Understanding the widespread effects of unlimited PTO on companies

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BYU Photo
A family plays together in a park. Unlimited PTO encourages employees to spend time with their families and attend to personal matters. (BYU Photo)

A new trend among tech and start-up companies is the implementation of flexible and unlimited paid-time-off (PTO) for employees.

While the specific definitions and requirements surrounding these policies vary from company to company, their general purpose is to allow employees the freedom to take as many days off without counting or accruing hours. 

Companies in Utah Valley share their experience with unlimited PTO and how it’s affected the workplace.

Adam Love previously worked as a content marketing manager for Finch, a digital marketing company based out of Salt Lake City that offers flexible PTO to its employees. 

Love said when he worked at Finch, he felt more productive because he was able to pick and choose when to come in.

“Obviously if there’s deadlines, you have to meet them. Especially in my (then) position as a content creator, a lot of times it’s difficult to be in a noisy office,” he said.

Love acknowledges the great benefit of a culture where people are friendly, but also says it can sometimes affect someone who needs the focus to write and design.

“I‘ve loved the fact that I can come and go as I please as long as I’m getting the work done. I find that even if I have to go home and do a late-night to get something done, I don’t mind it at all because I’m in my own zone, I’m in my environment, and I just start cranking out work left and right,” Love said. It makes me feel immensely more productive, especially if the following day, I can take my time to come in maybe around 10 or 11 to balance it out.”

Linda Llewelyn is the chief people officer with Health Catalyst, a company that provides data and analytics technology and services to healthcare organizations. Health Catalyst adopted an unlimited PTO policy about four years ago.

“Our team members enjoy the flexibility, and because we don’t micromanage, there’s no necessity to track the paid time off. We hire exceptional team members who are highly engaged; they meet their deliverables and get the work done,” Llewelyn said. “We feel flexible PTO allows a level of autonomy and feeling of empowerment to do what needs to be done – including taking time off for rest and relaxation.”

Implementation Challenges

Love compares flexible or unlimited PTO policy to a double-edged sword and said the success of it depends heavily on leadership and how it’s implemented. There were times in previous companies where the poor implementation of unlimited PTO made Love feel overwhelmed and used.

“There was this underlying feeling that everyone felt nervous or anxious to even request a day off,” Love said. “It definitely affected my work productivity.”

Most employers and employees agree that a written policy that clearly defines the requirements and expectations of unlimited PTO is important for proper implementation.

Laura Butler is the senior vice president of people and culture at Workfront, a company that develops web-based work management software. Workfront has used an unlimited PTO policy since 2014. Her company considered the following factors when drafting a written policy:

  • How many consecutive days off can be taken
  • The approval process so that managers can still deliver on the business requirements
  • How to coach managers to ensure they enable their team members to enjoy this benefit

Butler said one challenge is defining the “normal” amount of time to take off in a year. There are also occasions, although rare, where employees may abuse the unlimited PTO model.

“It can be challenging to say to someone that they have taken too much time off when our PTO is described as ‘unlimited,’ even if they wish to take more than a few consecutive weeks off on a frequent basis,” Butler said. “We choose to manage these situations on a one-on-one basis through coaching and creating clarity on job performance expectations.”

Llewelyn said that within the last six to eight months, Health Catalyst began terming their unlimited PTO policy as “flexible PTO” because it more accurately represents how team members utilize their PTO benefit.

“While we still do not have a set limit on the total amount of PTO a team member may take per year, we cap the total consecutive amount of PTO to four weeks,” Llewelyn said. “Team members let their managers know of their requested PTO, and although it’s uncommon to do so, managers reserve the right to not allow a PTO request based on business needs. For the very most part, however, people can take paid time off when they need to.”

COVID-19 effects on unlimited PTO

Jennifer Jerichow has worked as a project management coordinator at Workfront since November 2019 and loves the concept of unlimited PTO.

“I know that if I am ever feeling ill or need to go do something that I’m able to without feeling guilty as long as I communicate with my boss,” Jerichow said. “Unlimited PTO is something that just stays in the back of your mind and is a security blanket for the workers to never needing to worry about taking time off if they run into a problem.”

The recent onset of COVID-19 has caused many Workfront employees to cancel vacations and remain at home. Jerichow had PTO two weeks ago for her wedding, but her plans changed and she had to move her date.

“I had the time that I could take off, but unfortunately I was just stuck at home. With so much free time on my hands, I continued to work,” Jerichow said. “It’s not that my coworkers needed me or that my boss wanted me to work, it was honestly because I was at home and wanted to feel as if I was doing something productive.”

However, the encouragement of “taking time for yourself” and utilizing PTO remains the same from executives and leaders at Workfront.

“More so than ever have they been sending out communication encouraging employees to take this time to truly get connected with family and home life,” Jerichow said. “It’s truly refreshing to work for a company that really encourages boundaries and family.”

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