On “Minimum Vacation”

Vacation days: Wherever you go, it’s a topic that makes CFOs groan and workers cheer. It’s generally understood as one of the best perks of a company in industries where pay is relatively fixed or there isn’t much competition for talent. In places where there is a lot of competition for talent; it’s a paper benefit usually. Yea, it’s there, but you’ll be working so hard that you won’t even realize you have it.

Thinking about Developers, we tend to work very long hours, even though it empirically hurts us and the company. Extreme Programming tried (and failed, sadly) to introduce the notion of the Eight-Hour burn; a reasonable spin on what programming should be. But with distractions aplenty, it’s hard to justify an eight-hour burn.

Whether we want to admit it or not, programmer culture is destructive both to itself and the businesses that hire us. Some businesses have tried to turn this negative into a positive force, by having Game rooms (Google, Stack Exchange, Twitter, Facebook, Zynga, Dropbox, and a lot of others (I didn’t link individually because I didn’t want Google to think I was a bot, incidentally)). But the unfortunate quality of a gameroom is that if you’re putting in an eight hour burn, you don’t have time to use one. In effect, its presence is a signal you should be putting in more than eight hours a day — unsustainable if you want a happy and healthy workforce.

Some of these same businesses have also tried the concept of ‘unlimited vacation’; the idea that you can take as much time off as you need, so long as you deliver results expected by the business. This requires clear expectations (which isn’t always easy if you don’t have a rigid feedback structure), and trust.

In reality, unlimited vacation really means that depending on who you are and what you’ve done, you either have two weeks off a year or four (still not bad). It also means that if you’re on a team where no one takes time off, you’ll be the odd one out if you do — never a good idea (even if it’s supposedly culturally acceptable). The old adage: “Get in before your boss, leave after” still applies. It’s also a cost-saver for the business: No paying of vacation days when a worker leaves, and no need to pay for costly (and usually bad) PTO tracking software.

Other businesses, recognizing the problems with unlimited vacation; have instituted the idea of a ‘minimum vacation‘, or unlimited vacation with a culturally mandated (and therefore acceptable) floor. The CEO of Travis CI, Mathias Meyer, explains the shift:

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.

Deeper into the post, he talks about what Travis CI’s minimum vacation policy actually means:

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.

[…]

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.

The whole post is well worth the read.

Vacation will always be a thorny issue, and minimum vacation may not solve the problem of programmer burnout, but it is a good step in the right direction. There are other steps we can take, but it should really start with dropping the keyboard and remembering that there’s a life beyond the compiler.

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