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Inside Buffer

Celebrating Around the World: How Holidays Work on Our Distributed, International Team

Some people might be surprised to hear that we didn’t used to get time off for Christmas at Buffer—or for Hanukkah, Canadian Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year or any specific holiday at all!

Instead, we had unlimited time off and the full trust of our teammates to make great decisions about how to use this privilege.

Great in theory, but as it turns out, challenging in practice. Over time, we learned that unlimited vacation policies statistically see employees take less time off, not more. And having no set holiday schedule meant that every holiday absence seemed to require a long justification and an offer to work if needed, like this one:

As we discovered, working on a remote, international team is particularly unique when it comes to holidays. Here’s a look at our current holiday philosophy and guidelines.

Our holiday guideline:

Today, our holiday guidelines are pretty simple: The holidays of your country are assigned as days off by default!

On a global team, we all celebrate different holidays – which is great! But it’s important to make it easy for teammates to be fully off for the holidays of their region without putting the burden on them to ask for the time or have to justify it.

Our biggest iteration on holidays has been to switch from having teammates ask to take them to proactively assigning holidays in each teammate’s country.

We use a tool called Timetastic for time off tracking, and they helpfully have many countries’ holidays pre-loaded into the app (with an option to create new listings for any countries they lack).

With this small but significant change, folks now take the holidays of their region automatically. No need to message anyone, no need to share why the holiday is important or what you’re going to do.

We tell teammates:

  • Default to taking time off on the public holidays of the country in which you’re living, or the public holidays of your home country that are important to you.
  • All holidays are in addition to our minimum 3 weeks vacation recommendation.
  • Request other time off with team leads

Learning about holidays around the world

With teammates in nearly 20 countries, we get to learn a ton about holidays and traditions around the world (and rest easy that there’s pretty much always someone around to take care of Buffer’s customers).

Here’s Juliet sharing a reflection on Taiwan’s National Day:

And I recently learned more about Nov. 11, known in the U.S. at Veterans Day but honored in many countries around the world as it was the day World War I came to a close.

Buffer holidays: Strategically timed “office closures”

In addition to vacation time and each country’s holidays, a new category of time off has emerged more recently at Buffer.

As we grew over the years, we realized that there was no time where everyone on the team stopped working. Great news for customers! But for the team, this can lead to a low-grade but persistent stress, knowing that others are working while you’re away and feeling like a blocker, or knowing that you’ll come back from time away to a lot of missed communication.

To remedy this, we started experimenting with “Buffer is closed” time a few years ago in December and have expanded it since.

We now regularly close for at least a few days at the end of every year.

So far we’ve discovered that company-wide time off for a global remote team is powerful because there’s no catch-up afterwards!

Over to you

What’s your organization’s holiday policy? How would you or do you handle holidays across many countries? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  • My birthday! Selfishly, it’s the most important holiday to me and I refuse to work on that day (at my employer this means taking a vacation day). It is the only guaranteed self-care that happens, without fail, once a year :-)

    Similarly, I treat my partner’s birthday the same – no work and that day is all about him and however he wants to spend it. Usually we spend it together, but if he wanted to do something alone or with friends, that would be fine too. It’s HIS day.

    I love your policy or even a flexible “choose x number of holidays.” This is much better, inclusive, and respectful than declaring holidays for things that may not matter or are offensive (i.e., we take off for Columbus day).

    • Self-care is important! I love the idea of taking your and your partner’s birthdays off. :)

  • How can someone not want to work in Buffer with all these? Love all the shared stories!!! I sometimes feel I’m in the team already.

    • Thanks so much, Rachel! Glad you liked the stories! I enjoyed sharing them. :)

  • Paul Tucker

    My wife, after discussing Buffer’s business model over dinner, asked me this same question. I had no clue how Buffer handled holiday coverage – such an insightful article! All my questions have been answered! Thanks Courtney! ?

    • Oh wow, what an honor to be your dinner conversation! Glad to have answered some of your questions, Paul!

      • Paul Tucker

        Buffer frequently serves as our food for thought as we consume food. Thanks for incredible content to “consume”! ??

  • scott

    Great post. I can share a bit of my own experience with strange remote-holidays as I work remotely for a startup. I moved to Serbia to be with my wife, but I am originally from Canada where my company is based. While my vacation policy is super strict compared to European averages, I generally take the most important Serbian holidays. This includes easter and xmas, but not on the same days as in Canada, as Serbia is an eastern orthodox country. I mix in a couple Canadian and American holidays too, because usually our clients are away from the office (ie: first week of July). I also take time off for my parents-in-laws’ slava, and my wife and I have started our own slava. This is a unique Serbian holiday where each family celebrates a specific saint of their choice with a feast. I like the idea that people are free to choose a day where they will have time off work to be with their families–no matter what the stat holidays are.

    I also found out some interesting stat holiday policies in my first year working remotely as well. Holidays that I grew up with in Alberta are not the same as Ontario–so when I expected to naturally have november 11th off (as it is a holiday everywhere in Europe and where I grew up), I learned that in Ontario this isn’t given this day as a stat holiday. The actual policies of which holidays are stat holidays is completely determined by each province in Canada which makes it a bit chaotic. Although generally the same weekends are given off, sometimes the holiday names are changed (ie labour day or civic holiday), or the same holiday names (ie family day) are switched for different days. I imagine it gets confusing pretty fast when you have workers in more than a dozen countries.

    • Hey Scott! Wow, thanks so much for sharing this unique experience. A slava sounds like an amazing time; love this concept! Yup, just hearing about all the unique elements of Canada’s holidays makes me realize I still have tons and tons to learn about the world’s various cultures! It’s a lot of fun to grow through my teammates’ experiences and help. :)

  • Christmas is huge for my family, and this year, due to work schedules and money constraints, I am unable to spend it with them. It’s definitely hard. I would choose to take some time off to get home for Christmas. Labor Day Weekend is a pretty big one, too, as the family usually congregates at my aunt’s farm with zero cell reception.

    I love the trust Buffer puts in its employees. Every time I read about your culture, it just tugs at my heart. I’ve promised myself I’ll be a team member someday!

    • Oh wow, thanks so much for the encouragement, Torie! So sorry your Christmas isn’t going to be with family; maybe you can enjoy some friend time instead. And look forward to labor Day; that sounds great!

    • Team member at Buffer is also one of my goals! #greatminds

  • Karinna Briseno

    Thanks Courtney, for sharing this awesome article! I was wondering how that worked and this article really helped fill in the blanks. Buffer sounds like such a great company to work for! :)

    • I might be a little biased but I believe it is, Karinna! ;) Thanks for checking this one out; glad it answered some questions for you!

  • Peter Spenuzza

    Great post – I love the openness of Buffer! But, it still seems like everyone almost feels the need to “ask for permission”… do people on your team genuinely feel comfortable taking time off? I love the transparency of what you guys do, it just appears that there is guilt for taking a few days off here and there. I completely understand that it’s important to notify your team when you’re going to be out of office, but I can’t imagine someone pushing back on that.

    For instance, if Niel wants to take 10 days off to disconnect (during a traditionally family-oriented holiday season), why is he still asking his team if it’s ok? With such a robust engineering team, I would hope that everyone would resoundingly assure him that it’s ok to take time off (and not feel the need to fish around for connectivity in a remote location) :) Likewise for Arielle and Ivana – I’m surprised that they felt the need to “check in” and make sure a couple half days would be ok.

    As owner of a 20-person company that is looking to grow 50% next year, I’m really curious! Love your posts – you guys are setting up a company of the future.

    • Hey Peter, thanks for sharing this awesome feedback! I think you’ve pointed out exactly the challenge we’re working on, around the idea of guilt for taking time off. I know I have felt it before and can imagine other teammates might have also. Part of it might be that we have grown pretty rapidly this year from a small team, where every absence is acutely felt, to a big enough team that we don’t quite have to fret as much about time away. We might not have realized it quite yet! I’d love to hear any advice you might have or experiences from your team in this area; it feels like a great one to keep working on!

    • Damien

      I felt the same way reading some of those messages.
      I also started to wonder what a working day at buffer is like. (in term of hours or time table for example). For example, in this article we talk about time away or slow day, and I wondered how it fit with a flexible working time. It could be also pretty cool to have some kind of ‘One day in the life of a Customer Hero’ for every position you guys have :)

  • I love this policy! Particularly as it also allows for people to work during holidays should they wish to do so. As a former barista (which was a side hustle to my FT gig) I used to work Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve in order to give my co workers a break. It was an added bonus that I got to see my favorite customers.

  • Sylvia

    Just curious…has anyone ever replied to a teammate’s request and said, “that may not work”? :)

    • Hmm, I’m not quite sure about that! I think it would be fairly rare, but I know that teammates sometimes like to take side trips before or after our retreats, and I could see that becoming a potential challenge if many of us wanted to take the same or similar days off. For the most part, you get lots of encouragement for your plans!

      • Sylvia

        Thanks for the lightning quick reply, Courtney! I bet your team is large enough to cover all roles, but was just wondering if ever there was a time that you needed a specific person to play a certain role, or are you guys big on versatility? I know that you all take turns at replying to customers, but does that apply to other departments and roles?

  • Angela Sylcott

    To a similar point as Peter’s: Do people ever just say, “I’m taking off X date through X date,” without explaining why they’ll be taking the time off? I’m curious if along with the “pressure” to word these requests like you’re asking for permission (the use of the phrase “asking for advice” was particularly noticeable—maybe just the phrase commonly used in those employees’ regions?), there may also be some to make sure you’re presenting a “good enough” reason, since there’s so much encouragement to share.

    The descriptions of the reasons for taking the day(s) off seem so detailed and almost deliberate/strategic, like “Here’s why I want to take these days off, and here’s an accounting of what I’ll be doing during that time so that it’s clear I’m putting this time to ‘good’ use.” It’s great to share/learn about others’ holidays, but what if that’s actually dissuading the person who just wants to take a couple days off to zone out, get away from work, etc., from doing so because it’s not a “valid-enough” reason.

    • These are excellent thoughts, Angela, thank you so much for taking the time to share them! I have an intuition that the overly detailed explanations are a product of our culture, where we tend to use more words than necessary and share more than needed. I totally agree that we could work on making sure we don’t need to “justify” our time away. A great one to improve upon!

  • Jason Thompson

    I predict that Buffer will become the company that every other company and startup will want to mimic. The have proved that a company can have a distributed team throughout the world and still provide a great product and superb customer service. They continue to make modifications to ensure there is always transparency resulting in happiness for Buffer employees and customers.

    Keep up the awesome work Buffer team and definitely take vacation and holidays off so you can make Buffer even better in 2016 and beyond.

  • Tracey

    Fantastic article! I posted it on our (distributed, small but very international) company’s Slack and am encouraging people to post more about holidays.

    One of our Belgians had already put up a picture of Saint-Nicolas arriving at his kid’s school, and I (American in Scotland) had a photograph from a Hanukah celebration. Hopefully the Norwegian will have pictures from his annual gingerbread party, and as for the English guys, I expect them to post on Christmas Eve from the pub. :) Oh, and one of our associates in India brought us Diwali gifts, which we loved.

    Thanks for the encouragement about celebrating and sharing our cultural differences.

  • Justina Ann

    I love this idea, while I have always lived in America, there are some holidays that my family doesn’t really do anything for and other that are really important. On my dad’s side a few people live far away so we always get together at our campground for fourth of July. I didn’t get to see my family as much as I would have liked since I had to work. However, for Thanksgiving I’d be happy to work as long as I got a long enough break from work to have dinner. And seconds.

  • LeeAndra Fouts

    I would choose Christmas Adam through New Year’s Day, my birthday (of course!) + my husband’s and children’s birthdays, Fourth of July week, and then various long weekends here and there through the year. Once in awhile, I would probably take a week in the spring or fall to go somewhere, but it wouldn’t be every year.

  • I know it’s unlimited, but all of the emails you’ve shared here make people seem fearful or taking as much time as they WANT off. A lot of asking for advice, and providing very detailed plans like a justification for why you might want to take time off.

    “I aim to spend as much time disconnecting as I can” does not jive well with “both places have some capacity for connectivity.” This person felt the need to offer that despite WANTING to disconnect, if work required he would use his vacation time on work-related items.

    The last email in particular made me feel almost sad. A woman asking permission to take off on what is a national holiday to spend time with her daughter, and indicating that it is okay if that time is not granted. The last line reads like “I’m happy to NOT take off if people would prefer that.”

    Unlimited vacation seems like a scary place to be, with having to justify your time away. When I take time off, my email looks like this:

    “I will be out of the office on Friday on PTO [paid time off], returning on Monday. I will be unavailable during that time. For emergencies please contact _____.”

    I may not get unlimited vacation, but my days are mine to take without apology, explanation, or expectation.

  • Emily Pinto

    Thank you for such an informative post! I was just wondering how the Holidays fit into the unlimited time off policy at Buffer. I think it’s so wonderful that your team has the opportunity to decide what truly resonates with them in order to plan time off. I’m sure this has led to some really interesting personal reflection for the Buffer team. Happy Holidays!

  • Cynthia Rennolds

    I like the idea of everyone designing their own vacation and holiday schedule. However, the examples given strike me as really, well, almost strange. Is it a millennial “thing” to be so tentative “asking for advice” on taking time off? I find it quite strange. I am not a millennial. I would think saying Hi Guys, here is my schedule, if this causes a problem let me know and I can work around it or (if I will totally be offline and cannot or do not want to be reached) contact xyz in my absence. All of this tentative wording seems like children asking their parents permission which seems contrary to the tremendously talented people I am sure are employed with you.

  • Thanks for the post! Super interesting! What is the average/median number of vacation days a person take?

    How does it work out with the differences between countries? E.g. I’m living in Sweden and the norm is 25-30 days/years (25 is minimum, unless you are fresh out of school 30 is common in tech) of paid vacation (excluding days being sick/sick child care) but that is a lot compared to the US. That must affect expectations of the team mates as well as the individual. Are everbody on the “US norm” even if they are in another country, or are there differences in how much vacation people make use of?

  • Kathleen Cook

    Halloween!! I love Halloween and make it a point to make my kids’ costumes every year starting in September! Past costumes have included: A Starbucks Coffee, A box of free puppies, and Clark Kent! Taking the kiddos trick-or-treating is a must!

  • Thanks so much for sharing this Courtney! I’d love to know what is the average time Buffer folks take the time off. Just out of curiosity. For example in our country 4 weeks is a minimum by law, many companies allowing 5 weeks. I know that in the US the standard is around 2-3 weeks and it may be different in all the countries around the world, so some people are used to have 2 months off every and every year and some just a week or two, which might seem unfair for some colleagues.

    Some numbers are for example shown here:

    Thanks so much for any insight on this. Petr

  • I hadn’t even though about how all the different holidays would work with an international start up, but this makes so much sense! Thanks for sharing!

    Since I’m in the States, I’d probably take most of the traditional holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Labor Day, etc. and gauge some of the other “Monday holidays” from year to year. Plus other special days like my birthday or something similar. :)

  • I think I might echo other commenters but as I was reading the examples I did get a real sense of people having to justify taking time off. I work in a company where our holiday is approved by a line manager, I understand that, things need to be kept operational and I’m sure people would raise concerns if an entire team decided they were taking the same week off.

    But I’m also a firm believer in taking time off guilt free. Whether that’s due to illness (nothing worse than feeling crap and also beating yourself up for “letting people down”) and for vacation. Whether that’s for a public holiday , a birthday, or just because you fancy a few days of Netflix binging (I have a week off booked before Easter which no plans whatsoever). You have answered this so well so I apologise for repeating other commenters but I wanted to put my two cents in.

    I think this idea of having to justify time off could lead to people feeling guilty and therefore not taking time off. I work with someone (and have done in the past) who have said “Oh.. I wish I didn’t have to take this time off.. I’d rather be at working helping out!” But time off is sooo good for you and for the productivity of the team!!

    Ultimately, I think there does need to be an element of ensuring everyone knows when you’re off, but the asking for permission isn’t always necessary since you have an amazing calendar to work from.

  • Luis Magalhães

    I love it that you you have unlimited time off, and then figured out that people weren’t talking enough time off! That is probably the greatest metric of how much the people at buffer love their jobs.

    So, admit it: you’ve found people trying to sneak in some work during time off, haven’t you? ;)

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