Unlimited Holiday - Three Years Later

5 years ago

Back in early 2016 when Aira was little over a year old, we took the decision to remove the cap on holiday for our team. I wrote about it back then and received a lot of questions from people outside of Aira at the time. The questions ranged from the practicalities of it through to how we could do such a thing as trusting our team with unlimited holiday

I’ve been meaning to write an update for a while now to address some of these questions and generally share how it’s been going. I’ve procrastinated a bit because, well, it’s gone great and I haven’t had much to talk about! However, we recently rolled out some changes to our policy which has provoked the blog post you’re reading now. I’m going to share what we’ve changed (it’s not a lot, but it’s important) and answer some of the most common questions we get about it. 

What we’ve changed and why

The policy has been well received and I can’t recall any major issues with it during the 3+ years we’ve had it. There has been the odd instance where we’ve had to speak to someone regarding the frequency of holiday i.e. lots of holiday in a short space of time. But that’s about it.

I don’t expect that to last forever, we’re growing quickly and as you grow, so does your potential for people problems.

Having said that, we saw some opportunities to make things a little clearer and took some learnings from what Charlie HR went through with their policy.

We now have two new rules as part of our policy.

Minimum holidays

Everyone has to take a minimum of 20 days holiday a year - not including Christmas which is an additional 3 days that we give the team when we close the office. This means that all team members are asked to take at least 23 holidays a year.

We did this for two reasons:

Firstly, we generally didn’t have a problem with people taking too few holidays, but there were a few who fell into the bracket and needed a strong push to take more.

Secondly, there were a few people who consistently asked for a number to “aim for”. I’ll admit, it took me a while to realise the importance of this. My old boss Will raised it:

We also had a number of private chats about it and I’ll admit, I don’t think I ever won the argument! It took a few chats with internal team members to really get to the bottom of this and now, I do understand it and it played a big part in this change in policy.

The truth is, that some people do need a number of some kind to aim for to know what normal looks like. This is totally fine and something we can now do.

Maximum of three months without a holiday

The other issue we started to see was burn out. If we looked at the overall numbers of holidays that someone took, it looked fine. But when we looked at the frequency, we could see that sometimes, there were long stretches in between holidays taken. The old policy would allow for someone to take, say, 25 holidays a year, but clump them all into the start and end of the calendar year which meant they’d go months and months without a break.

Again, we didn’t see too much of it but we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to avoid these situations before they become a problem. Hence we now ask the team to take at least some holiday each quarter to ensure they’re not doing long stints.

That’s it, nothing too major, but as mentioned earlier, very important to make sure that the policy works long-term and is fair on everyone.

Common questions and reactions

Next, I want to share a little on the most common reactions and questions that we’ve had since we announced the policy.

Won’t people abuse the policy?

A few reactions to this policy is centred around trust, which is a big part of our culture and one of our valued behaviours, and how it can’t possibly work because people would take the piss.

Forgive me for the next bit, it may sound like a bit of a rant. I guess it is.

If you can’t trust your team not to abuse this policy, you have bigger problems with your culture. Of course, there may always be the odd occasion when someone takes the piss, but does that mean that an entire company should miss out on a perk?

You know the answer.

I also take strong issue with the cynicism around this policy. I’ve read articles like this which frankly, is barely an article at all, and makes the assumption that companies have ulterior motives. These motives range from preventing people from actually taking holiday by guilt-tripping, through to companies using it as a way to not pay for unused holiday when someone leaves.

The latter is illegal by the way. But I also saw it mentioned again on LinkedIn recently by someone who labelled unlimited holidays “an accounting scam”.

I tweeted about the article above at the time and received some interesting public and private replies about it. One of which was from Wil Reynolds:

Wil accidentally poked at one of my character traits - I will default to assuming the best intentions in people and companies. If I see a company offering unlimited holidays, I take it at face value and assume they are doing it because they want to put their employees first. It wouldn’t cross my mind that there would be ulterior motives, let alone those motives being pretty shady, let alone illegal.

The truth is, much like there are going to be individuals who would abuse an unlimited holiday policy, there are companies who would abuse employees and not think twice about their interests and wellbeing.

Aira isn’t one of those companies and never will be. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t constantly look at ourselves to make sure we’re doing right by our team. Our unlimited holiday policy is one that could easily end up not working for everyone if we didn’t take time to get feedback and improve it.

What’s to stop people taking a month off?

This seemed to surprise a few people, but we have pretty standard policies on taking holidays and these still apply. These include things like giving notice prior to holiday being taken, no more than two weeks being taken off at a time and us still being able to decline holiday requests if too many other people in the same team are already off. It's not that complicated.

How much holiday is too much?

This is a tough one. But it comes down to a simple guideline which actually ties in with a lot of the things we do at Aira:

“Don’t take the piss”


If you read the original post above when we announced the policy in 2016, you’ll have read this:

When we told the team about the policy and the rules surrounding it, Laura, who has a much better way with words than me, summed the rules up by simply saying:

“So don’t take the piss basically..”

To which we responded:

“yeah, pretty much”

I really liked that Laura said this and the rest of the team seemed to agree with her summary. I’d spent a few minutes running through everything and she was able to sum it up in six words.

This still holds true over three years later and while not formally part of our culture, it underpins a lot of things.

When it comes to holidays, we say the same. It’s subjective, but we trust our team and managers to do the right thing when it comes to taking time off but also making sure that work is done and clients are happy.

To conclude

It’s not without its potential pitfalls, but for us, unlimited holiday has worked very well and is one of our most valued perks. Like any perk, we need to review it, get feedback and make sure it’s still working how it was intended - to show ultimate trust in our team and ensure a good work / life balance.

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