When Travis CI turned into a business with employees, one of our ideas was to not constrain people in how much time they take off for vacations. We didn’t track the days people were taking off, and as the people running the company, we didn’t actively encourage people to take times off. In short, we had an open vacation policy.

The cause was intended to be noble, as we didn’t want to get into the way of people taking time off as much time as they need to recharge. I myself am a big fan of disconnecting for a vacation and staying away for more than just a few days to free the mind, gain new energy and fresh insights.

Two years later, this idea turned out to be a failure, and we’re changing our vacation policy. Here’s why.

Uncertainty about how much time would be okay to take off

When everyone keeps track of their own vacation days, two things can happen. They either forget about them completely, or they’re uncertain about how much is really okay to use as vacation days.

Forgetting about them seems to be beneficial for a young startup company, at least on the surface. You want people to work as much as possible to push the product and company out of uncertain territory into profitability, right?

Wrong. What you will do is push people to the edge of burnout and unhappiness. They’ll eventually leave your company.

This almost happened in ours, we pushed someone too far. They pulled the cord eventually, and we asked them to take off as much time as they need. We’re sorry for this mistake, and we’re thankful this person is still with us.

When people are uncertain about how many days it’s okay to take off, you’ll see curious things happen. People will hesitate to take a vacation as they don’t want to seem like that person who’s taking the most vacation days. It’s a race to the bottom instead of a race towards a well rested and happy team.

I came across a passage in “Scaling up Excellence”, an okay-ish but vague book on how to scale up a company (emphasis mine):

In Matthew May’s book The Laws of Subtraction, Markovitz describes how his team was burdened and annoyed by a convoluted HR system for managing vacation requests. He decided to ignore it and told his team “as long as they got their jobs done, I didn’t care how many vacation days they took each year.” It worked beautifully—he stopped wasting time on paperwork, his team felt respected, and they stopped gaming the system: “The number of vacation days that they took actually decreased.” Markovitz’s experiment succeeded because it created accountability. “My team’s focus shifted from figuring out how to beat the system to figuring out how to live up to the responsibility placed upon them.”

I was horrified reading this, and it dawned on me how wrong we’ve approached our internal vacation policy. This text sums up exactly what’s wrong with an open vacation policy. People take less time off, and it’s celebrated as a success of giving people more responsibility.

Uncertainty about how many days are okay to take time off can also stir inequality. It can turn into a privilege for some people who may be more aggressive in taking vacations compared to people who feel like their work and their appreciation at work would suffer from being away for too long.

People would work on their vacation days

As part of my time working for a US company, I was exposed to a weird culture. When people announced they’d go on vacation, they’d tell everyone that they’ll take their computer and phones with them, and that they will be available if anything comes up.

Earlier this year, I went on a three week vacation with my family. When we booked us a small house in France, my initial thought was: “How can I justify staying away from Berlin for so long? I know! I’m going to work while I’m there, at least for a few hours every day.”

I’ve seen this happen in our company, and not just with me. The guilt of taking time off takes over, and you “just check in” or promise to be available if anything comes up. You respond to just one email or just one GitHub issue.

This ambiguity trickles through to everyone on your team. When someone starts checking in during their vacation, it lowers the bar for others to do it, and it increases the uncertainty of whether or not you should be checking in. When you as the leader in a company take vacations like that, you unknowningly set a bad example that others will feel compelled to follow.

Summing up the problem with checking in while you’re on vacation, I quote from “Mission: Impossible II”:

Mission briefing: “And Mr. Hunt, next time you go on holiday let us know where. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.” Ethan Hunt: “If I let you know where I´m going, then I won´t be on holiday.”

A vacation is a time to recharge, and your job as a company leader should be to remove any ambiguity of people thinking they’re required to be available or reachable.

A company has to learn how to function when people are on vacation and unavailable, however important their role is.

After months of back and forth, I decided to do the only right thing I could think of. I took those three weeks in France off, fully and completely, without being reachable, and I told everyone about it upfront. And I encourage every single one of our employees to do the same.

The founders of the company only took little time off

In the early stages of a company, it can become all-consuming for the people with the biggest stake in it, the founders. Current technology culture celebrates people hustling hard, raising tons of funding, and in turn hustling even harder.

In short, we’ve set a bad example, and we ourselves didn’t live up to the expectation of the open vacation policy. We took off less or no time in some years, always focusing on the hustle and on the idea that us being away would hurt the company or be a reason for stuff not getting done.

What did we change?

Starting in 2015, we’ve implemented a minimum vacation policy. Rather than giving no guideline on what’s a good number of days to take off, everyone now has a required minimum of 25 (paid) vacation days per year, no matter what country they live in. When people want to take time off beyond that, that’s good, and the minimum policy still allows for that. But it sets a lower barrier of days that we expect our employees to focus on their own well-being rather than work.

This policy is not just a guideline for our employees, it’s mandatory for everyone, including the people who originally founded the company. As leaders, we need to set examples of what constitutes a healthy balance between work and life rather than give an example that life is all about the hustle.

Ensuring that everyone takes off the minimum number of days requires us to start tracking vacation days for everyone. Having numbers allows us to review everyone’s vacation days on a regular basis, ensuring that the minimum time taken off is equal and that scheduling in vacation days is actively encouraged.

As Jesse Newland said in a talk at Monitorama:

Vacation is cheaper than severance and training.

We removed ambiguity of whether or not someone should check in by having explicit guidelines on what constitutes a vacation day and what doesn’t. Our expectation is that when you’re on vacation, you do everything but stuff that’s related to Travis CI.

Instating an open vacation policy can be poison for your people’s team and happiness, as it removes the lower barrier of what’s an acceptable amount of time to be away and focus on recharging and your family, in short, your personal well-being. Your job as a company isn’t to coerce your people into taking as little time off as possible, it’s to make sure they have a good balance between work and life.

Our new minimum vacation policy is the first step to making up for our mistake, and we’ll keep a good eye on how it works out.

My biggest of thanks to Jacob Kaplan-Moss for writing about the problems with an open vacation policy and possible solutions. His article has been great food for thought and a trigger for improvement in our own company’s culture.

I’d love to hear about your experiences as a company leader, in particular about issues like vacation policies and team happiness. I’m also happy to talk about our culture at Travis CI. Email me!