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Insights / Blog / Inside AOE

How our whole company decided against an Open Vacation policy

June 19, 2018

Open Vacation Policy: One of those buzzwords of #newwork and a recruiting highlight for many of today's startups and even some established companies like #virgin and #GE. Interestingly enough, almost every organization that has tried an #openvacationpolicy in the past has either abandoned it or have at least concluded that the result is less than fortunate.

As with most major decision such as this one, we at AOE have made a potential Open Vacation policy (in other words, take as much holiday as you like, as long as your team agrees) a topic at two of our quarterly all-hands Open Fridays. Here, everyone in the company joins one of roughly a dozen different tracks to debate topics of importance to us all. To make a long story short: The vast majority voted against an Open Vacation policy.

If you want to find out more about the reasons and “science” behind that decision, please read on...

People might argue that, being a company headquartered in Europe with an abundance of 30 vacation days and no limit on sick days there is hardly a need for even more vacation, when considering the meager ten or 15 days most of our US and Asian colleagues get by default. Nevertheless, one of the main reasons for an Open Vacation policy is to have the flexibility to take more holidays when it suits you and less when holidays don’t really fit into your current workload. And as such, this was also the start of the argument.

A little bit of scientific research

In an article titled “The Guilt-Inducing Psychology of Unlimited Vacation Time”, Katie Heaney (click here for the full article, as I won’t repeat many of the good arguments given there) quotes Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development in a very convincing statement:

Douglas LaBier

Director / Center for Progressive Development
In order for unlimited-vacation policies to be taken seriously by employees, companies have to foster a culture that makes taking time off feel not only possible, but welcomed.

LaBier adds, “Management culture has to convey what it means in terms of its values, authentically. If you feel like it’s authentic, that can make you feel a little freer and less guilty about taking the time off. But if you sense this is maybe a technique they’re trying to make you work harder, to always call in or be on the computer even if we take the time off, then you’ll think it’s a gimmick. It’s all about framing: ‘Take as much time as you want’, is light-years away from ‘Take as much time as you need,’ for instance.”

Not surprisingly, the effect of introducing an Open Vacation policy in companies has overwhelmingly been a drop in average vacation days. Most companies that have published results on their new policy have seen vacation drop by an average of ten to 20 percent across the board. Some of the old league of managers might call this a success, but if you believe in the importance of wholeness and teams working at a sustainable pace as we do at AOE, this is clearly a failure of the model. People ridden with guilt about taking more vacation than other colleagues and the constant feeling of justification hardly contribute to an open and healthy work environment. We want people to take their full holidays and actively encourage them to do so.

Back to our Open Friday debate.

After an hour of discussion, a task force was formed with the goal to collect research, conduct some polls and discuss the benefits, risks and feasibility of such a policy. After presenting all the information in the next Open Friday three months later, the overwhelming decision was made to not have an Open Vacation policy at AOE. The comment that stuck most clearly in my memory was this (I am slightly paraphrasing of course):


An Open Vacation makes the people that already commit more than others take even less holidays and supports those that prefer to get by with as little work as necessary to take even more time off. We think the result will be injustice and bad feelings all-round.

Why do I think this is worth sharing? Because many managers, entrepreneurs or CEOs out there think that their employees are constantly trying to collect as many benefits as they can, reap all the rewards and can’t be trusted with deciding these fundamental organizational issues in harmony with the interests of their teams and the company as a whole. I believe this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you foster a culture of true openness and collaboration and start trusting the wisdom of the crowd, you will be surprised at how mature the decision-making actually becomes.

Have your own experience good or bad with #openvacation policies, please comment and enrich us.