Random thoughts about life, ops, dev, and management

Adventures in PTO

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For anyone that was watching Twitter last week, you probably noticed that all of Chef Software headed to Seattle for Rally Week. You may have also noticed that I wasn’t there. I was on PTO. It is a culture that allows this sort of thing that has really given me confidence in the “Unlimited” PTO model and really has me thinking about all the negatives folks have pointed out.

Is it even PTO?

At a very fundamental level, it really seems as if the reason there is even a need for unlimited PTO policies is because we have forgotten what it means to be salaried employees. I have worked the spectrum… At one place of employment, if you worked at all that day, it was technically a work day and could not be considered PTO. On the flip side, I have worked for employers where it was hard to “leave early” at 4:00 pm (even after starting my day close to 6:00 am) and if I took off before 3:00 pm it was expected that I put a half day off in the time tracking system. The fact that it wasn’t out of the normal to do 10 and 12 hour days had no impact on whether I “took PTO.” Contrast those with Chef where it is tracked to the point that I put an entry on the calendar if I take the entire day off, otherwise, it is between my manager and me.

Growing up, the way I understood being a salaried employee meant that most weeks you would work more than 40 hrs but it also wouldn’t be ridiculous to work 30 hrs in a week, because you were expected to get your job done rather than to punch the time clock. Right down to the point, my dad used to point out the lawsuits where folks that were salaried tracked their time and were judged against it and won tons of back pay. Being salary meant that I needed to show up when it made sense for my job and leave when it made sense as well. If I took a long lunch, who cares?

The point being, if I take a day to go volunteer, but am still available to answer questions is it really PTO? I think in many ways the unlimited PTO policies are meant more to address this more than anything. If you need to go do some volunteer work to help make you happier, go do that. If taking the morning off to get your oil changed and run a few errands allows you to focus in the afternoon, you should probably go do that too. If you have just had a morning that sucked and you really just want to go surf to take your mind off of work, why are you still in the office?


So if taking a day, a morning or an afternoon here and there isn’t PTO, what is? For me, it is vacations. For some that means stay-cations for others it means travel. Whatever it is, it is a chance to disconnect and not worry about being available at all. (I don’t tend to disconnect fully, but that is a discussion for another time.) It is this sort of PTO that I think most folks struggle with.

Travis CI, a company based in Germany, recently discussed a “minimum” PTO policy where they discussed requiring folks to take a minimum of five weeks. To put that in perspective, I have never had more than three weeks a year, and at one job there was compulsory vacation that had to be taken during the holidays. (Yes, you could go without pay, but you were expected to take PTO.) Additionally, there are usually caps on how much vacation you can accrue, usually around 300 hrs. Notice the other word in that statement, accrue. You don’t just start with that thee weeks, you have to earn and accrue it. So if after you have been with the company a month you want to take a week off for a family vacation, you are out of luck. What I am getting at is that we as Americans, tend to not be very good at taking vacation.

We struggle to take this time off because there is alway so much to be done. One of the best lessons I ever learned was that the work wasn’t going away. If I took off a week, the work would still be there for me when I got back. And if that specific work needed to be done before I left, there was always work that could wait. That isn’t to say I don’t work hard and try to get done lots and lots, it is just a realization that the work will fill the time allotted, so it is up to me to limit that time. Much of what makes unlimited PTO hard is that because you didn’t “earn” it, you don’t always see it as yours to take. Frankly, if you are working your hardest, you have earned it.

One of the smartest, stupid decisions I ever made was buying into a timeshare. While you can argue the financial outcome of owning timeshare, what I will argue is that the impact on my mental health has been well worth any financial benefit or loss involved. The reason it has been beneficial is that it forces the issue. I take vacation because I have already paid for it. As much as there is something relaxing about hacking on stuff while sitting on the balcony overlooking Los Archos in Cabo San Lucas, I feel guilty that I am not taking advantage of the amazing place I am visiting.

Managers make all the difference

Ok, so company culture plays a huge role too, but managers really are at the heart of making unlimited PTO work. The best way to explain this is actually an experience recently… A few months back I went to Disneyland in the afternoon after my daughter was done with school to catch up with my parents and my cousin who was in town from Wisconsin. When my mom asked about work, I replied, “well, I knew that if my boss caught wind that I stayed at work and gave up this rare chance to catch up with family, I would catch shit, so I got in the car and came.” At Chef, I have regularly been encouraged to take the time I need. When the question of going to the all hands week vs going on vacation with family during a week we travel almost every year came up, I honestly had a harder time with the idea of me missing it than my boss did. At the end of the day, not only has my manager, but all of my coworkers as well, reminded me that family comes first.

As I take on a management role, I will strive to build that same sort of culture into my team. PTO is important. Family is important. Above all, being happy is important. So if that means taking a day here and there to go volunteer, or go surf, take it. If what makes you happy is taking off for a few hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to go teach a class, how can I support you in doing that? Additionally, that means setting a good example. I really do see it as my job as a manager to take those days on occasion and to go on vacation. In fact, my next vacation is already planned, is yours?