Give me a break! Is it really wrong for IT pros to take time off?

Most seasoned IT pros are probably used to working long hours and having really hectic schedules. For many of us, it is just part of the job. For me though, 2017 was an unusually busy year. While taking a vacation, unfortunately, wasn’t going to be an option, I have to admit that I was really looking forward to the slower pace of the holiday season. Recently, a friend who also works in IT was telling me that he too could not wait for the holidays, but for a completely different reason. He couldn’t wait to tackle a number of long-neglected IT projects while everyone else was out of the office during the company’s holiday break. As my friend explained his plans, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the company that my friend works for frowns upon the idea of the IT staff taking time off.

This really isn’t all that unusual. In many companies, the IT staff is viewed as being indispensable and is therefore strongly discouraged from ever taking any extended time off. Even if IT pros are not expressly prohibited from taking time off, vacations may be anything but a vacation. I have read countless articles over the years proclaiming that it would be irresponsible for a vacationing IT professional to neglect their email or to skip staff meetings while they are away. In essence, if you can work from home, then you can just as easily work while you are on vacation. I’m sorry, but in my mind, that just is not a vacation.

Workaholic culture

time off

I have personally experienced the reluctance to allow IT pros to take time off. Back in the 1990s, I was nearly fired from my job for taking a week-long vacation, even though my supervisor had authorized the time off. In fact, I had actually negotiated the time off prior to accepting a position with the company. In case you are wondering, I didn’t leave for vacation in the middle of a crisis, or a major project, or anything like that. My employer was simply concerned because I was going to spend the week hiking in the rainforest, and would, therefore, be totally inaccessible if an IT problem did occur.

In spite of the workaholic culture that so often permeates the tech industry, at least some employers are starting to adopt a more casual attitude toward taking time off, in which employees are free to take as much time off as they need. Currently, only about 2 percent of companies are offering an unlimited time-off policy, but the trend is gaining momentum.

Before I talk about the benefits of an unlimited time-off policy, I have to point out that such policies are not perfect. If left unchecked, for example, such a policy could leave an organization understaffed during its busiest times, or could mean that a key employee takes off for longer than the organization is really comfortable with.

While some organizations have shunned the unlimited time-off trend, citing the “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” philosophy, those organizations that have taken the plunge have largely discovered that employees tend not to take any more time off than they might otherwise. Additionally, unlimited time-off policies offer a number of benefits to both the organization and its employees.

For starters, unlimited time-off policies help to build trust between organizations and their employees. With such a policy, the organization is effectively saying to the employee, “You’re a grown up and you do not need someone to babysit you. If you need to take time off, then we trust you to do it responsibly.”

Another benefit is that unlimited time-off policies may mean less work for the HR department. HR is freed from the mundane task of keeping track of the number of vacation days that employees have earned and the number of vacation days taken.

Finally, unlimited time-off policies can save companies a lot of money. Traditional paid time-off plans tend to be based on an accrual system, in which employees earn days off over time. For example, if an employee gets 12 vacation days per year, then the employee might earn those days at a rate of one per month. The problem with such systems is that vacation days are treated as an earned asset. Hence, when an employee leaves the company, they may be paid for the vacation days that they earned but did not use. Switching to an unlimited time off policy means abandoning the old accrual system, which means that employers no longer have to write checks for unused vacation days every time that an employee leaves the company.

Time off — What works?

Time off

Obviously, every company has its own unique needs and so there is no such thing as a winning formula that works for everyone. Even so, there are a few things that some of the companies that have adopted unlimited time-off policies have found to work.

First, unlimited time off only works if the work still gets done. As such, there has to be an understanding among employees that time-off flexibility hinges upon their ability to keep up with their assigned tasks. Some of the larger companies that have adopted such policies have found that more frequent or more in-depth annual performance reviews are necessary to prevent employee performance from slipping.

Some of the organizations that have adopted unlimited time-off policies have also found that unlimited time off cannot be synonymous with unapproved time off. The occasional “unapproved sick day” might not be an issue, but an organization needs to be able to maintain some degree of control over staffing. Imagine what would happen for instance, if the entire IT staff decided to take off at the same time.

Early adopters of unlimited time-off policies have also been forced to confront the issue of whether unlimited truly means unlimited. It would not be acceptable for example, for an employee to take off 100 percent of the time. So what would be acceptable? Is it acceptable for an employee to be gone 75 percent of the time? How about 50 percent of the time? Ultimately, this probably depends on the nature of the employee’s job function.

This brings up another point. If an employee really wants to get the most from an organization’s unlimited time-off policy (by taking a lot of time off), then the prudent thing for them to do may be to speak to their employer about allowing them to work remotely, or setting up a nontraditional work schedule. Let me give you a personal example.

Early in my IT career, I worked for a large insurance company. Like so many other IT pros, I worked an insane number of hours each week. Unfortunately, there were some negative aspects to my schedule. I didn’t really have a life, and my overtime was beginning to impact the IT budget. I worked with management and we came up with a mutually beneficial solution — a four-day work week. On Monday through Thursday, I would work for 10-plus hours and would be off on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Although this arrangement meant that I was making a little bit less money, I absolutely loved all the three day weekends. Let’s just say that I put my waterpark season pass to very good use that year.

Always available?

Time off tends to be a touchy, dare I say taboo, subject when it comes to IT. Some employers are understandably reluctant to let their IT employees off of the corporate leash. Similarly, some IT pros are hesitant to take too much time off because they believe that doing so will make them look bad, or will put the organization in a bad situation. Even so, I firmly believe that everyone needs to take time off now and then.

One of the most deeply fulfilling things about working as a freelancer has been that freelancing has given me the flexibility to do things that I would never have been able to do as an employee of a company with a rigid vacation policy. My sincere hope is that unlimited time-off policies will become more widespread and that those policies will give others the opportunity to fulfill dreams that would otherwise have been impossible to fulfill.

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