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The limits of unlimited time off

I both love and hate unlimited PTO, and have for a long time now.

Love as an individual for the flexibility. Hate as a manager for the minefield it represents.

First, it’s ludicrous as a concept. Truly unlimited would mean an employee could cash paychecks while never going to work.

Limits exist, and they are implicit rather than explicit.

They are cultural and social limits rather than legal and procedural limits.

Ironically, in my experience, these limits typically land within a margin of error for more traditional time off schemes – two or three weeks. Four is probably fine if you space it out well, but much beyond that and eyebrows start to raise.

And if you manage people, you are the enforcer of these soft limits.

As a software engineering manager, you have a sometimes implicit responsibility to get the folks you manage into the appropriate range of time off. Time off is important for team function, and helping to avoid burnout of your team members.

So, you need to encourage your workaholics and your work-is-life folks to take enough time off, while also tracking everyone so that they don’t take too much.

When your spidey-sense tingles – likely when enough 1:1s get skipped – it becomes time for enforcement.

Kind of. First, assume positive intent.

Let’s work through a flow chart …

“Hey. It feels like you’ve been taking a lot of time off this year. Everything all right?”

If everything is not all right, dig in and try to help if it is appropriate. Or loop in HR to help (or at least be aware of).

If everything _is_ all right, the implicit limit needs to become explicit.

“I know we have unlimited PTO, but we typically encourage folks to take between three and four weeks. How many do you think you’ve taken?”

From there, you will either need to correct their data if they are well under that, or you need to move into setting limits for the future. HR should also be brought up to speed at this point.

This conversation needs to happen to move the responsibility from you, the manager, to the employee.

Until the limit is stated and made explicit, an employee does not know they are out of compliance – especially in a remote environment where time off can be fairly invisible across teams and functions with no physical water cooler from which to notice absences.

More to the point: You want to be the one to notice and address this before the business does.

Few things reflect on an engineering manager more negatively than an unnoticed eight weeks of vacation from one of the folks they manage, discovered when someone in HR or higher up in your department runs the numbers at the end of the year.

And they will. Because unlimited doesn’t mean untracked – again, either explicitly or implicitly.

When they come to you and ask about it, you need to be ready with a plan and answers …

Or better yet, catch it at five weeks.

1 thought on “The limits of unlimited time off”

  1. Interesting perspectives! An important benefit I felt with Unlimited PTO was the safety of knowing that I could be present for friends and family without the stress of rationing PTO. If a friend had a mid-week wedding, a relative needed help moving, knowing I could be there to help was great. I didn’t have to worry about keeping PTO days in reserve.
    All told, I ended up taking about the same amount of PTO I’d have had under a “normal” allowance in the UK. It wasn’t so much about the quantity of time off, but about knowing I had flexibility, and that I wasn’t going to run out, and miss important private life events.
    That being said, it really requires a high-trust team to work well. It’s great to assume good faith, but it goes both ways; employees need to balance their work and life commitments responsibly, and prove the trust wasn’t misplaced.

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