Your company is implementing flexible or unlimited PTO, and now you’re daydreaming of extending that weekend getaway with the girls and booking that extra vacation with your S.O. And rightfully so, you deserve to take time off to reset and recharge. And heck, in the long run, taking time off will help you avoid burnout and stay engaged at work. If that’s not a win for both you and your company, I don’t know what is. But the promise of this newfound freedom might also come with some reservations. Will you get treated differently at work if you start taking more time off? How much vacation is too much vacation? Is there even such a thing? When they say unlimited, do they really mean unlimited?
Unlimited or flexible PTO policies have spiked since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Companies looking to accommodate newly remote workers, younger workers who expect flexibility for better work-life balance, and new employees seeking better opportunities following 2021’s Great Resignation are turning to non-traditional vacation policies to retain top talent—and understandably so. The average workday increased by almost an hour since the pandemic hit in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, as workers in America continue to adjust to remote work, causing them to work for longer periods of time primarily at home. These new flexible policies are a big draw for workers, but how do they actually work in practice?
Navigating an unlimited PTO policy can be tricky, especially if this is a new policy for your company. For many, the thought of taking as much time as you need off at your own discretion can be both invigorating and overwhelming, especially if there are no set guidelines on how to manage the newfound freedom. As you start scheduling more PTO, you may start feeling like you’re doing something wrong—just by simply using the unlimited PTO you’ve been given. Before you schedule that extra vacation and sit there wondering if your boss or coworkers are going to start looking at you differently, here’s how to navigate your unlimited PTO policy so you can set that OOO notice with no worries and head to the beach.
Be clear on your company’s vacation policy
Your company has done away with making you earn your time off with unlimited PTO, but how unlimited is it really? Most likely, there are guidelines to be aware of to help manage this flexibility across the company as a whole. Many companies usually provide transparency on what this new vacation model is and how to navigate it, but make sure you are getting all the information you need to inform your time off decisions without violating your company’s PTO policies.
Some parameters may or may not be new to you as your employer changes your PTO policy to a more flexible, open one where you hold the reins. Make sure you are in the know with these changes and how they affect not only your future time off but also your past accrued vacation time, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off, and more. Here are some great questions to ask your employer about your PTO policy:
- Does it include floating holidays, sick leave, and volunteer time off?
- Are there any stipulations if I want to take an extended period of time off?
- Is this vacation policy for certain employees only (like salaried employees)?
- What happens to vacation time that’s been accrued already?
Make sure to connect with your HR team on the best way to navigate unlimited or flexible PTO so you’re aware of the company’s expectations on how to use it.
Establish expectations with your manager
Like with anything at work, open communication with your manager is key for your new unlimited or flexible PTO in order for it to be effective and to get the time off you want. Your manager might have ideas or expectations of their own on how they would like you to communicate and use your flexible time off wisely.
Establish an open line of communication with your manager to set expectations on what unlimited PTO looks like moving forward for you. Does your manager expect you to communicate your time in advance? Are you anticipating taking an extended vacation in the near future that might conflict with a busy season for your company? Have an open and honest conversation about how this new policy will be implemented at a team level in order to establish guidelines that you and your manager can both agree on. Although you are entitled to taking as much time as you’d like under this new vacation policy, communication will be key to making sure your time away is known and given the stamp of approval, as well as giving advance notice to your team before you’re away.
Work together with your manager to put a plan in place for communicating PTO effectively, tracking days away from the office, and any other details you need to know before taking time away at your own discretion.
Plan your time off in advance
One of the best ways to prevent a hiccup in scheduling time off when it’s unlimited or flexible is to plan your vacation time as much in advance as possible. Have some plans to travel already in mind this year? Knowing when you’ll be taking time off for planned events and vacations ahead of time will help you navigate how much time you’ll need off and when to discuss it with your management ahead of your time away.
Plan your time off in advance by evaluating major events like birthdays, special occasions, and appointments first, followed by vacations you have planned for the year. If you don’t have plans set in stone, set aside days for some personal time off for your physical, mental, and emotional health to avoid burnout at work.
When your plans are in place for most of your time off, discuss the time away and the dates with your manager. Make sure those dates are on their radar to ensure there is no overlap in duties and responsibilities. This will help lessen the confusion around when you will and won’t be working and will give you the permission you need to take time off for yourself (you deserve it!).
Keep track of your own time off
If your company is switching its vacation policy to a more flexible time off system, it’ll most likely be your responsibility to keep track of your own PTO, either through the guidelines your manager sets or on your own so that you are fairly taking the time you need without disappearing completely for weeks at a time. Build a system to keep track of your own time off when you have unlimited PTO to keep yourself accountable.
A shared work calendar between you and your team can help track time off under this flexible PTO system. Propose a shared calendar where your colleagues can track and view time off so that each team member is aware and can figure out if coverage is needed while you’re away. You can also manually track your time off if it’s not a requirement to track your time through your management or with HR. A simple Excel sheet or personal calendar can help you organize how much time you’re taking off. It’s also a good reference to have if you need to report your time in the future.
Use your time off—but don’t abuse it
American workers are infamous for not taking advantage of their earned time off from work, leaving millions of unused vacation time on the table at the end of each year. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, American workers let about 33% of their paid time off go unused. Unsurprisingly, not taking this time off has also contributed to burnout across the workforce. So if there’s one thing to make sure you do with your new vacation policy, it’s to actually use it. You and, yes, your company will be glad you did.
It’s easy to forget that your unlimited PTO is in fact unlimited and can be used at your discretion with guidance from your manager, but it’s also easy to forget that it comes with limitations and guidelines so that you don’t misuse the flexibility. Make sure the lines of communication are open between you and your manager to ensure you are using your unlimited PTO in the right way. Set a schedule in advance of your time off on a monthly or yearly basis so that you are prepared to use your time but not abuse it.
Every worker deserves time off to rejuvenate, relax, and recommit themselves to their work. Make it a priority to give yourself the time off you need when you have an unlimited PTO policy and enjoy the flexibility you get to take time away from your profession. Your health, relationships, and work will all be better for it!