needs to honestly believe that people are responsible and can take the time off that they need. “If you have policies that are policing, open time off won’t work because it will be this: ‘You can take time off, but why did you take Thursday off or why did you take the last 2 Fridays off?’ It sends a mixed message.”

How to Unplug on Vacation  

Articles showcasing the benefits of disconnecting, on vacation and on a regular basis, are posted internally. People aren’t expected to be working 24/7. McLeese says, “We encourage people to work the schedule that works best for them. For some people that is working in the middle of the night, but they're not working all day. Still there's this perception of, oh my gosh, people are online all the time. They're not online all the time.”

“I would say that's particularly a challenge with new employees. Really helping them to understand what boundaries to set, and what works best for them, because what works for me may not work for you,” says McLeese.

In early 2016 McLeese took a three month sabbatical and had her work email disabled while she was away. As a leader within the company, she was able to set an example that it’s okay to truly unplug. “When I came back from sabbatical, I talked about the experience because not only was I completely disconnected from work, for about six weeks I didn't check personal email or social media. I was just completely offline from all technology, and I talked about how that affects how you process things. We have a lot of open conversations about the importance of being present.”

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