Open vacation policy: How Automattic makes it work
Automattic is the team of people behind WordPress.com, 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, Lori shares her wisdom on a popular topic affecting companies today – vacation policies.
Why an open vacation policy 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 weren’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. Lori continues, “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 WordPress.com 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 open 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. Lori 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 open vacation policy works at Automattic is because all of its 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,” Lori 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. Lori says, “We encourage people to work the schedule that works best for them. For some people that are 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 Lori.
In early 2016 Lori 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.”
How to make an open vacation policy work
Overall, what can be taken away from Automattic's experiences and efforts in implementing an open vacation policy is this:
- Open vacation policies can be more inclusive for global companies
- Not every company has the right culture, system, or processes set up to succeed at an open vacation policy
- Leadership must also believe in the value of an open vacation policy and trust their employees
In the end, what works best for your company will depend on your workforce's unique culture, mission, values, and priorities. Rather than just guess or copy what another company is doing, ask your employees what they want. By getting feedback and actually acting to address your workforce's wants and pain points, you can unlock the benefits of a more engaged and motivated workplace.