should I let my staff take retroactive leave for unproductive days?

A reader writes:

My office is fully remote and very flexible, allowing people to work whenever they want as long as they make meetings and assessing performance based on work output, not time. I’m in charge of leave policies, and I’ve recently hit a snag: a few employees have been taking time off retroactively, either “paying” with leave retroactively for unproductive work time during the week or taking too much advantage of the flexibility and then wanting to “pay” for that in leave. For example, one employee might not start work until late afternoon, work only a couple hours, and then want to retroactively take leave to make up for that.

I’ve encouraged people not to “punish” themselves for being unproductive by taking leave and proactively take time off when they think they won’t work a full day, but I’m getting pushback from a couple of staff who view strict time accounting as the trade-off for the flexibility we offer. Some also say they don’t realize in advance when they’re going to only end up working a few hours — I suppose they think they will work late to make up for starting late, and then end up not doing so. I don’t love that, and I don’t love retroactively taking leave, but I’m not sure I can articulate why it’s bad — or maybe I’m off-base and I should just allow everyone to use leave however they want! What do you think? What is the culture about leave taking at other remote/flexible hours workplaces?

I wrote back and asked the letter-writer if she could better pinpoint what’s making her uneasy about it. Her response:

Yeah, I’m questioning myself a little here because I wonder if part of the reason I don’t like it is that it’s not what I’m used to, but we generally try to have a better justification for policies than that!

I think it comes down to a few of things:

• When a direct report doesn’t let me know they haven’t worked as much as they meant to until the end of the week, the issue isn’t the hours (which could be “paid back” with leave under the employee’s desired system) because I don’t generally care about hours if you’re meeting all your goals. It’s that there might have been some goals/tasks that week that, had you told me proactively you were out sick with a cold or just not productive or whatever, I might have stepped in and reassigned or similar. Of course if it’s just an hour here and there it typically doesn’t matter, but if it’s getting towards full days of work out, it becomes an issue.

• I think sick leave should be used in a recuperative way. If you’re having a cold, you rest in bed to get better on sick leave. If you’re having a bad mental health day, you practice self-care. If you’re really fried and not productive, you step away from work. I worry about staff who want to “pay” for a lack of productivity retroactively, because in some cases they have been at the computer the appropriate hours, feeling guilty perhaps for not working, rather than recuperating. It seems they then don’t benefit from the leave they end up taking to cover this, or risk spending too much of their sick leave this way and not having enough later.

• I have a general feeling that this focus on hours spent promotes time-focused performance management and not goal/output-focused management.

I think some of this is legit and some of it less so.

What seems very legitimate is your first bullet point. If you would assign work differently if you knew someone wasn’t going to be working their expected hours, that’s absolutely your business — and it’s very reasonable to point that out and ask that you be informed ahead of time (or at least in real time). That said, how often is that the case? If it’s very rare, this point holds less weight.

I don’t disagree that sick leave should be used in a recuperative way, not sitting in front of the computer feeling guilty about not working. And you can work to create a culture that supports truly disconnecting during leave (including modeling that yourself, talking explicitly about its importance, supporting people when they disconnect, and not contacting them when they’re out), but I get antsy when managers get too involved in dictating exactly how sick leave should and shouldn’t be used. So I’m not fond of that as the core of the argument here.

I’m with you that what your staff wants to do can put an overemphasis on hours spent in front of a computer rather than output. But that’s more the fault of the time-off system itself; it’s based on hours worked/not worked, so it’s not surprising that people are using that model. (And that’s not necessarily a criticism of the model; unlimited time off policies can be their own mess. But when you you give people X hours off, they’re going to think in terms of X hours off.)

I think, ultimately, when you want to give people flexibility (which is great), part of that is letting them make their own decisions about whether to assign their time that day to leave or not. That’s definitely the case when it’s not retroactive — when instead it’s just someone thinking, “Eh, I’ll knock off a few hours early today” or “I feel like sleeping in so I’ll start a few hours late” (assuming that doesn’t negatively affect anyone’s projects; if it does, that’s the issue to address). I’d decide that’s completely fine and not worry about it anymore, assuming you’re getting whatever communication you need to keep work flowing smoothly.

Where I’m more concerned is with the retroactive stuff. If someone spends the day in bed watching West Wing reruns, it makes sense to charge that to PTO. But if someone is in front of their computer, answering the occasional email, in theory ready to work but just has trouble getting motivated to accomplish anything concrete — the kind of day where you get sucked into reading months of posts in the office #suggestion-box Slack channel because some of them are hilarious and then you realize the day is almost over and you’ve accomplished nothing … well, most people have a day like that now and then and they’re not charging it to PTO. If someone is doing an excellent job and they have an occasional day like that, that’s because they’re a normal human and I don’t love seeing them lose PTO over it. In those cases, at least when you hear about it, you could say, “We all have less productive days now and then and your work is on track. I don’t want you losing PTO over it so don’t charge it that way.”

Of course, if someone is regularly having those unproductive days, then you’d want to look at what else might be going on. Did they just come off a season of 60-hour weeks? If so, some slower days are to be expected. Or are they disengaged or unmotivated? Dealing with stressors outside of work? Are they performing at a high level (and if so, do those unproductive days matter in any real way) or is their work suffering? There are a bunch of possibilities, but I’d take it as a flag to look at what’s really behind it and to actively manage anything that requires managing, rather than approaching it as strictly a question of how and whether to log PTO.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

  1. NoviceManagerGuy*

    It’s unclear to me: is everybody getting done what they need to, or are they not?

    1. serenity*

      I have the same question. If so many of OP’s staff members are having this issue of retroactively taking PTO for unproductive time, my first and only question would be “Are the things that need to get done getting done”. Next question would likely be “Is this a staffing issue and, if so, why?”

      1. Amaranth*

        And are these hourly employees? I guess that could generate the feeling they need to quantify productivity on an hourly basis. But if they get their tasks done, why are they so tied to the clock? They definitely should be planning ahead though so OP can plan ahead for coverage. It sounds like they just…don’t show up. I’m kind of baffled why OP is focusing on the retroactive PTO requests instead of this part.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Most places I have worked, retroactive PTO is a big no-no. For one thing it can get really confusing, like we see here.

          Unfortunately, OP does not say what happens if people show up willing to work and there is nothing to do.
          I can’t tell if people feel guilty for not being productive or if people just don’t get paid if they are not producing something/anything.

          But it seems straightforward to me that OP can just inform everyone that PTO must be announced before the start of the day, not after the day is over. Ideally, PTO would be requested well in advance normally.

          1. No Longer Looking*

            So your theory is if you wake up two hours late with a fever, or your network or power go out, or you hit your head and get taken to the ER, then you just …what, fail at life? That sort of thing is exactly what “retroactive PTO” aka sick time should be used for.

            Certainly it is ideal to request PTO in advance, but “must be announced before start of day” is definitely not a straightforward ask.

            1. Leave it*

              No, but scenarios where you can’t tell someone at the beginning of the day that you’re sick (or there’s some other emergency) are rare, and generally quite concrete. The policy could be that it’s announced before the start of the day except in exceptional circumstances. That also covers those days when you’d go home sick and not finish the day

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      Sounds like they (mostly) are, which is why the LW is unsure whether she should continue to let productive employees take leave when they’re unproductive.

      I get the conundrum. Yes, people should be able to use their leave as they see fit, but the idea of leave is to give you a break from work, and if they’re using up all their leave like this then they’re not taking time off and that’s not good, either. OTOH, if people really are feeling that guilty about unproductive time, it could stress them out more to not be allowed to take it as time off. OTOOH, if work isn’t getting done as quickly as it could because people are doing this more often than they should instead of proactively taking time so work can be reallocated, that’s not great either.

      1. Letter Writer*

        Yep! This is the basic thing – I feel like people are getting enough work done by and large. But you’re write – people feel guilty about unproductive time (I have lovely, conscientious employees!) and the leave taking can help with that feeling.

        1. Varthema*

          Conscientious employees with a conscientious manager! :) I agree with Alison’s response but would also add that I think you’re right to want to address the retroactive time-off thing, because that kind of thing can be contagious (hehe) in the office, especially if the most conscientious employees are doing it. If Dave and Rebecca are known to be awesome employees and then they mention casually to others “oh yeah, I got like nothing done on Thursday, it was so bad, so I just took vacation time retroactively” that’s going to inadvertently put pressure on others to do the same. And as you said, that’s probably the worst possible use of vacation time!
          It sounds like you have a good rapport with everyone, so if this seems to be spreading, it might actually be one of those times where it’s better to address it openly with everyone. Maybe in the context of a meeting or an item in an agenda about mental health/wellness. Remind people that everyone has the odd unproductive day, that that’s expected and built into the system. That it’s important to just go ahead and schedule yourself a mental health or personal day (or even a last-minute mental health afternoon) here and there and then take advantage of it.
          I think you could possibly say retroactive PTO isn’t something you’re willing to do, though you are willing to approve last-minute time off requests, and that might take the pressure off (and also motivate people past the afternoon doldrums if they know they can’t take retroactive time off to assuage their guilt).
          But if you decide not to go that route, I think Alison’s example about the couch+WW vs computer is a great one for illustrating your point.
          Good luck!

        2. Not So NewReader*

          It’s not up to you to help them manage their feelings.
          The first thing I’d want to know is how the laws work on this question.
          My second hurdle would be what is company policy.

          Let’s say you check this out and there’s no problem so far.

          My third hurdle would be what you are talking about with shifting work around. People need to say more often that they are available to take something on. My husband did this at his job. If the boss did not have anything, he’d check with a couple of his fav cohorts (ones who worked in his assigned area). Usually a cohort had some extra work to hand off.

          I have had very, very slow days at some jobs. What I was told and it stuck with me is to remember the days of being off-the-charts busy and thinking of the slow day as a counterbalance or a pay back for working like three people on other days.
          One place where I worked in a supervisory capacity it was expected that I would come up with “make work” for people so they were actually doing something. I used that as an opportunity to let people create their own projects. They could do something for themselves or for the group. I suggested that they think about tasks they always wanted to do but never had time for. Additionally, I had my own list. This went incredibly WELL. I was really surprised at the push of positive energy as things got fixed, organized, etc.

        3. Mamma Llama*

          I looked at this a bit differently – maybe my own bias – but I know I have days that are interrupted significantly when the kids’ have having problems with google classroom/need extra attention to keep them engaged in their on-line work/something unexpected comes up and because I am at home I need to deal with (the basement started flooding during the torrential rain, etc). None of these are things that I would have known ahead of time to ask for PTO for and I may have every intention of still getting in 8 hours of work when they first crop up, but life gets in the way of completing 8 hours. In that case, I would use leave for the unworked time.

          I work for a very flexible company and supervisor and during the pandemic they have been great. Typically, unless we know we are taking time off ahead of time, at the end of the pay period we just record the hours worked and use leave for the hours not worked. We actually have permission, after working it out with our supervisor, that if we have legit issues such as kids doing classes from home or no childcare (mostly resolved now) that we could get some hours of “administrative leave” each pay period – time that we did not work because of pandemic related issues but did not need to take leave for. So when you say your company is very flexible, what does that mean? Are they still expected to do 8 hours a day and the hours should be sometime between x and y time? Or is it more flexible in that they just need to complete 40 hours a week (or 80 hours a pay period)? (All of this assuming they are attending meetings they need to attend and are meeting deadlines.)

          So, I can see where retroactive leave may be necessary in certain circumstances and I understand your employees wanted to put the leave in, as I am that way and don’t want to be seen as taking advantage so put my leave in as soon as I can. But it just may be a problem of contentious employees and maybe they need clearer explanations of when they do and do not need to take leave.

          1. No Longer Looking*

            I need to point out a set of blinders implicit in your statement – it is 100% possible to be “very flexible” in a way that does not lead to requiring 40 hours butts-in-seats worked in a week, especially for salaried employees. It’s very strange to me how normalized a thing it has become to believe that if you haven’t done 40 hours, then you’re doing something wrong. We claim that we hire people who can Do the Job, but then we judge them significantly harder for Butt in Seat time than for production value.

            I once managed someone in 3rd-shift data entry who by our company standards would complete the required production of an 8 hour day in 3-4 hours, then fall asleep at her desk for a few hours, then get some more done. Some felt for some reason that she needed to be working full-tilt for 8 hours, but I figured I was getting the equivalent of 10+ hours of production out of her every day, and just let it go. At one point the company decided to try an bonus incentive program to get more work out of people. My star decided to start working 8 hours a day and more than doubled her paycheck with the bonus she qualified for. :)

    3. El l*

      That’s how it should be, absolutely.

      Sadly, it isn’t always. (See also: My current company)

      It just requires a completely different mindset about work getting done. To some people, goal-oriented will just never make sense.

    4. anonymouse*

      I’ve read comments and it seems like, the people are getting work done, and having subsequent down time or are taking breaks between work that seem (to them, extensive). As a result, when they review the week’s work, they say, “naw, I didn’t do anything on “where are they now wednesday” afternoon, so I’m going to take two hours PTO for that.”
      My question is, who did they work for before OP?

      1. Letter Writer*

        (I’m the OP)

        Ha! This is a good question. I have noticed some people who have only ever worked at remote offices approaching this very differently from people who have worked in offices.

        1. meyer lemon*

          I was going to say, if there are a lot of former freelancers in this group, that might explain a habit of feeling the need to account for every hour of their workday. Maybe remote employees can get into a similar habit.

          Do you have the ability to offer an even more flexible schedule? I have “core hours” when I am normally around, but when work is light, I have the freedom to take an afternoon off and just make up the time later. Or if I have to work late one evening, I can sleep in the next morning. I track my hours but normally don’t need to use PTO unless it’s for a full day.

          1. Eliza*

            The “former freelancer” thing would make a lot of sense. I get paid on either an hourly or piece-work basis as a freelancer, and in either case I’m only getting paid if I’ve been working on a specific project that’s been assigned to me. Switching from that mindset to one where I’m paid to fill a role and I continue to have that role and get paid the same amount as long as I generally fill it in an adequate manner wouldn’t be easy for me, I think.

        2. Elsajeni*

          I can see that — I was thinking that the distinction between “at work, but not getting anything done” and “off work” feels a lot less clear-cut to me now that I’m working from home and my work computer is also my personal computer. If I’m physically in the office and my network connection goes down, so I end up just sitting around playing Minesweeper for most of the day, I’m still definitely At Work that whole time. If the same thing happens when I’m working from home… well, I’m at home, and my day will probably end up looking pretty much like it would if I had taken the day off, so…? It sounds like your staff are remote now, so I wonder if those who are new to working from home are having some trouble adjusting to that gray area.

      2. Michelle Smith*

        If they are getting their work done, then per the policy, taking leave is absolutely ridiculous and unwarranted. Doesn’t matter if the individual employee “feels bad” that they didn’t accomplish anything Wednesday afternoon. If the policy says “tasks matter, not hours,” the task wasn’t due until Friday and it was completed on time on Friday, those hours on Wednesday are entirely meaningless.

        It reminds me of a young woman I used to work with. My boss rejected her timesheet because he had to approve any leave we submitted and she kept submitting these overly detailed sheets with half an hour here and 2 hours there, when per policy we weren’t required to take leave if we worked at least a half day (4 hours). He was like, your work is getting done, I do not care that you spent an hour at the dentist, take all of this silly stuff out or I’m not approving your timesheet. I get that some people are weird about wanting to document every second they aren’t achieving maximum productivity, but they need to be told just to chill out. I guarantee you that I never once considered taking leave for the days I had at work where I had literally nothing to do and just browsed Twitter or read a book.

        1. Michelle Smith*

          I swear to god, capitalism and toxic productivity culture has completely warped people’s sense of normality.

          1. mreasy*

            I am still stung by the job where I was charged 1/4 day PTO for leaving early for a doctors appointment – when I was 90 minutes early nearly every day and had to travel regularly over weekends

    5. A*

      Ya I’m super unclear as well. If the emphasis is on output versus hours worked – why do they even need to claim it as PTO so long as they are meeting their goals and expectations?

      Only scenario where this would make sense to me is if they are hourly or non-exempt, but that would open up a whole different can of worms in terms of concern over this approach.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        It would also make sense if they’re billing time to various clients or projects, though that doesn’t seem likely based on the totality of the letter.

    6. June*

      No. On her follow up she said not. Full days were creating issues. That if absences were planned she could rearrange tasks. I can see people taking advantage of this retroactive leave. If you are sick, call off. If you need a day off, prearrange it. Your employer still needs to have the work done as expected.

  2. Courtney*

    I am someone who is unproductive for long stretches of time and then hyper-productive and competent for the amount of time required to do my work. As long as I do a decent amount of work at a high level and help my coworkers when they need help, I don’t think it matters which of my hours are productive or not.

    It’s weird to me that a company that seems quite relaxed and liberal about time worked vs tasks accomplished also has employees who feel so guilty about those unproductive days that they use sick time. Are they getting mixed messages? Is this focus on tasks rather than hours worked new and they are struggling to adjust to the looseness of the system?

    1. NotRealAnonForThis*

      Did they come from a business environment where nickeling and diming of PTO happened/was threatened? That’s where my brain went, but that’s because I did come from that and it took years to get beyond that.

        1. Coenobita*

          That was my exact thought. I used to work under a billable hour model where there was no such thing as admin/overhead time (unless you were physically typing up someone’s performance review or doing a mandatory HR training). It wasn’t uncommon to charge an hour to vacation here or there if you were short on billable time for the week.

        2. Anon Entity*

          I think you’re on to something here. This pattern would completely fit former biglaw attorneys who have moved into government. They’re used to tracking (and justifying) what they did every six minutes of their working lives (which, in biglaw, might as well just read “lives”), the government jobs still require entering time sheets, but “I didn’t get anything done, so I guess I need to take PTO” is very much not a thing.

        3. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          Boom. It may not even be one of the more obvious billable hour situations like law, but even scenarios where you’re working for a cost centre within a larger organization. One of my first jobs in a non-law professional services firm was like this; there wasn’t really anywhere for downtime to go without major scrutiny, and you couldn’t easily factor it into time spent on a project because $$$. It’s the kind of timekeeping practice that absolutely shapes culture, and it took a lot of deprogramming for me to adjust to an environment that wasn’t like this.

        4. AutolycusinExile*

          Billable hour model is possible, but my first thought was a crappy coverage position – call center, for example. Things like food service, too – anything with toxic butts-in-seats mentality that nickels and dimes your break time and penalizes you for taking two minutes too long on your bathroom break is going to train you to be unhealthily precise about your worktime.

      1. Your Local Password Resetter*

        I wouldn’t be suprised. I have definitely carried that guilt to several new jobs, even ones with a very healthy and supportive culture.

      2. Quickbeam*

        I second this. My current gig is super petty about PTO to the minute; we are all salaried professionals with high level skill sets. I feel that slow days are still work because I am “at the ready” if a crisis comes in. I feel zero guilt for that, my licensed hours are valuable. There is no way I’d take PTO for a less than productive day.

    2. Web Crawler*

      Seeing this makes me feel better about my own unproductive time. Management thinks I’m doing great- they just told me so and then promoted me. But it’s hard to reconcile that with the knowledge that I waste a lot of the day on the internet.

      1. Allypopx*

        I had ADHD and I have a hard time sitting and focusing for long stretches of time but when I do I can pound out more in 2-4 hours than most people can in 8. I could never work somewhere where my hours were hyperanalyzed but output based systems work well for me. Everyone has a different speed! I think you’re fine.

        1. Nobby Nobbs*

          Had? Did you misplace it somewhere? (This is not a serious nitpick of your language. The idea of losing one’s ADHD just struck me as really funny considering, you know…)

      2. CR*

        I think more people waste more time on the internet than they’re willing to admit. It’s just part of an office job imo.

      3. Liz*

        Same with me. Esp. working from home, and not really having a separate place to work. My DR is my “office” but even when i’m done for the day, because its basically an extension of my living room i can stil see it!

    3. CR*

      Agreed. I also think it’s one of the natural parts of being salaried that some days you get nothing done but you’re still paid for it – because when you do need to work overtime, you don’t get paid for it. It all evens out.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I definitely have days where between meetings and waiting for email replies and so forth I never really get traction on anything “productive”. It happens. And then some days I have to buckle down and crank out a bunch of work all at once. It’s just the nature of the job sometimes.

      2. Kes*

        Yeah, the idea of taking PTO for hours you were unproductive is weird to me because it’s generally not like they’re going to give you extra hours of PTO if you’re extra productive. I think it’s very common for productivity levels to fluctuate – I know mine does. As long as the work is getting done overall as expected, I don’t see a problem or a need for them to take PTO. If work isn’t getting done, then there needs to be a conversation about what needs to change to ensure the work does get done, because taking PTO won’t fix the problem of work not getting done. So either way, I don’t think using PTO for unproductive hours is a good/the right solution.

        1. dnaaer*

          In a perfect world you would get extra PTO for being super productive. My boss has given me Friday off after a particularly busy week and has told me to stop working at noon because it’s nice outside.

          She doesn’t micromanage my time at all, but I have taken PTO because what I thought would be an hour appointment turned into 4 and I just didn’t feel good about taking that much “free” time off regardless of whether she would have even noticed.

          That’s the reason I am completely dedicated to my job and company. The raise and title she gave me didn’t hurt at all, but there are a lot of ways to feel valued and time is an easy way for a company to show they value their employees, especially when they know those employees are going to get the work done whether they take Friday off or not.

    4. Morag*

      It could also just be the range of people. In my department of about 40, I’ve got a couple of hyper-conscientious ones who had to be told “no” about charging PTO when they spent the day fighting computer issues while they set up to work remotely or days when they just got overwhelmed and distracted. They may not have been effective, but they were working and my organization expects them to not use vacation if they are working. I’ve got other tools for managing anyone who is chronically ineffective.

    5. AndersonDarling*

      I was also thinking there may be mixes messages. If the team is frequently drilled on why a project wasn’t delivered 2 days ahead of schedule, then they may feel like they need to dock time to show why they are working like a regular person. I could see myself falling into that routine:
      “Where is the TPS report! It’s due Friday!”
      “Um, sorry, I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and didn’t get it done early. I need to enter my PTO so you can see it in the time management software.”

    6. Letter Writer*

      (I’m the OP)

      I hope I’m not sending mixed messages, but your right that this is a good thing to check! As far as I can tell, it’s more out of a sense of guilt/being very conscientious, and needing something structured to take the place of the structured work hour expectations they used to have as a system of accountability. But I should definitely ask if I’m not seeming to follow my own guidelines or doing other things that are making them feel like a few unproductive hours is a serious problem.

    7. Malarkey01*

      I love flexible systems, BUT they need very clear parameters and thought to work well in my experience. It seems like there are a few things mixed in here that might help clarify things:
      1. Do you expect to be notified if people take off if they are hitting targets? Whether someone decides to cut out early on a Wednesday or take leave, do you want or need to know? It’s a bit of a mixed message to say I don’t care about your time and also how did you not tell me until Friday that you were off Tuesday? It’s fine to want to know, but be clear about that.
      2. What exactly is the rough office expectation? Is it roughly 40 hours, 45, 60? I could work 80 hours a week and still find more to do, but my office has a flexible schedule as long as you “get stuff done” and I roughly average 45 hours and that’s the baseline of my productivity (with up and down time). I struggle with “just get your work done” schedules because for some they could make 80 hours of work and someone else in my office should speak up if they are consistently done in 20 because they need more projects shifted to them. With this it helps if you establish a rough baseline of both work and hours so people can judge if it’s okay to cut out early on the rare Wednesday where everything is done or if leave is more appropriate
      3. Be clear what productivity means. A day where you fall down the AAM comment section or an hour long debate with a coworker on whether the cicadas are the murder hornets of 2021 happens, that to me looks really different than I showed up 3 hours late and then left early to go for a bike ride. Same with a 4 hour period spent on a spreadsheet that you realize was crap and you start over- it wasn’t productive but it’s part of the process.
      4. Really think about what the flexibility looks like. I can come and go whenever or take a break to take a walk/do laundry or on occasion it’s fine if you leave a little early/sleep in an hour. This is important both some people understand the intent and so other coworkers don’t get resentful that Bob is never at his desk but Jane gets side eyes the one time she left early last month.
      This also doesn’t need to be done in a vacuum, ask everyone their input and you can test some stuff out first if it’s clear it may not be permanent.

      1. JayemGriffin*

        Wait, *are* cicadas the murder hornets of 2021? Looks like it’s time for an unproductive day….

    8. Violette*

      Same. I am a sprinter, not a marathoner.

      I once worked at a [horrible, toxic] global software company who punished me for my “down” time. They said, “When you’re in the groove, you do so great. Just think of how much you could accomplish if you’d only do that for 8 hours every day!”

      (1) I was in sales. What should matter is how I perform against my quota. I traded places with two other people (out of ~40) for top sales person in my department every month. I never once missed my quota.

      (2) If I “sprinted” for 8 hours straight, I’d drop dead.

      Funnily enough, I ended up having to take three months of FMLA because that job damn nearly killed me. I was let go in a 3rd (or 4th?) round of layoffs and — poof! — all of my debilitating medical conditions disappeared.

      1. straws*

        Your comment resonates so well with me. I’m about as far from sales as you can get, but I’m definitely a sprinter. I’ll be super productive on a project for a couple of hours and then beat myself up over why I can’t just do that for the whole work day. My old boss definitely had the “employees must be focused on work 100% of the time we pay them for” and would get bent over people chatting over a water cooler or checking a voicemail on a personal phone, so I know part of it comes from that. But reading this description really clarifies it for me. So thank you!

    9. Nom*

      I feel like i’m one of these employees. Especially recently, i have been having panic attacks that make me have to stop working for the day. Because i don’t always know how long i will need to complete my projects, i often hold off on “charging” the sick time until i know for sure if i’m making up the time on the weekend. this isn’t the best way to do it but it’s the situation for the moment..

  3. Aepyornis*

    I fully agree with most of the answer, and with the uneasiness of the LW. I would like to add that an open retroactive PTO policy could backfire in two ways: either people feeling guilty about unproductive days and overcorrecting by counting every not-so-productive days/hours as PTO and getting a warped sense of what a work day/hour is (not 100% productive all the time), or people using the policy a bit too liberally and starting to lose accountability because if they don’t finish X by the end of the day, they can take 3 hours of PTO and finish it tomorrow, which can get disruptive. For instance, a day care near me started charging a 10$ fine when parents were late picking up their children: instead of having the desired effect of parents not coming past closing time, more parents were more often late, because in their minds, they started seeing this as a service they were paying for, almost unconsciously. I think a similar dynamic could develop here.

    1. Web Crawler*

      I’m curious- was it a daycare near you, or is that part from Freakonomics? Asking bc I’m wondering if more daycares tried that than just one.

      1. Aepyornis*

        Full disclosure: it’s a daycare friends of mine were using a few years ago and tbh the main problem was how early it was closing (I live in a country where daycare is scarce, expensive and usually closes at 6pm which isn’t really adapted to the reality of 21st century families). It was so expensive that the “fine” wasn’t making a significant difference to the overall costs, and well, I think the extra cost was more leverage in the inevitable bickering with the staff when the parents were showing up late.

      2. Jo March*

        My kid’s daycare charged a late fee, but no idea if anyone was ever late or actually charged the fee. I think I was usually the last or next to last to pick up my kids due to my schedule so it definitely didn’t cause a bunch of people to be late. This was in TN in the early 2000s.

      3. Lexie*

        It’s actually pretty common because they need to pay at least two staff to stay late when a child is picked up late. It depends on the client base is they see it as a penalty they want to avoid and therefore pick their kids up on time or if they see it as extended hours they can pay for. Some places also have a policy to report the child
        As abandoned if the child is not picked up by a certain time and they have not heard from the parents and are able to get in contact with anyone on the approved pick up list.

      4. Kyrielle*

        Our daycare did that too, but they also reserved the right to “fire” clients who became chronically tardy to pick up their kids.

        That said, they not only didn’t fire anyone, they also didn’t fine anyone, when an unexpected bad ice storm (it hit hours before the forecast said it would) snarled the whole metro area and resulted in many of us being a half hour late or more to pick up. In spite of the fact that this meant they had to keep enough employees on site to maintain staffing ratios before we got there, and then those poor folks had to make it home (or maybe to a hotel – I’m not sure how they handled that) amid the storm.

        As soon as the weather started to turn and it became clear what was happening, I left my workplace. Normally that was a 45-minute drive. That day it took three and a half hours. (I did call them when I realized how bad it was – I figured I wouldn’t be the only one affected and they’d want to be aware that we’d probably be late. I was about a half hour after closing time, so I’m glad I didn’t wait longer to start that drive.)

      5. Lizzy May*

        Every daycare around here charges for lateness. And they do it by the minute. Plus, most of them will kick your kid out if you’re late x number of times in a year.

      6. Esmeralda*

        Very typical of daycare I think. I had my son in various daycares and afterschool care 15 – 20 years ago; $10 for every 15 minutes late.

      7. Simply the best*

        My preschool charges $1 a minute if you call and tell us you’re going to be late and $2 a minute if you don’t.

        We also pay that overage directly to the teacher who has to stay late with the child.

    2. Retired Prof*

      There were two parking spaces right next to my building that were 30 minutes only. But the fine for parking all day there was $35. Some days I was just willing to pay the fine – I thought of it as the deluxe parking fee.

  4. BRP*

    I think some of the tension here is around the word “unproductive.” As Alison points out, we all have unproductive periods, but we’re still technically working and on call (whatever that means for your role/employer) during those times. It sounds like your team members want to apply leave retroactively for times they were not working – which is different, and has less to do with what’s being produced or not produced (which I think is where one of your understandable hang-ups sits).

    FWIW, at my workplace you have to take leave in 4 hour chunks. This cuts way down on non-sick-related spontaneous leave requests while still allowing for a lot of flexibility (like doing a 10-6 instead of a 9-5 one day if you want to sleep in or if you need to make a mid-day appointment and add some extra hours elsewhere to add up to a full day) and works really well for us!

    1. Van Wilder*

      I’m confused. Does their productivity affect their pay? Are the targets hard to meet and therefore they’re trying to tweak their stats? (Assuming the denominator is decreased by PTO.)

      I feel like I’m missing something but I would lean toward letting them account for their time however they want. If the targets are putting undue pressure on people, take a look at that (or maybe that’s just the nature of the job.)

      FWIW, I need to charge time to clients and enter a timesheet weekly. Some weeks, I don’t plan on taking PTO but later I realize that the quick doctor’s appointment in the afternoon led to my knocking off early, so I take half a day, etc., etc.

    2. Letter Writer*

      (I’m the OP)

      Yeah, we actually discussed moving to a half-day or full-day only policy for leave to encourage not thinking about a lost hour here or there as important. That conversation actually is what led to some employees telling me they preferred the “track each hour, pay back if missed” model.

      I agree that definition of unproductive is critical, and I feel like I have no trouble telling the difference between “unproductive” and “not actually working” for myself (and proactively taking leave for the latter); but I think some of my employees find that more difficult, maybe. Perhaps having a clear definition – like “you’re in the office if you would see an emergency text/email and respond to it within an hour” would help people figure out what counted.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This is good. Build a definition of what “working” can look like. And stick to it.

        I am not sure that it is always a great idea to let the employees set the tone/rules. Is their hour-by-hour model something that is good for the company? Will this model help the company thrive? In the end, the plan has to ensure that everyone stays employed and business keeps flowing.

  5. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I think this should be split up and handled individually.

    Sleep in until noon? Grumbling, but ultimately I’m alright with that being retroactive. I’ve never heard anyone profess that they intentionally overslept on a day that was intended for work.

    A sick day? No. If you’re calling off sick or leaving early sick, that needs to be communicated at the earliest relevant opportunity–mainly for the reasons Alison lists above about reassigning responsibilities temporarily and coverage. I’d put Colloquial Mental Health Days and leaving early on a slow afternoon in the same category.

    I, too, don’t like the retroactive aspect of it. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is “engaged to wait…” If I can’t go to the ice rink and open skate (or substitute your favorite relaxing hobby) because I had to be at the keyboard in case work did cross my plate, then it’s not PTO.

    1. PT*

      I worked somewhere that used to make “engaged to wait” employees punch out until they had something to do, then punch back in. If you have employees from those sectors you’d get this attitude bleeding over.

      “Well if when I worked for Llamas Unlimited as a groomer and a client no-showed for a grooming appointment I had to punch out for that half hour. So now that I work as a salaried marketing manager for Tim’s Teapots, if I have a slow morning because I sent out everything I could and I’m waiting for people to get back to me before I can move onto the next step, I should charge that waiting time to PTO because I wasn’t working I was just waiting.”

  6. Springtime*

    OP, it sounds like what you may be getting at is that you’re worried that some employees may be using retroactive leave to make up for habitual procrastination or poor time management skills. Would it make sense to ask employees to give a rough outline at the beginning of the week of what they think they’ll accomplish, and then follow up with employees who regularly aren’t meeting their own expectations? It might have the dual benefit of helping you plan the tasks and helping you identify whether any employees are really digging themselves into a hole.

    1. DeeBeeDubz*

      This is what I was thinking when I read the post and I couldn’t quite put it into words! Thank you!

      I really like the idea of the flexible hours workplace where your success is measured in outcomes and not just hours at the desk. (I’ve never had a job like this, but wish I could!) I think the retroactive PTO here is functioning like a fail-safe way to get your full pay without necessarily producing all that much. I may have a bit of a warped view because of my work history, but I would feel very weird about using PTO in this way. I’m used to planning my time off in advance or taking a true sick day where I’m completely off the clock. Substituting PTO hours when you’re just feeling a bit listless and unfocused seems wrong. YMMV.

    2. Letter Writer*

      I think this could be really helpful. Having concrete goals at the start of each week articulated to your manager could be a useful accountability system, to replace the accountability system some of these employees have been using (which is accountability-by-PTO-payment).

      1. LB6*

        Maybe just me, but I would find the weekly goal setting thing very annoying. Like, sure let’s make a wishlist of the things I want to get done, should theoretically have no problem knocking out in the week, but don’t get to. And then at the end of the week, we can talk about why I didn’t get to most of them because I had to work on *list of other things* that boss/bosses boss/other departments requested urgently throughout the week that took priority.

        My work is very fluid though, and I’m constantly shifting priorities. Part of my annoyance would also be with the waste of valuable time for this exercise, so add “writing goals and having a checkup meeting on it” to the time I spent not working on things I actually wanted to get done.

        In short, this policy may not go over well with some employees (even if they are high performers).

  7. Allypopx*

    I wonder if this is leading to an inequity in how PTO is used? Is it only the hyperconscious employees who are doing this while others do more the model you’re envisioning? If so, it may be worth establishing firmer rules and expectations.

    1. Calliope*

      Yep, like the statistics showing that women at law firms who go 80% time work more than most of the men who are getting paid at 100%.

      1. Letter Writer*

        (I’m the OP)

        Yeah, this is a real concern for me. So far it’s not obvious that one identity group is more affected by “hypercosciousness” than another, but I could see that happening as we grow if we don’t set up some good systems and have clarity now.

        1. Queer Manager*

          I’m mid-level management at a TOXIC company. If I were in your shoes I’d simply say PTO cannot be retroactive. I’d do it in a memo or staff meeting where I stated very, very clearly.l that PTO is for when you are unable to work. Not for when you are simply unproductive. Your industry will dictate what that looks like. I’m in hospitality, so when I’m on the clock I could be running like a mad woman or I could be twiddling my thumbs reading review from 3 years ago. But I’m still there, ready for any work that shows up. My night shift crew knows that they can watch Netflix for four hours if they complete their tasks by the end of their shift. If your employees are available for work they should be getting compensated.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            This. Draw that stark line and live by it. I have never worked anywhere with retroactive PTO and I have never known anyone who did. There are lotsa reasons why.

  8. El l*

    Honestly, it sounds like this company’s culture was until recently time-oriented – and the staff simply haven’t adjusted yet to goal-oriented. The message “We’re goal-oriented” needs to be reinforced and repeated.

    Questions to answer while repeating: Do you leave yourself open to, “But they could’ve done more!” while goal-oriented? Sure. That requires prioritization on the part of the manager, and a higher level of trust (re capacity) between staff and management. But it can be managed.

    Are there people who do little for half the day, and then work feverishly for the rest? Yes, absolutely, but depending on job, what’s wrong with that?

    Ultimately, if done right making it goal-oriented will make it easier for both manager and staff. It just requires a different mindset about accountability.

    1. Goal oriented*

      I think it must be this. I’ve only ever worked for goal oriented companies, and the idea of having to do “strict time accounting” for anyone other than myself is alien.
      And I just can’t understand what the point is, aside from an accounting exercise. It doesn’t help the manager redistribute the workload, it doesn’t help colleagues who needed your help when you weren’t available, and it doesn’t reduce your workload. It just seems like they feel guilty for not working, so they want to punish themselves by removing PTO.

    2. Letter Writer*

      (I’m the OP)

      Interestingly, we’ve never had a very time-oriented system, but I think Alison is very right in her response: it’s “the fault of the time-off system itself; it’s based on hours worked/not worked, so it’s not surprising that people are using that model.” I feel like we’re mostly reconciling the goal oriented management with the hour-oriented leave system.

      I don’t have a real solution to that, given the problems with unlimited leave, except to continue being clear in my expectations that it’s about outcomes and not time! But, perhaps I could work on communicating more clearly that I’m happy with my direct report’s performance to reassure them they’re doing a good enough job even when they’re unproductive (wherever that’s the case) or communicate more directly that the solution to a frequent productivity problem is not leave use…

      1. mreasy*

        But isn’t that the usual way of tracking time off? I accrue hours as I work, then use them and they come out of my PTO bank. But even so at my workplace we don’t have this mindset. It almost seems like something that someone who didn’t really “get” how PTO works started and now people don’t want to be the one who isn’t “conscientious” or whatever.

      2. LB6*

        I agree that the best approach here is just to be clear about expectations and for management to set an example with how they approach time off.

        Directly explain the policy with some examples of when PTO should be used and when it’s not needed. It’s not the same in every company or industry, so everyone is coming in with different ideas of what the norms are.

        Or, when you have someone submit a retroactive request for an hour or two say “hey, I noticed you put in a time off request for an hour the other day and just wanted to let you know that I denied it in the system. You’re on top of your work and it’s fine to take off early now and then when things come up or you just need a break or are out of things to do without using your PTO. We want employees to use their PTO in (circumstances), not to nickel and dime you for a doctor’s appointment during the day or leaving a bit early to take care of a personal errand on occasion.

      3. Not So NewReader*


        Using this system and with the way things are going, your company could end up paying out more in PTO than in working hours. Once TPTB see that they are going to throw the brakes on and possibly pull up the emergency break also.

        It sounds to me like you may have too many employees for the time being. This could be a longer term issue or just for a few months, I can’t tell. But, yeah, building a new plan here is a very, very good idea before someone else builds a plan for all of you. I noticed a long time ago, if I let things slide and someone else dealt with it the results were Not Good.

  9. More anon today*

    See, that’s why I would be uneasy about it: because if this were allowed, that’s what I would do: procrastinate, thinking, eh, if I don’t get around to actually working I’ll put in PTO. That wouldn’t end anywhere good for me, but maybe LW’s reports are fine since they are meeting goals. But I know in LW’s position, this is what I would be worrying was going on.

    1. More anon today*

      This was meant to be a reply to Springtime, but I guess it’s clear enough even without that context.

  10. JRR*

    There are days at work when spend all day just thinking and end up with nothing to show for it. I would hate to work in a place were there was even an informal expectation that I retroactively count that day as PTO.

    I understand the objection to requiring exempt employees to serve butt-in-seat time, but if I literally spent a day sitting at my desk, I think I should get paid for it even if I didn’t do any demonstrable work.

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Yea I’m like I’m not sure about using up a day to go to the doctor because one day I spent going to meetings and typing slowly. I still used the whole day working instead of having fun- I just wasn’t good at it .

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      I worked with a senior executive, years ago, who contended that there were times when the most productive use of a manager/professional’s time was to sit and stare out the window while his subconscious mind worked out the conflicts that the conscious mind was bogged down in.

      If no other benefits accrued, he wasn’t interfering with other people’s work by micromanaging them without asking for context about why they were doing things the way they did.

  11. twocents*

    This whole scenario is weird to me. I understand if you’re calling in sick, then when you’re doing timecards at the end of the week, you have to mark that you took Monday off work (or whatever).

    What I don’t understand is the employee getting to the end of the week, and then deciding that, actually, Monday should be a PTO day. This feels really loosey-goosey.

    1. RosyGlasses*

      It happens all the time with us because most of us are exempt – and don’t punch a clock.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I have seen places switch to hand-written time sheets for this reason. I worked for a municipality where no time sheet meant big issues- not only with TPTB but also with auditors. Because, stuff happens….

      2. twocents*

        I’m exempt too. I don’t reflect at the end of the week on whether I worked hard enough or should give those hours as PTO.

  12. Unkempt Flatware*

    What an interesting juxtaposition to the earlier letter about the person wanting the employee to work more.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Ugh. I think this ship is going to need some hands on steering/guidance from you, OP.

  13. Lawnonymous*

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this . I’ve been beating myself up for a few weeks after having several super unproductive weeks and this letter has shown me that what I have failed to recognize is that they came after almost two months of 60+ hour weeks (which is a lot more than my usual 35 hours per week).

    Thank you Letter Writer for writing in and thank you Alison for providing reassurance that I am not the most terrible employee on the planet.

    1. Ali G*

      Yes I just finished running a 4-day conference for 400 people and a bunch of side meetings. I was hoping a 4 day weekend would put me back on track but I am still dragging.

    2. buzzbuzzbeepbeep*

      Same here! I was feeling lazy and terrible at my job the last week and a half because I have been fairly unproductive. This letter helped me realize that I have been on-call as the only person in my company who can do a very focused, time-consuming, and meticulous task for the last 3 months. This week was the first week where I have had a moment to take a breath and not focus solely on this task. I don’t feel so lazy anymore!

  14. Annadotsmith*

    “the kind of day where you get sucked into reading months of posts in the office #suggestion-box Slack channel because some of them are hilarious and then you realize the day is almost over and you’ve accomplished nothing … ”
    Or….the kind of day you get sucked into the AAM archives and updates.

    1. SnappinTerrapin*

      Reading AAM is *at least* as productive as working modules in my company’s online training system.

      1. allathian*

        For sure. I hate video training with the passion of a thousand suns, because I read so fast that it feels like I’ve been wasting my time listening to them. I much prefer doing the courses where I can choose to just read the script and do the exercises. I can usually manage on less than half the time it would take to watch the videos. As much as I enjoy watching documentaries and occasionally even learn something from them, for me, visual media = entertainment.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I have learned more reading here than I ever did in college courses or so-called training mods.

  15. Mental Lentil*

    This sounds like a great company to work for! How do I apply? I like the idea that I can work when there is plenty of work to do, and don’t have to scramble to make work when there really isn’t a lot to do.

  16. SoundsFamiliar*

    I’m going through something similar with my employer: we track our time, not for billing purposes like in my previous law firm life, but my understanding was that it was for project tracking. Therefore I was entering my time like “billable time” and not accounting for the rest of my day (like the time when I’m reading askamanager, ya know!). I was recently told by my manager that this is *not ok* – my time needs to add up to 8 hours a day – and yeah, some days will be less, but some will be more so that’s ok. Well sure, some days are lighter than others and that’s the nature of being a salaried employee, but now I am constantly stressed about time entry and how do I account for 8 hours every. single. day. I have definitely felt the panic on lighter days and wanted to just put 4 hours of PTO because I just don’t know what to do with my time entry. Honestly, it makes me want to go back to a firm where time entry was more clear to me.

    1. ABK*

      This! They need a misc code in the time tracker to use sparingly for unproductive days as well for time spent on call during work lulls. Accountability and ambitious timelines also help people stop procrastinating and get stuff done. But sometimes there are jsut lulls in the workday and if there’s not a place to code that, people will be tempted to either inflate time spent on projects or count it as PTO.

      1. SoundsFamiliar*

        Amen. Did the OP state if these employees are remote? I don’t know if this is a function of my role being remote and they want to account for what everyone is doing since there are no “eyes” on us otherwise. As someone who *did* have billable hours scrutinized in a law firm, this is setting off all kinds of PTSD alarms for me. If the same conversation had happened in a firm, I would be hitting the pavement HARD to look for another job.

        My manager is pretty great but I am still just not up for asking, “So how shold I code my time when I’m slacking off?” I don’t have any coworker/peers that I am confortable asking how they handle either.

    2. Coder von Frankenstein*

      We have the same kind of thing where I work. My solution: Each week, I go through my calendar, look at each meeting, and assign the appropriate amount of time to whatever the meeting was about. All remaining time gets assigned to whatever my main focus was that week. If my focus was split between different things, I make a rough guess and roll with it.

      So, yeah, if I spent an hour browsing AAM, that time will get booked to the Teapot Optimization Project. However, I have learned that as long as I fill in that 40 hours a week, nobody hassles me about it.

      Now, if your higher-ups are heavy into micromanagement, and demand that you account for each and every hour of Teapot Optimization, this solution may not work for you. But if not, it should be fine.

    3. Derivative Poster*

      I’m in a similar situation and it might be my least favorite thing about my current job. It’s especially hard because my last manager had the attitude of, you’re salaried, you get paid to get the job done, it doesn’t matter when you work or how many hours it takes.

      I’d be interested to know if AAM’s advice would change if the employees had to track their hours. I’ve definitely charged PTO for unproductive days in order to get my weekly hours to equal 40.

    4. Case of the Mondays*

      My firm changed to a similar system and I was so freaked out. Finally, my office manager told me I didn’t have to itemize all my admin time. (Ex .3 filing emails, .4 talking with Joe) I could just do a general .7 Admin time. So, I do all my billable time. Back out anything where I know I wasn’t even engaged to wait (like a midday walk) and then put the difference between that number and 8 in as my admin time for the day so I always have at least 8 hours.

    5. Wisteria*

      It sounds like time entry was just made clear to you. I similarly have to charge my time to projects, and if I slack off, I stay later so that I have 8 hours “billable” time. If you regularly do NOT have 8 hours, to the point that you are not averaging 40 hours in a week, then the conversation to have with your manager is whether there are other things you can take on to fill the time. That, or work slower.

      1. Derivative Poster*

        If these are an employer’s expectations, employees are going to conclude what matters is hours worked, not results. (Or quantity of work over quality, to put it differently.) I think that creates some perverse incentives.

        1. Wisteria*

          I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There are entire industries whose salaried workers have to fill out time sheets and meet billable hour requirements, they are filled with employees who value producing quality work products. Then there are all the hourly workers who do great work.

          I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation for an employer to expect full time employees to work 40 hours a week (in the US). I do think it is unreasonable, even lazy, for a full time employee to expect to regularly work less than 40 hours/week and still collect a full time paycheck.

          1. Eliza*

            I don’t think that’s realistic. Being in the office 40 hours a week and actively working 40 hours a week are two very different things, and there’s a lot of research to show that most people aren’t actually capable of being fully productive for 8 hours a day.

            1. Derivative Poster*

              I agree, Eliza. Working 8 hours on a day when I have several meetings is no big deal. Doing 8 hours of focused technical work is another story.

              Requiring exempt employees to work >= 40 hours every week also seems to contradict the spirit of the law, IMHO. Technically I can carry forward time when I go over 40 hours but it’s challenging to do in practice. So I get the drawbacks of being non-exempt without the overtime pay.

          2. J.B.*

            And having begun in one of those industries, I found it brutal and a way of instilling a butt in seat mentality. Because a 96% billable expectation applied to junior people. Higher level staff were never billable all the time, clients wouldn’t pay for it.

          3. SoundsFamiliar*

            But do you really think that people are really working every minute of those 40 hours, every single day? I just don’t think that is realistic.

    6. Letter Writer*

      This sounds awful! For reference, we don’t even ask employees to track time or submit timecards, unless they’re doing work towards a restricted grant. I do feel like it would be very confusing to tell people “your output is what matters” and then complain if they sometime have less than 8 hours on their report.

    7. GothicBee*

      When I briefly worked from home, last year, I had to track my time. I just rounded out hours for each project I worked on and I’d include estimates for stuff that I’d casually do during the day (check emails for example). I could generally account for all my down time that way. Plus, I’d keep some ongoing projects on hand that weren’t necessarily related to a completed task for when I needed to fill bigger chunks of time (e.g., researching something for a future project, reading an article from a professional journal related to my work, other professional development, etc.).

      IMO it’s not dishonest to account for your time in a way that absorbs breaks/unproductive time into those things because the “unproductive” time is generally part of those tasks (e.g., when you check your email, it’s not just the time that the email is literally in front of your face that needs to be accounted for, it’s also the time it takes to pull up the program, shift gears, consider if something needs a response, grab a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom, whatever).

  17. Selena*

    I feel like the only real issue in this story is with the employees who had an unproductive day (but sat behind their laptop ready for action) and feel that they have to pay for that in PTO.

    Perhaps it helps if LW is open about their own unproductive days. I think most people look to management and to what’s acceptable behavior for management. (don’t just say you are okay with unproductive days for employees: that might get ignored as meaningless HR babble)

    1. Letter Writer*

      That’s a good idea! Sometimes I, too, spend hours reading askamanager instead of writing up that grant report!

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        I think a lot of what we tend to see as “unproductive” time is time well spent thinking about, reading about, gathering information, and contemplating how to be more efficient and productive in the long run.

        If people can make that mental adjustment, maybe they will feel a little less guilty and have a little more respect their own contributions to attaining the organization’s goals.

        1. londonedit*

          And I think people have been feeling more guilty about it since WFH became more prevalent – when we were all in the office, most people wouldn’t think twice about their tea breaks or their 15 minutes chatting with Annie from Sales about her weekend or tacking an extra 10 minutes on to their lunch break so they can go and exchange that jacket that didn’t fit, or whatever. But WFH seems to make people feel like they have to be working all day every day (perhaps because of all the ‘shirking from home’ stigma that used to – maybe still does – exist?) When in fact taking 10 minutes to unload the washing machine, or popping out to the post box, or whatever, is exactly the WFH equivalent of those making the tea/having a chat with someone in the kitchen in-office moments.

          1. SoundsFamiliar*

            This 100%. It’s just not realistic that 40 hours in the office = 40 hours of “work.” Same when you are remote – I joke that my husband is essentially my “coworker” from another department who I occasionally chat with in the kitchen during the day about “stuff around the office.”

  18. squeakrad*

    I have to say I don’t even understand the question. I read the OP’s post again and again and I really don’t understand what the problem is. Just saying.

    1. Colette*

      The problems are pretty clearly articulated? People are retroactively claiming leave, which means that it’s too late to reassign the work when necessary, and it’s also contributing to a culture of not taking time off to recover when you’re sick (because people are sitting at the computer, not working, and then claiming leave retroactively.)

      1. Unkempt Flatware*

        No, I agree. This was really hard to read and glean info from. Thanks for helping to make it more clear.

      2. A*

        I also was confused. And it appears other commenters were as well, so I don’t think it’s as straight forward for all as it may have been for you. I was confused because OP says the top priority is output versus time worked, and yet employees for some reason feel the need to use PTO or sick time for ‘unproductive’ hours.

        I assume they are on a billable hour system, otherwise this doesn’t make sense to me. But I would have expected that to be called out in the letter.

        1. Letter Writer*

          (I’m the OP)

          Nope, we’re not on a billable hour system – we just have a sick leave platform where you can take time off by the hour.

          Honestly, the whole thing confuses me too, and the letter was basically my attempt to make sense of why some employees might want feel they need to use PTO this way. Sorry it was confusing!

      3. Squeakrad*

        I don’t think “retroactively claiming leave” is as clear as you would imply. And why does it matter if they’re getting the work done? I didn’t understand the problem the OP was having and appreciate those below more clear. As well as the OP.

    2. nona*

      I guess I understand the problem, but I don’t understand how they got there. Like where did the employees get this expectation from? Because it came from somewhere? It doesn’t feel like a normal expectation from office life? But I also agree with the fact that I just…don’t even know what to say.

      If I was logged in/in the office, at my computer for 8 hrs, but was still unproductive, it would never occur to me to suggest that I needed to take PTO for that. PTO is for when I am not even logging into my computer (or coming into the office), and have decided that in advance and have communicated that unavailability to think work-thoughts to other people.

      Is it a case of too much flexibility? Like if you can completely define your hours spontaneously without consideration for others, that just leads to floundering for how to define the work day and then the 6 hrs you do work doesn’t feel like enough, even though that would have been a really productive day in the typical 9-5 environment?

      Maybe everyone needs to have a little defined structure? Core hours (10-2?, 11-3?) where everyone is online and available? Or have everyone set when they are going to be online that week at the beginning of the week (end of the prior week), so they at least set an expectation for when they expect to be available to allow assignment?

  19. anonymouse*

    I’ve read comments and it seems like, the people are getting work done, and having subsequent down time or are taking breaks between work that seem (to them, extensive). As a result, when they review the week’s work, they say, “naw, I didn’t do anything on “where are they now wednesday” afternoon, so I’m going to take two hours PTO for that.”
    My question is, who did they work for before OP?

  20. Weekend Please*

    I think it definitely makes a difference if they were at work the full time and simply unproductive or were there for half a day and decided that they weren’t getting anything done and would take a half day off and go home. I definitely do the second. Sometimes things simply aren’t working and I find it better to step away than try to push through. I think impromptu time off can work with a flexible schedule so long as all deadlines are met and you aren’t blowing off meetings last minute or doing anything else that will disrupt someone else’s schedule. Claiming time off to mask low productivity definitely can be a problem though or missing deadlines.

  21. Ali G*

    I’m in a job where I have to track all my hours and there are definitely weeks where I get to Friday and I am like “yeah no way I can cover 35 hours this week.” Some weeks are just like that. Sometimes, since my salary is like 98% overhead anyway, I’ll take the full week. Others I will use some sick time because I just don’t feel right with how I managed my week.

  22. Calliope*

    So this sets off “danger, Will Robinson” alerts in my brain. I worry what’s going to happen is that some employees are going to feel bad about checking AAM (or whatever) while others will be doing the exact same thing and not use their PTO for it. The latter group will then get to take real vacations while the former group will have burned through theirs, leading to yet more burnout and a vicious spiral. I think it might take clear messaging and a culture shift more than prohibiting this behavior explicitly, but I’d want to be VERY clear that if you are at your computer trying to work, you should not use PTO. If you’re not meeting your objectives that’s a separate conversation.

    1. Coder von Frankenstein*

      Agreed. Any time you are in front of your work computer, in “work mode,” you should not be taking PTO. So much of management is about setting norms, and this is a norm that I think is important to set.

    2. Littorally*

      Agreed. I don’t think this is a good scenario and workers shouldn’t be taking PTO when they’re attempting to work.

  23. Sled dog mama*

    Thank you Alison for pointing out that we all have an unproductive day now and then. I recently worked a solid stretch of 12 days (happens once a year in my line of work) and on day 9 I accomplished showing up to work and went down a rabbit hole which I did not emerge from until 7 hours later. This wasn’t a big deal since I had nothing pending that was due that day or the next but I have felt so guilty when I have these days occasionally.

  24. LifeBeforeCorona*

    This is interesting. I worked as a baker for several years and followed a production sheet. Once I finished my work I could leave early. Some days I skipped breaks and motored through my work and left early. Other days I was slower and finished all the product by the end of my shift. Then after finishing school I worked in an office and the goals weren’t as clear. At the end of the day, I wasn’t sure if I could leave if work was still on my desk, even if there was no deadline for it. Sometimes there were dead zones when there was no work to be done at all, but I was still getting paid. I think it’s the ambiguity that may be causing the confusion?

    1. Letter Writer*

      This is such a nice example of how having truly goal oriented work facilitates a move away from focusing so much on hours spent. Perhaps for my direct reports I can check in more on specific goals for the week, and talk about how unproductive time relates to whether those goals are getting met (and doesn’t need to bring pto into it at all).

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        With baking my busiest time was around holidays, December was a nightmare with special orders and lots of overtime. However, in the office, December was very quiet because people wanted time off. At one point I was the only person in the office for almost two weeks while everyone was away, but the phones and mail still had to be monitored. Since my work flowed from the other staff I had days with only 30 minutes of work. Perhaps check every Monday and have staff tell you which days they want as PTO based on the week’s workload. If they are familiar with their workload they should be able to do that.

  25. a clockwork lemon*

    I’m kind of confused about what “retroactive PTO” even means in general. Like, are people taking spontaneous half days because they don’t have a lot going on? Are people running errands in the middle of the work day that take longer than expected so they charge those hours as PTO when they get back to the office to have a documented record of why they weren’t working/weren’t available on a given day?

    For example, I work from home full time in a job that is fairly cyclical. I don’t charge my PTO bank if I’m sitting around at my computer reading advice columns or casually doing administrative tasks while I’m watching TV. However, if it’s a beautiful day outside and I decide to go putz around in the garden while keeping an eye on Teams and my email, I’ll charge my half day of PTO if it turns out someone needs me.

    1. Coenobita*

      My read is they hit 5pm and they’re like, “ugh, I got nothing done after lunch today, I feel bad about that, it’s like I wasn’t even working” so they mark down that they took 4 hours of leave.

      1. Letter Writer*

        Yeah, most of the time it’s something like what Coenobita said. A few times it’s been telling me on a Friday that they didn’t do anything on Tuesday and would like to submit a PTO request to our HR platform, or sometimes “I meant to work late tonight but won’t be able to so now I’d like to take 4 hours”. Retroactive basically just means they tell their manager/relevant co-workers/the HR system about it well after the fact, rather at the point when they realize they are going to be out.

        1. Lizy*

          Ok so now that I’ve read all the comments this makes more sense to me. At OldJob, my role didn’t really have a ton of interaction with other staff. If I ended up having to leave/quit at 2 on a Tuesday, I rarely did anything other than tell my boss “see ya tomorrow”. I almost always “made up” the hours for the rest of the week. If I didn’t, or wasn’t able to, I’d list Tuesday afternoon as PTO.

          I think if it’s a workflow issue – like Project X wasn’t worked on – then address that. For example, if I left early on Tuesday, and I knew Project X was due Friday, I’d tell my boss “hey I need to head out early. Project X is due Friday. I’m planning on working through lunch the rest of the week so Project X will still get done, but I’ll keep you posted if for some reason I’m not able to get it all done.” Then if Thursday afternoon rolled around and I hadn’t been able to make up time on Project X, I’d go to my boss and let her know. We’d then be able to reevaluate and she’d help or reassign or whatever.

  26. AnonaLlama*

    I think the problem isn’t that they’re taking it retroactively, but that they’re doing really small time increments to account for downtime and that feels like they’re viewing their work as more hourly/transactional than you or the organization view it.

    You said up-thread that they are exempt and salary, so I would strongly suggest you adopt a whole day approach. Ask “did the person work today?” If yes, pay them for the whole day, if they didn’t then PTO. Always err on the side of paying them for the whole day unless there’s a performance issue in which case manage that, not the time in chair.

    Hopefully that will help them to also start to see their work days more holistically. The reality is for work that qualifies to be exempt, you sometimes need downtime to rest your brain a little. That’s working, too.

  27. Green great dragon*

    So I may have been like LWs staff. We’re fairly relaxed about exact hours, but I went through a patch that was often quiet, and I didn’t feel the busy periods quite compensated. So I agreed I could draw down leave in small increments, so instead of sitting there doing the low priority tasks on my to-do list which were some use to the company but not vital, I would take a long lunch, knock off when I’d cleared the important stuff for that afternoon, and take whatever leave I needed to make up at the end of the week.

    This made me happier because I’d otherwise have felt obliged to do the low priority stuff which I would not have enjoyed, and helped the company because I’ll have less leave to take now it’s busier.

    So, LW, are they unproductive/taking leave when there is less to do? Would a more formal model like official flexitime help here?

  28. Julie*

    My concern would be that if people get in the habit of “I’ll see what happens today and then decide whether I was working or not” it could make it harder to just do the normal thing of “I’m sick and I’m taking the day off.” When it comes to less productive days I think it would contribute to burn out – not really having a day off to enjoy but sort of hovering around the computer wondering if maybe you should be doing more and how do I feel about it etc.

  29. Lalala*

    Oh I AM your employees! I tend to retroactively take PTO on meeting-free days where I don’t have anything urgent to do. It’s an in-the-moment decision when I don’t feel like sitting at the computer all day coming up with ways to feel productive. If my manager required advance notice of those PTO days, I likely wouldn’t take them. If you do put a policy in place I’d encourage you to be really clear about what is and isn’t PTO, but let employees have that in-the-moment ability to decide to take off slow days and not be chained to their computer in the name of “working.” Good luck!

    1. Allonge*

      I think the difference is that you actually take these half days off, whereas LW seems to have employees who work the half day but are not satisfied with the work output. It’s not really about when you put the request in the system.

  30. Hexiva*

    I think it’s kind of unethical to let them take PTO if they were at the desk for that time. I know it’s not LEGALLY the same as not paying them for that time, but I feel like it is ethically the same, or similar.

    I think the LW should tell their employees that too, I think people who are clearly operating under an outsized level of guilt are more likely to listen to “you’re putting me in the position of violating my ethics” than to “it’s your PTO and you deserve to rest.” Let ’em feel like they’re taking a load off your conscience by not doing this.

    1. appo*

      I agree!

      Letting people continue with this gives out signal that one should be able to give 110% All The Time. Or pay for that. That is not a signal a healthy workplace wants to give.

  31. I'm just here for the cats*

    I think that there is this perception that everyone must be productive 100% of the time, cranking out X amount of work and if you’re not 100% then you are failing. But the truth is we all have off days where we don’t get what we think we should done. That could mean talking with co workers for too long, or getting sucked into reading AAM for a whole afternoon.

    When we first went remote someone said that they knew they would only be 80% productive in a day, because they would get distracted by the dog, or needing to put morning dishes in the dishwasher, stuff like that. But really, there are few jobs where you are on 100% of the time. even when I worked call center jobs I there were slow times where I didn’t take a call.

    I wo der if the team has this belief that if they aren’t doing x amount that they are not productive. Maybe the lw should have a chat and explain that if they are at the computer and attempting to work then that still counts even if all they did is write and reply to emails. After all, if these people were in office and didn’t get a lot done they would presumably still want to get paid and not use pto.

    Maybe there are some professional development type of things (books, simple trainings, etc) that people could do when they might need an easy day? Also, do people do this because maybe there’s not enough work someday. If so professional development might be an easy answer.

  32. Shannon*

    As a parent of young kids, some times unexpected things come up and you have to use PTO unplanned. I appreciate not having to take off a whole day for those times but to be flexible to maybe use a few hours or so. I might have had a bad night of sleep so I’m not going to skip work the next day entirely but might go to my scheduled meetings and finish anything pressing but be too tired to do more than that. Usually I flex the time, leave early and then work more then next day. But I can understand if that’s not possible or necessary, it would be fine to assign that time to PTO when I do my paycheck at the end of the week.

  33. AnyNoNyMuse*

    This is what I love about Alison and AskAManager.

    Thank you to the letter writer and to all the comments here. I am a classic conscientious but retroactive time-taking-off employee and this whole conversation made me feel so much better about my unproductive moments. We track output in half-days for billing, but there are buffers baked-in to our project deadlines for exactly this kind of thing – I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking advantage of a thing expressly deigned for this purpose.

    This really made my day.

  34. cncx*

    I have a desktop support type role, and sometimes work isn’t busy but we’re “engaged to wait” and being slow in and of itself isn’t enough to call pto.

    i have a situation where i sometimes do call retroactive pto- our company culture is such that fridays are either slow or firefights, no inbetween. i have a standing 2 hour appointment on fridays to work out with a personal trainer, and if i sign back on at 4pm and nothing is happening and i know it’s gonna be one of those dead fridays, i’ll put it down as pto and stop for the day. When it isn’t slow i easily make up the two hours. Like BRP posted above, we can do our pto in 4 hour chunks.

  35. coldfi*

    Reading this post and all of the comments has been tremendously helpful in helping me reset some problematic internal norms – this is why i love AAM!!!

  36. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    “Did they just come off a season of 60-hour weeks?”

    If they’ve been working 60-hour weeks, they certainly deserve some time off! I would get extra time off to compensate for overtime and it was a godsend.

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