Depending on your perspective, Steve Swasey is either an oppressed worker or the luckiest guy in the world. As a salaried employee at video-rental giant Netflix, Swasey has no set number of vacation days. He can spend as much time out of his California office as he wants, provided, of course, that he gets all his work done. And there's the hitch: Like many of today's competitive professionals, Swasey always has more work that he could do.
"We're always on, 24/7," says Swasey, a Netflix spokesman, who admits to checking his BlackBerry throughout a recent trip to Chile with his wife. Still, he insists cheerfully that he and his colleagues are "not being workaholic. It's being engaged with your job because you love what you do." Thanks to Netflix's unlimited vacation policy, Swasey leaves the office a lot. But the office usually goes with him.
As millions of Americans use up a chunk, or all, of their allotted days off this summer, a handful of businesses, mostly in high-tech, are experimenting with this idea of entrusting their professional-level workers with unlimited vacation time. Part of the appeal to employers is that with no official number of vacation days, workers can't accrue unused time and expect big payouts when they leave. But this approach also reflects technology's impact on our concept of "time on" and "time off." Since many white-collar employees now work remotely, it makes no sense to specify that they have two weeks away from the office, says Sandra Marcus, a manager at IBM's software group in Cambridge. IBM did away with tracking vacation time in the 1990s, and Marcus thinks her colleagues take about as many breaks as they did before the change. She likes the informal system and can't remember turning down an employee's request for a specific week off. But, like Swasey, Marcus also doesn't necessarily get away when she gets away. Last December, she took a Caribbean cruise with her husband - and spent an hour each day with her e-mail.
Because of technology's reach, some activists rightly worry that "unlimited vacation" is nothing more than corporate-speak for "no vacation at all." They worry that employees without a specified vacation allotment will feel pressure to work constantly, damaging their relationships, their health, and the nails on their BlackBerry-typing fingers. Bonnie Michaels is a board member at Take Back Your Time, a nonprofit organization focused on work/life balance. She has no problem with informal vacation policies, so long as managers create a culture where employees really can take breaks. "People are always afraid of taking time off if everybody else isn't doing it," says Michaels. A recession can compound that problem. When people feel insecure about their jobs and their wallets, "they probably won't take the time," she says.
Michaels's organization wants the government to require a minimum number of paid vacation days for everyone. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only advanced economy without such a mandate. (France leads the pack with 30 required vacation days; aside from the United States, Japan sets the lowest bar, with 10.) About a quarter of private-sector US workers have no paid vacations at all, and the lower your salary, the more likely it is you'll fall into that unlucky group.
Mandated time off may well improve conditions for low-wage workers, but it probably won't address the relaxation needs of professionals. For them, the issue increasingly isn't lack of vacation so much as a shift in what vacation means - namely, that employees can vacate the office physically, but not mentally. And that seems to be leading to an even more insidious message: Committed workers should not want a total separation. "Some people really need to get away and rejuvenate. That might not be the right kind of person for Netflix," Steve Swasey says.
Professionals at all levels should be worried if the desire for a vacation without phone messages and e-mails starts to be defined as a deviancy, or even just considered an unattractive employee trait. Whether a company's vacation leave is specified or not, thoughtful managers recognize that most of us do better work when we get a chance to recharge our batteries - and not just the ones in our PDAs.