It’s one of those mythical and vaunted startup perks, and one of the Buffer perks that tends to entice folks the most: unlimited vacation time.

When someone new joins the team, they’re immediately granted as much time away from work as they’d like, no questions asked.

Under this non-policy policy, teammates have had some great vacations, including cruises around the world and even a month of sailing the Atlantic.

But is it really that simple?

Well, yes and no.

Buffer’s unlimited vacation policy is incredibly generous. But as we’ve grown and evolved, we’ve also gotten some great signals that it can be a bit confusing to know when and how to take time off.

When we surveyed our team to get their anonymous thoughts, we began to see a theme emerging. Here’s a sample of comments:

  • “It’d be really cool if we could make clearer taking vacation off and how to approach expensing things.”
  • “I think some sort of recommended range of time off can be really helpful.”
  • “I’m still struggling to figure out how to plan time off and if I should be asking for permission/advice before making plans.”
  • “A bit nervous, with a feeling of guilt and uncertainty about how taking the time off would make the team feel.”

Taking time off and recharging is critical to doing your best work, so we knew we wanted to help everyone on the team feel great about planning and taking restorative time away.

Solving the ‘unlimited’ challenge

Looking out at the landscape of likeminded tech companies, there are some cool and innovative ways to begin to solve this challenge.

Until that time, we needed a way to help teammates feel guilt-free about taking time off and to reduce the cognitive load of figuring out how and when to take time away.

We started by getting a baseline. Julian on our data team was kind enough to export our shared Google Cal where teammates log vacation days and holidays (yes, it can get a bit crowded there!) so we could take a look.

We found that the vast majority of our teammates were taking in the range of 5-10 days per year (not quite enough, in our opinion), followed closely by the 10-15 day range (getting closer!).

vacation-days-at-buffer-2_1024

Buffer is a global company, bringing together teammates from many different countries, cultures, and norms when it comes to time off. So we needed to take into account quite a few perspectives. 

Our team survey asked a variety of questions around the topic of vacation time. Here’s a look:

vacation-survey

Results showed that there was a wide spectrum in terms of the amount of days off teammates felt comfortable taking—everything from 0 days to about 4 weeks. The mean from a sample size of 55 responses was 9.1 days, which is fairly in line with what the Google Cal data showed us

What’s the right amount of time off?

So, is that enough? Across the world, paid vacation time varies quite a bit but generally is in the 20-day range.

time-off-worldwide

 

And although the US is the only developed country with no minimum protected vacation time, we learned that the average private sector U.S. worker receives 16 paid vacation days and holidays.

The average number of paid vacation days offered by U.S. private employers is generally: 

  • 10 days after 1 year of service
  • 14 days after 5 years
  • 17 days after 10 years
  • 20 days after 20 years

Using these data points, we determined that we’d love to see folks take a minimum of 3 weeks vacation time, in addition to extra time off for the holidays teammates choose to celebrate.

How could we gently guide more teammates into the 15-20 day range while still keeping the freedom of our no-policy policy?

Introducing minimum vacation recommendations

Here’s what we came up with: An experiment with minimum vacation recommendations!

  • 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) they 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; we ask teammates to take time off that’s in line with their country’s standards even 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.
  • This time is separate from holidays teammates choose to celebrate, and outside of sick/personal days, bereavement/compassionate leave, and family leave.

A bit more detail on combining vacation/holiday time

Each teammate is free to combine vacation time and holiday time for their custom choice of time off.  So in a year at Buffer, here are some theoretical totals:

  • A teammate in Australia might take 17 days of vacation and 7 holidays
  • A teammate in the U.S. might take 15 days of vacation and 8 holidays
  • A teammate in France might take 25 days of vacation and 5 holidays
  • A teammates in Canada might take 20 days of vacation and 7 holidays

When we compare our time off to paid leave across the world, it might look something like this (the totals highlighted in yellow on the right are hypothetical examples only!)

When and how we share vacation plans

Beyond sharing recommendations, we also have tried to get much more explicit in terms of describing the best way to share and record time off. We have asked teammates to share plans in advance with their team leads using the following general guidelines:

  • For a half day or less, 3 days in advance
  • For 1–3 days off, 2 weeks in advance
  • For longer time off, a month or more in advance is great

And we’ve added to our list of tools an app called Timetastic that we hope will make it easier to:

  • Ask for and receive vacation time
  • Track time taken to make we’re all getting enough recharging time
  • Allow all of us to see who’s out of the office at a glance

Timestastic even allows us to see all team vacations in a super convenient Slack channel:

timestastic-slack

Buffer’s “People team” (which I am a part of) will keep track of time off on a high level, solely for the purpose of nudging people who haven’t take time to disconnect in a while.

Over to you!

Like many things we do at Buffer, this is a new experiment and we don’t have all the answers. We’re keen to keep a pulse on how these recommendations work and whether we begin to see vacation time inching up. We’re planning check-ins at 3 months and 6 months and we’ll keep you posted here.

In future iterations of these recommendations, we’re hopeful to explore ideas like sabbaticals/longer-term unpaid leave outside of family leave and increased recommended vacation time for teammates that have been with Buffer for a longer time. We’ll also be working on more guidance for team leads on encouraging more time away.

How much vacation time feels ideal to you? How much do you take currently? What might convince you to take more? This topic is a fascinating one for me. If you’ve got thoughts, questions or feedback to share, we’d be so grateful to hear it!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Toby Gutsche

    Thanks for the great article courtney!
    I believe there should be more people talking about that topic. Everybody knows that awkward feeling when your friends plan a trip and you have to find a good moment to ask your boss to take some time off.

    It should be much easier and less awkward. As all your employees are already working remotely, there could be a chance of offering a 2-3 month period where people only work 50% to travel and explore places better (in terms of shorter sabbaticals and of course they would get their paycheck cut in half for this period).

    Especially in places where living standards are cheaper this could be a great way to combine work and time to recover.

    Do you think that could work?

    • Hey there Tobias, what a cool idea! I definitely think we would explore this idea; we already have had a handful of folks working at 50% to 80% for various reasons. We haven’t explored it specifically for travel/sabbatical; that would be so cool!

  • Dima

    Why do you think your team members have not taken more vacation days in the past? Do you think it is because they are worried about how they will be perceived by others? Because they feel guilt even? Also would appreciate some stats on how often employees choose to change location of residence and see that as sort of vacation?

    • Hey Dima, that’s a great question! I think you’ve likely hit upon the main reason; without specific guidelines folks had some feelings of not knowing what was appropriate. That’s an interesting question on stats about travel; we don’t quite collect those right now but it would definitely be interesting to see! I think you’re into something; we do tend to do a lot of “travel + work” that might feel like a substitute for vacation for some.

  • Chloë Chandless

    I think the most important thing here is to work on your staff’s feelings of guilt around taking days off. In my opinion, it would be very useful to re-educate people to accept that they deserve to take care of themswlves and give themselves time off work without worrying about upsetting their coworkers. In western society, we are brought up to be worker bees who are so scared about job insecurity that we would rather work ourselves into the ground than take well deserved rest.

    • Totally agree, Chloë! This is such a great and crucial point; I think we’ll be reinforcing this point for quite a while!

    • Jonathan Dunnett

      Such an important point – the culture has to support the policy.

  • potto

    I like the idea you’ve had with “minimum vacation recommendations.” This may help push your culture in the right direction with regards to their attitude towards vacations. I have worked for a several startups that offered unlimited vacations as well as a large company that moved to unlimited vacations. I, personally, steer clear of companies “offering” me unlimited vacations based on past experience and those of colleagues. The guilt is real, and projected by both supervisors and peers. The fact that vacation is unlimited makes it seem optional. Those who take semi-frequent vacations are talked about by their peers, and there is less tolerance for sharing the workload than at companies where vacation is seen as mandatory. There were people at each of the companies I worked at who carried it as a point of pride that they never took vacation, somehow meaning that they were more diligent and valuable than the “slackers” who took vacations.

    Moreover, companies are not incented to give their employees a fair balance of vacation time by not having set vacation days on the payroll schedule — if an employee doesn’t take vacation, the company doesn’t have to pay them a penny, whereas traditionally companies carried a liability on the books so long as the employee had a balance of vacation days. One of the things managers discussed in one-on-one’s was the vacation days, and that they needed to use them by a certain day and so on. Buffer’s notion of “minimum days” sounds like it would take you in the right direction, but it still sounds like it is a recommendation to individuals. A policy would likely better serve the employees.

    All that being said, I worked for FullContact briefly, and their $7,500 “paid PAID” vacation worked well there. The culture there has been well-engineered; people revel in discussing each others’ vacations, and are genuinely happy for each other.

    • A lot of awesome to unpack in this comment, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. First, this sentence really hit me: “The fact that vacation is unlimited makes it seem optional.” I think we were suffering with that same challenge; hopefully this will be a step in the right direction. Your point about recommendations v policy is another great one; we’ve taken the path of preferring recommendations thus far. Keen to keep an eye on whether it gets us where we want to be. And yes, FullContact is such a big inspiration for us; really love their culture!

      • We’re obviously seeing a lot of the same things. A little over a year ago, we added a “Minimum Vacation Policy” to our benefits package in addition to Paid Paid in order to address many of the same things you discuss. While we do seem to have a good culture of supporting Paid Paid throughout the FullContact organization, there are still numerous people in the company who don’t take enough allotted downtime to be healthy. Even if you go off the grid for 5 days, if you work straight through the rest of the year, you’re still not in a healthy place WRT balancing work and life (and being more productive when you’re at work).

        So now we have a 3 weeks minimum vacation policy, with unlimited flex time. Meaning everyone should take at *least* 3 weeks of time where they’re “off the clock” – not expected to complete work. Extra vacation time is good – just don’t screw your team. As for what constitutes ‘too much’ – that’s for managers and their direct reports to decide (in my experience, it ultimately leads to better relationships between the two). In addition to vacation, we have unlimited flex time – which means “take the time off, but make sure you keep getting things done & don’t screw your team.” This allows us to take powder days or long weekends where needed, but still keep moving the big rocks forward.

        Ultimately, it’s all a balancing act – and always will be.

        Regardless, been keeping an eye on Buffer’s policies for quite a while now, and love it that you all are seeing things in a similar way. Good luck!

  • Jonathan Dunnett

    One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is that different jobs have different needs as relates to vacation time.

    As a teacher, I remember having 2 months off in the summer – and trust me, by the time I got there, I needed it!

    In the private sector, I’ve had less time than that, and I honestly feel like I don’t perform as well. I think companies have a great opportunity available to utilize policies like this – to paraphrase a Richard Branson quote, “take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers.” I firmly believe that to be true, so I applaud the iterative approach on vacations – bravo, Buffer! When you stop trying to find that answer, that’s when you are probably in the wrong spot :-)

  • Brett Downes

    I’d love to work at Buffer at some point in the future and have even recently bought the Dale Carnegie book to see if I am inline with the culture and your way of thinking. this holiday leave topic has further piqued my interest – it’s amazing to be able to take time of when you need a break, recharge or explore.

    I too, would feel guilty – say if I took more holiday days than the average employee. Thinking others may resent me for doing so. I understand this probably isn’t the case, but it would be present subconsciously in most good human beings mind. If you do manage to circumvent this underlying problem then I feel your guys and gals would embrace it.

    Hopefully not too much, as there still needs to be people there to man the controls. Then again, I’m always available to swoop in should you need emergency cover! :/