Delivering on Unlimited Holidays

2 years ago

I see a lot of scepticism of unlimited leave policies, particularly in our industry, with many labelling it as a gimmick, or worse - a way to trick people into taking less leave than they would anyway. 

Unfortunately, I get it. 

Aira rolled out our unlimited leave policy in 2016. Even though we started it because we genuinely wanted to remove worries for our team, we had to tweak it in 2019 to make sure it was actually delivering on our plans, and we’re always looking for ways to help it work better for the team.

Unlimited Leave has worked really well for Aira, but as you might guess, it takes effort to make it work properly.

As Wil pointed out to me back in 2018, there are companies where the policy exists, but people can’t take it or feel guilty about it. 

Quite often, people confuse perks with culture. When this happens, it’s more likely to lead to a perk not working out very well. Perks need to fit within your culture and the way that you do things. 

If you have a perk such as unlimited holidays, it’s not going to work very well if you don’t have a culture that embraces behaviours such as trust, autonomy and flexibility. If your managers actively find ways to say no to holidays (unlimited or not), or make their team feel like they can’t request them, you have a culture problem, not a perk problem.

How unlimited holidays actually works

The truth is, our team aren’t exactly jet-setting around the world (or the UK!) for several months of the year or taking three-month holidays in Bora Bora (although we do let our team work from anywhere in the world for up to six months of the year). 

Unlimited holiday isn’t a perk that means someone will take way more holidays. Sure, they can, but that’s not where most of the value is realised.

The value is realised in much smaller, subtle ways. It’s realised by someone not having to worry about how many days they have left in their allowance. This means things like the following are easier to take:

  • A long weekend for that wedding you need to travel to, instead of travelling after work on a Friday and being tired on Monday after the drive back on Sunday.
  • A few days off when your kids are on half term and you want to be present with them or take them somewhere nice.
  • An extra day off to get over the long-haul flight you just had.
  • An afternoon off to go to your kid's sports day.
  • The odd day off to literally do nothing because you’ve had a busy time and want to decompress. 

All of these are harder to justify when you have a limited number of holidays that you can take a year. We find ways to convince ourselves that our holiday allowance is just for that - holidays. In reality, we often want time off for other things just to make life a bit easier.

This is the true value realisation of an unlimited holiday policy - it removes worries, provides flexibility and allows people to take time off that they may not have done otherwise. 

Most businesses manage annual leave by giving a yearly allowance because that's what's easiest to keep track of. But people don't work like that. I think we all understand that even if someone took an extended trip nine months ago, they may well still need a break, or flexibility, now. Especially considering what's happened over the last couple of years, does anyone think they could actually plan out what's going to happen for the entirety of next year?

We also like to think that this helps people resist the impulse to horde leave. If someone doesn't have specific plans at the start of the year, and they have a fixed amount of leave to use, they might avoid taking off a couple of days they need to recharge in case they need them in twelve months time. Again - we know that's not good for people.

Where it can go wrong

Of course, it can go wrong, and whilst the adjustments that we made in 2019 weren’t drastic, they were important. In summary, we:

  • Introduced a minimum number of holidays that someone should take a year.
  • Added a minimum number of days everyone should take every three months

These simple changes helped us avoid people taking too few holidays (which isn’t just damaging for them, but also a legal requirement), along with someone not going too long without a break and being more susceptible to burnout as a result. 

To be clear, we don’t think those problems are actually specific to any Unlimited Leave policy. It’s easy for people to forget to take leave regardless of the policy. It’s just that we felt we needed to add this in to get the result we wanted for our team.

Are we perfect? No. But we believe that we execute on our promise of creating the best agency that someone has ever worked for better than most would. We get it right far more often than we get it wrong. 

Innovation is more than shiny tools for clients

Last year, we hired Robin as our first Head of Innovation. One of the things I loved about the remit we gave him (and the way he decided to execute his role) was to not put himself in a corner where he just blindly launched new tools or software. 

Sure, he has launched some cool stuff (including this), but he's also taken ownership of stuff that feeds directly into how we deliver work and that ties into culture.

For example, he has worked with the team on capacity management and understanding where we can be more efficient with the day-to-day work that we do. 

Regarding Unlimited Leave specifically, he recently built a script that checks everyone’s leave over a rolling three-month period and alerts line managers when one of their team hasn’t planned enough time off. 

Even the best managers will get caught up in the day-to-day and, before they know it, one of their team is halfway through a no-leave marathon, and it’s hard to book anything short-term that will give them a needed break. 

Robin won’t mind me saying that the script isn’t particularly fancy, and it’s probably not what comes to mind when you think about innovation. But it’s important and meaningful to our team that they have the right work/life balance, so this is one practical way that we can help with that. 

Where we’re at today

We’ve just gone past the 50-person mark as an agency for the first time, with unlimited holidays being in place for over six years now. So far, so good. We’ve had the odd bump, but we don’t roll back or get rid of a perk because of one or two issues out of thousands. 

With that said, we’re always looking for ways to do more for our team and create the best agency that they’ve ever worked at. This was a recent change we made if you missed it. 

But with every perk or benefit that we roll out, we know that it needs to fit with and keep building on our culture. Ultimately, culture comes first and if we removed all perks tomorrow, the culture still remains. And that’s really what makes Aira a special place to work.

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