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The Best Way We’ve Found To Get Employees To Take More Vacation Time (And It Isn’t Unlimited Vacation)

Like many other tech companies, we used to have an unlimited vacation policy as a way to encourage employees to take vacation days when it felt best to them. When unlimited vacation didn’t seem to be working, because it’s hard to tell how much time unlimited really is, we switched to a minimum vacation policy this time last year.

With our unlimited policy, the highest percentage of vacation days was in the range of 5 – 10 days per year, closely followed by the 10 – 15 days range. It wasn’t quite enough in our minds. This analysis of vacation days from last year gives a full breakdown:

Our solution to getting people at Buffer to take more time off was to set a standard minimum vacation time of three weeks per year for the whole company, in the hopes that we might inch our team towards the 15- to 20-days range of vacation time.

Now that a year of experimenting with minimum vacation has passed, we’re excited to share an updated analysis and a look at whether we’re getting any better at taking time off.

How Much Vacation Time Do We Take With Minimum Vacation?

We just ran another analysis and discovered that the average number of vacation days taken by Buffer employees in the past year is 18.2. 

A few fun statistics:

55% of the company has taken 15 or more days off. (The recommended amount.)
89% of the company has taken more than ten days off.

Here’s the full picture:

This increase to an average of 18.2 days feels like excellent progress from having the 5 – 10 day range be the most popular when we ran this analysis last year.

It’s especially great to see that while last year 24 people took 10 or fewer days off, this year that number was down to 8 people.

A note here, you might be asking how people can take less than 15 days if we have a minimum vacation policy. Well, the answer is that while we sent gentle reminders to employees who haven’t taken enough time off (more on that below) we don’t force employees to take vacation days. Something we have been experimenting with, though, is closing down Buffer during certain holidays so that more people enjoy time off. We’ll be sharing a post with a bit more on that soon.

Diving Into The Data: Vacation Time By Team And Country

By country

As a global team, we realize that expectations for vacation changes around the world. In our initial implementation of the policy here’s what we recommended for several regions around the world:

  • A teammate in Australia might take 17 days of vacation and seven holidays
  • A teammate in the U.S. might take 15 days of vacation and eight holidays
  • A teammate in France might take 25 days of vacation and five holidays
  • A teammate in Canada might take 20 days of vacation and seven holidays

Here’s the median number of vacation days taken by teammates in each region over the past 12 months:

For reference, 49% of our employees are in North America (primarily the U.S.), closely followed by Europe 38%.

By team

We also looked at how much vacation each team was taking.

It’s inspiring to see our executive team leading the way on this one. We’ll dive a little bit more into why this has been so powerful below.

The 3 Things We Did To Help Increase Vacation Time

There are a couple of deliberate actions we took that may have led to this policy being more successful.

We made the policy very detailed

We didn’t just tell the team “Please take 15 days off every year from now on.” Our People Team sent out a team-wide announcement and made sure the whole team understood what might be a good amount of vacation for their country. They also explained when people at Buffer could start taking time off and clarified some questions that are common around vacation time.

Here are the exact guidelines we sent to the team:

  • We encourage team members to take a minimum of 3 weeks (15 work days) of vacation time throughout the year, in addition to the holidays (bank, religious or otherwise) you choose to observe.
  • There is no maximum vacation recommendation, though there may be more and longer conversations for unique situations in which a teammate might want to take, say, 6–8 weeks off.
  • Buffer is privileged to be a global team; please take time off that’s in line with your country’s standards if it’s generally a bit more than our recommendation.
  • It’s generally great to begin to take time off after you’ve been at Buffer for about 3 months. (If you’re newer to the team and have something already planned, no worries! We’ll take it case by case).
  • This time is separate from holidays that you choose to celebrate, and outside of sick/personal days, bereavement/compassionate leave, and family leave.

Our Executive team led by example

Did you notice which team took the most time off? The executive team, which is quite awesome to see.

Right after this policy went live last year, our CEO Joel sent out a Discourse sharing the 14 days he’d be taking off between September and November while he did some traveling.

When he got back in November, he sent another company-wide Discourse reminding the team of the importance of self-care and sharing some beautiful photos.

It can be hard for employees to take vacation time if they see the people in leadership failing to do so themselves, which is why it was so powerful to have managers at Buffer taking time off and leading by example.

We implemented a reminders system

Old habits are hard to break, even with new policies in place. Our People Team took things into their own hands and kept a watchful eye on how much vacation time people were taking off to make sure no one forgot the new policy.

When the People Team saw that someone hadn’t taken any time off yet, or hadn’t taken time off in a while, they reached out to that person’s manager so that a gentle reminder could be given in their next 1:1 session.

Over to You

How much vacation time have you taken off this year? What sort of policy does your company have? I’d love to discuss in the comments!

Big thank you to our Data Analyst Julian for combing through the vacation data on this one to find all of this information. 🙏

Photo by Alyssa Moore

  • Are vacation days paid at Buffer? As a non-American I’m unsure and curious how these things work in (technically) American businesses.

    Keep on rocking, I love following your journey!

    • Hello there, just jumping in here for Hailley. Yes, we are paid our usual salary during our vacation days 😊

  • Angelique Slob

    Hi Hailley,

    Great article and good to see how Joel and the rest of the leadership team are leading by example.

    I am currently implementing a similar policy with a client based in The Netherlands, with a minimum of 25 days. We won’t force employees to take time as well, but we will be monitoring to see if the employees are taking enough time, since the goal is to improve overall well-being and work-life balance.

    While preparing the policy, we have had some discussion about how the policy relates to targets/OKR’s, which are calculated based on the expected number of working days throughout the year. Which brings me to my question:

    How do you guys set targets/OKR’s for your team mates in a distributed team while you have different amounts of holidays around the world? Would a developer in Asia have the same targets as his peer in Canada? And are these based around the 15 days that you recommend? Or maybe your OKR’s are not so much (or just) related to time as input?

    In my case, we use an average number of holidays (25) as the base for calculating targets, plus the holidays of that year and an average expected number of sick days. People are free to take more time of as long as it not negatively effects their targets. Any specific longer times of vacation will be discussed separately and targets can then be adjusted.

    Would love to keep exchanging experiences on these subjects!

    • Hi @disqus_t1dho8xyJ8:disqus! Wow what an interesting question, thank you so much for sharing all of this.

      For our engineering and product teams, we’ve switched from OKRs to doing goals in a 6-week cycle with a 2-week planning break in between cycles. What happens is that in the planning break team leads and teammates discuss upcoming projects for the 6 weeks and if that teammate is going on vacation then yes, they might have fewer tasks in the 6-week cycle to reflect their vacation time.

      For teams like our customer advocates (customer support) they don’t quite fall into the cycles and have more volume related goals and targets. Their goals though are usually emails or tweets answered by day and not by week / month so it’s easy to skip a few days if someone is off on vacation.

      Does this answer all your questions? Sounds like you’re up to some really awesome work so I’d love to keep hearing more. :)

      • Angelique Slob

        Hi Hailley, thanks for clarifying that! Sounds like a good way to plan around holidays within the teams, and for overall goal setting as well. :-)

  • Keith Morris

    Your vacation days chart is a little confusing because you have some overlap in the data. If an employee took exactly 5, 10, 15, etc. then which bar on the graph are they included in?

    • Hi Keith, so sorry that wasn’t more clear, I’ll update the charts! They would be 0-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc.

  • Charlotte Rucks

    Hi, my vacation and sick time are in one pot and earned by every two weeks for a certain small amount. So it is not easy in my first year or what might be even the first 5 to take real vacations except for a few days off here and there. I rather have vacation days up front and separate sick days.

    • Oh, that’s not a system I’d heard of before, Charlotte. I agree that vacation days upfront would be more beneficial.

    • Debbie Higham Wood

      Charlotte, that is also how my vacation time works! It is very hard because I only earn 3.3 hours every pay period and you can’t borrow time in advance. It makes it very difficult to even use the time that was “earned”

      • Ah, that sounds very difficult, Debbie! I wonder if one of the reasons that they do that is so that people stick around a bit longer to get more time off? I could be wrong (definitely don’t agree with that practice either! Just comes to mind.)

        • Debbie Higham Wood

          I would imagine you are right. To me it seems that companies that implement that type of vacation policy are operating out of fear, as opposed to trust and mutual respect. I can imagine that employers have been burned in the past by employees who use paid vacation time and then decide to quit, leaving the company in a lurch. Has Buffer ever had to deal with such situations?

          • Great point about operating out of fear! We haven’t ever had a situation like that at Buffer so I can’t say we know too much about it. We’re lucky that we hire people as a value fit and one of our core values is to do the right thing. :)

  • maryam

    I am in that kind of company who fall in 89% of the company who has taken more than ten days off.
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  • Funadiq

    As a non-American I’m unsure and curious how these things work in American businesses….
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  • maryam

    I think Minimum 59 % .
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