what kind of leave policy should a small business offer?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’ve only ever worked at small businesses with less than 25 people. During my time as a manager, and now as a small company owner (consulting/professional services type firms), I have struggled to come up with fair policies on things like PTO and family leave that also don’t really hurt the business, nor disproportionally burden other team members.

I realize we don’t have as many legal obligations as larger companies, so this is more about doing what’s right for everyone. For example, we only had one employee at my old company who had a baby while working there. I actually sent in a letter years ago about her because she wanted to work remotely but didn’t want to have at-home childcare. Her situation worked out, but I’ve often thought about how we could handle someone who wanted to take full, no contact family leave for months. At small companies, there’s often only one person doing each job and it’s not easy to cover for them, nor is it easy to hire and train a temp for a lot of specialty jobs.

At both places we had unlimited PTO. It didn’t accrue or anything, but I believe in your philosophy of focusing on outcomes and results more than “butts in seats” as a measure of productivity. At my last job, people did use PTO liberally and it was mostly fine. It did result in a culture, though, where people answered calls and emails or did light remote work rather than being totally unplugged. When people requested their time off, they’d also put availability like “at the beach working half days” or “available via phone and email for coworkers and clients but not as available/active as usual” or “available via phone for emergencies only.” I found the trade-off of doing some work or being more available to be a fair trade off myself — I worked remotely for some extended periods like 6 weeks in Germany one year, and it was always fine if I wanted to do something personal during work hours or whatever. Not once in my career did I use an out-of-office email responder and go totally unplugged. This worked for me AND it worked well for both businesses, but I realize it isn’t what everyone would want.

What ideas do you and your readers have for small businesses that can’t easily absorb missing team members to still be able to offer fair and generous PTO and family leave to employees? As a childless person myself, I’m particularly sensitive to wanting policies in which single and/or childless employees aren’t going to disproportionally bear the burden of covering for people with families.

Readers, share your thoughts in the comments.

{ 251 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon in Midwest*

    I personally would love what you mentioned in terms of vacation: more vacation allowed, but a small amount of responsiveness needed too.

    There are people who would love that too. And there are people who would hate it.

    The best thing you could do is be SUPER clear about this aspect of PTO culture in the job descriptions and interview process, so you only hire people who know and agree with these expectations.

    1. Cmdrshpard*

      I think a hybrid system could work.

      Like maybe 2/3 weeks of totally unplugged vacation time if you want it. And beyond that you can take more only while still being somewhat responsive as needed.

      1. Mehitabel*

        And I think that a ‘partially unplugged’ approach will inevitably, in the long run, lead to burnout. It’s unhealthy. Ask me how I know.

        I still do it because old habits are hard to break, but I’m doing my best to break them because I see the long-term effects it’s had on my health. I am mentally and physically exhausted 95% of the time, and TBH at this point I think I’d have to completely unplug for several weeks in order to begin to get some of my juju back.

        Employers need to have reasonable expectations and reasonable workloads. If one person taking a real, unplugged vacation creates undue hardship for their co-workers, then there is something wrong with the staffing plan.

        1. NotRealAnonForThis*

          ::something wrong with the staffing plan::

          When your employees tell you that your proposed coverage for Employee A’s maternity leave is the have Employee B cover ALL duties in addition to normal duties, and both A & B say “no, that’s not going to work at all you NEED to hire a temp”, you need to hire a temp and its just the cost of doing business.

          I’ve worked in small offices where this was a thing, and I was Employee A. I listened to the proposed plan for B to cover my already too much for one person to handle job in addition to hers and jumped back with “that isn’t going to work. She’ll quit after a week and I wouldn’t blame her, then you’re going to be hounding me. Hire a temp.” while B said “Nope, we literally have too much for one person each, we’re hiring a temp.” And he did, because the alternate was losing BOTH of us.

        2. Here we go again*

          There are times when people need to fully unplug for a few weeks no matter what kind of business. Birth of a child or hospital stay or death of a close family member. Expecting employees to work or to answer calls during things like that is unreasonable, and would make me as an employee look for a new job asap.
          It’s also bad for business, think of all the mistakes that could be made because they’re unprepared to answer work questions or they’re confused on client details without the ability to look that up.

          1. Turtles All the Way Down*

            Not to mention, you’re literally not allowed to work if you’re collecting disability for either childbirth, surgery, or illness/temporary disability. It’s a condition of your disability payment.

          2. Gabby*

            Being on vacation is one of those situations when I need to fully unplug. Otherwise it’s not a vacation…

    2. Anonymous Koala*

      Clarity is key! You’ll never be able to please everyone, but if you’re really clear about the kinds of flexibilities you can offer and the sort you can’t, you’ll be more likely to hire people who enjoy the work environment you’re offering.

    3. A Kate*

      Agreed–clarity around your expectations from the beginning is key. One of the reasons people sometimes prefer a larger company is because of the more structured institutions that allow for things like fully logged-off PTO (and HR instead of “payroll person who has no HR training but is forced into that role” which so many small businesses seem to end up with). But if you’re upfront, straightforward, and otherwise foster the kinds of things small businesses have to offer (flexibility, personal relationships, etc.), I think you’ll attract the kind of employee who thrives in your environment.

      I’d also say that it’s wise to be mindful of seniority when it comes to being “online” for PTO–an assistant who’s entry level should be able to take their time off without being pestered, in my opinion (they can’t exactly make calls for their boss while they’re away, nor is it fair, to me, to ask them to deal with email enquiries or otherwise handle the kind of scheduling logistics on behalf of their boss that they usually would if they’re on vacation. In that instance, an assistant on PTO means the boss has to be a big boi for a week and handle their own stuff). In the converse, a senior person may very reasonably be expected to check in on a basis that makes sense, so they can make the kinds of calls that only they know the answer to/have the authority to determine. So it’s not just “here at Company, this is our approach,” but rather it should be tailored to the level of responsibility of each role.

    4. Maple*

      I’m one of the people who would hate being expected to do even a small amount of work when I’m on vacation. To me, it’s really important that I spend my vacation completely checked out from work. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel like a real vacation.I agree about being super clear about this expectation when you interview so that people like me can opt out.

      1. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

        100% me too- if I’m having to check email or messages to do work at all, it’s not a vacation to me, so I’d be very upset if that was not an expectation outlined in the interview process so I could decide if that was a job for me.

        1. NotRealAnonForThis*

          I think I’d be okay with “you can have 2-3 weeks where 50% productivity, tops, is expected, in addition to the (set the number here amount) of unplugged vacation time”.

          Its when those two blend, or worse, there’s no division, that there are issues with burnout being a real thing. As someone upthread said – ask me how I know this.

      2. Ground Control*

        I want to be completely unplugged on vacations, too, but there are definitely leave situations where I’m fine being partially on call. A good example is a recent long weekend to visit to my MIL for her birthday during a busy time at work. I was happy to work a little while I was there because my main goal was getting to attend her birthday dinner and chill with her in the evenings, so a few hours of work in the morning was fine. I view it not so much as being always “on” during every single vacation, but having the opportunity to do extra stuff I wouldn’t otherwise take leave for.

        1. MissBaudelaire*

          There are days when I’d be more than happy to be partially responsive. For example, my kid had a concert that took place at lunch time. But I could do things before and after that. Maybe not johnny on the spot in real time responses, but still responses.

          There are also days where I am unplugged, and I want that to be respected.

      3. Just J.*

        I work in construction. Being fully unplugged on vacation can never happen as stuff always comes up on the job sites. It has to be handled ASAP or we are losing money. Therefore, since I always have to be somewhat in contact while on vacation, I appreciate companies that were generous with PTO. What you can’t get in quality (ie fully unplugged) you can get in quantity (ie the ability to just the heck away from the office).

        1. TechWorker*

          In the nicest possible way, ‘stuff always comes up’ is not exactly unique to construction. If you are THE ONLY person who can make a decision or answer a question, then yes you can’t unplug, but that’s a function of the job setup/structure rather than the industry.

        2. ScruffyInternHerder*

          Curious the size company…I’ve worked in “that” company before, even if by a different name, the one where the world stops if someone is completely unavailable. It was absolutely a staffing issue, combined with a control/trust issue, not a widespread “we can never unplug” industry issue.

          1. Midwestern Scientist*

            Definitely this. If you don’t trust anyone else to make decisions, you’re right, you can’t unplug. But I would suggest hiring/teaching people to be the kind of people you can trust rather than just continuing to never be able to unplug

        3. moql*

          Agreed. It’s required in my current company to not check anything, which is nice, but I’d gladly trade that for an increase in the amount of vacation I can take.

      4. Asenath*

        I agree. If I’m on vacation, I am not working. At all. I would not consider it a vacation if I were also expected to work. And it is really so unnecessary. Even people who do have extremely busy jobs involving real emergencies get to have actual time off while other employees handle the emergencies. Working while on holiday shouldn’t even be suggested for people like me, an office worker who didn’t deal with life and death emergencies. If a business isn’t able to offer real time off to their employees, they need more employees, and if they can’t manage that, their business isn’t viable.

      5. Texan In Exile*

        The final straw that led me to quit my job at an F100 last year was when my boss texted me 1. while I was on vacation 2. about a (very minor) issue that had already been resolved 3. that he could have figured out without involving me and 4. that was in the list of things I had told him were done so I could go on vacation.

        I was not being paid enough to work on my vacation. (There’s not enough money for that.)

      6. Ross*

        I can see both sides. I would love something like this but I routinely say that I don’t take ‘vacations’ I take ‘trips.’ My goal is to go somewhere different to experience a different culture or place. I go to explore, not really to relax. Plenty of people do the opposite (I’m definitely in a minority).

        But there’s a difference between vacation l and personal leave. I have zero qualms about working on vacation in an unlimited PTO environment (I will not work during any time limited PTO as a strict rule though). However, if a family member were to die, if I were to need lengthy medical treatment, or similar, then I would definitely need to completely disconnect for a time period. Maybe it’s worth having unlimited PTO but a certain about of sick/personal time where people are allowed to completely disconnect.

      7. allathian*

        Oh yes, me too. When I’m on vacation I don’t want to think about my job at all.

        My husband’s different, he only has a company phone, and his employer pays for all of his phone use, including private calls on foreign business trips (I don’t want to know what his 10-minute call to me from China cost his employer). But a corollary to that is that his employer can always contact him by phone even when he’s on vacation… I wouldn’t like that sort of arrangement for myself, never mind the risk of his employer potentially learning too much about our family life…

    5. Employee At A Small Company*

      My small company works like this. Mainly because that’s the culture, no one expects it. In fact the rules are that we really do want you to unplug when you’re on PTO. But the reality is that we need everyone much of the time. We’re all professionals and know that our jobs are critical to the company. I’ve been on PTO knowing that we need to get a proposal out. So my team takes care of most of it, but when it’s time to do the final draft and send it to the customer, it’s better for me to take a few hours out of my PTO to keep it moving forward. If I drop the ball, we could be out 25% of our yearly revenue and that affects everyone.

      I think the key is that we know that the company is not taking advantage of us, but that we are all jointly responsible for keeping the company moving forward. We’re small enough that each of our actions have a direct reflection on our revenue and a dropped ball could mean a bad year. Of course we’re also rewarded at the end of the year with profit sharing (everyone in the company is, not just senior staff or anything).

      We’ve had folks get really sick or lose a parent and they are offline for weeks at a time, that’s fine too, we all pitch in and keep things moving forward.

      I guess for us, there’s a direct line between what we do as employees and the success of the company, and it’s a two way street where the success of the company becomes rewards for the employees. So I’m happy to have flexibility in my schedule as well as giving up some of my “off-line” hours to help out when I’m on PTO.

      1. Angel*

        But surely if you work for a few hours while you’re supposed to be on vacation then you can get those hours back by taking a few hours off on another day?

    6. DEJ*

      I do not want to come back to work to a disaster of an inbox, and I feel like a small amount of responsiveness while on vacation helps prevent that. Taking a few minutes each day to answer emails and delete spam, or forward on what needs to be sent on for someone else to handle, or offer light input into a project to keep it moving, gives me a little bit of peace of mind while I am on vacation. I also would be all about more vacation for light responsiveness.

      1. Lab Boss*

        That’s me! The times my boss/managment has expected me to respond while on PTO is vanishingly small, and they’ve kept it short and apologized. But I will so gladly sacrifice a total of an hour over my week of vacation so I can phase back into work gently rather than diving into a boiling panic. But then again, I’m pretty good at not letting the work linger. I can take a 15 minute e-mail break in the middle of a vacation day and not give it a thought before or after. If I wasn’t able to flip it on and off like that, even “light responsiveness” might eat up my mental bandwidth too much to rest.

      2. Golden*

        Me too! I’m not really a vacation person anyway, and taking a 1-2 hour ‘break’ from the vacation to do a routine activity like respond to emails actually helps me enjoy the time off more. More vacation with light responsiveness sounds like my kind of solution (with flexibility so others that would hate that setup can plan alternatively).

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Me too! I’m not really a vacation person anyway, and taking a 1-2 hour ‘break’ from the vacation to do a routine activity like respond to emails actually helps me enjoy the time off more. More vacation with light responsiveness sounds like my kind of solution (with flexibility so others that would hate that setup can plan alternatively).

          I’m of like mind, and for me it also has the benefit of not returning to trying to put out a four-alarm dumpster fire.

          I suspect this will the hard part of the policy–getting those who need their job to effectively not exist while they’re on PTO to coexist with those who do better when they don’t disconnect fully, and everyone trusting everyone else to the take the PTO that works for the person taking PTO. Everyone I’ve worked with/for seems to only be able to wrap their head around one mindset or the other.

      3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        YES. I am way less stressed about taking a week off if I spend a half hour each evening before I go to bed tidying up my inbox, banging out a couple of daily tasks that are so low-priority that nobody else will be doing them (but as a result the other option is I have to do them all when I get back) and keeping a very loose eye on my team’s needs. I do that anyway, so if agreeing to do that gets me even more PTO, I am all the way there.

      4. TotesMaGoats*

        This used to be me because this was my mom too. Every vacation there would be some time checking emails. It was just five minutes after all. Then last year, I stopped. I let my bosses and team know. They could text or teams chat me if something was actually on fire. And I just didn’t look. The first couple days were a bit tough but by the end of the week…it was the most relaxing vacation. And coming back, the inbox was no worse than it would have been had I checked.

        Since then I’ve done two other shorter vacations where I could have checked email but didn’t. I leave for vacation with an empty inbox and a lighter heart.

    7. CASH ASH*

      I think this is the best answer. State that this is your work culture when you hire people. “We have generous to but it does require staying lightly plugged in.” I personally take vacations to national parks to avoid being plugged in, so if I were told that up-front it would help me make a decision for that job.

      1. Bast*

        Same for me. Expecting to be at work while on vacation would be a deal breaker for me. My pto is paltry to begin with, so it’s crazy to me to spend the little bit of time I have to myself working. I also have a very hard time just logging off and walking away. I will log in to do one quick thing and find another issue and stay logged in another 2 or 3 hours. I’ve been working hard to establish a decent work life balance because I was running myself ragged and being expected to log in on my time off, i can easily see where some people will burn out quickly.

        I also think they need to define what is “lightly” plugged in. A manager and an employee can have completely different ideas about what is considered “light.”

        1. alienor*

          I also think they need to define what is “lightly” plugged in. A manager and an employee can have completely different ideas about what is considered “light.”

          I think so too, especially in terms of response times. I don’t mind checking my email once in the morning and once in the evening while I’m on PTO, but I don’t want to check in the morning, go away for the day, and come back to a string of 17 increasingly desperate emails asking for my sign-off on something. I also don’t want to be summoned to last-minute calls (or any calls; having to actually interact with coworkers in real time is what crosses the line for me).

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            Yes. It very much needs to be defined what exactly “lightly plugged in” means. Were I told this in an job interview without clarification, I would strongly suspect it meant “working remotely, but from a hotel room rather than home.”

        2. Ellohelle*

          I have fairly generous PTO (25 days minimum, and then unlimited beyond that) and if I’m ooo I AM OUT OF OFFICE. Being told there would be a requirement to be somewhat responsive when on holiday/off would be an immediate deal-breaker for me. BUT I think this is cultural, on top of there being a state-mandated minimum requirement. I’m in Europe and possibly being “lightly plugged in” might be a good compromise for unlimited PTO in the US.

      2. Mr. Shark*

        I think it all depends on what type of vacation I’m taking. When I’m taking vacation just to relax and not work, and I’m at a relative’s house and we’re just chilling at home during the day, I don’t mind taking 15-20 minutes and answering e-mails or something.
        But if I’m at the beach, or going to some event, I don’t want to be plugged in at all, not even lightly, that could distract from the event or the relaxing sunset.

        1. Clisby*

          Yeah, before I retired I had a job where I’d often do 3-4 hours of work during a week of vacation. It didn’t come out of my PTO, though. It was charged as work hours. So if I worked 4 hours during a 40-hour vacation, I’d charge 36 hours to PTO and the rest to work.

          1. Mr. Shark*

            That makes sense. I usually didn’t worry about it, because I was exempt, salary, so the hours were flexible the other way when I was working full time during a week. But again, it was all my own decision on whether or not I wanted to engage and do a little work, or answer an e-mail.

    8. Smithy*

      This style of time away also suits me fairly well both in terms of personality but also emerged somewhat out of coming from an early job where I was in a department of 1 and lived overseas from my family. Being able to take three weeks to travel to the US mad those visits much easier, but it was a reality that whether that time was 1 or 3 weeks, I could only plan in advance so much to be completely off.

      With that said, since you have unlimited PTO – I do think if there are periods of time when your business is normally very slow (i.e. if you’re in the US, Wednesday before/Friday after Thanksgiving or the week between Christmas and New Years), then trying to give staff those periods as “total black out” holidays might be a benefit. While right now, those periods might end up being totally quiet vacation blocks on accident – being more intentional might be reassuring to people who prefer some complete unplugging.

      I worked one place that gave everyone the Christmas/New Years week off and it did end up being fairly uneven in terms of who got the time truly off and who didn’t (i.e. payroll still needed to go out). But with the unlimited PTO, if there’s an effort to try and it doesn’t impact people’s PTO banks – maybe? And if your business doesn’t allow for that full week, maybe try doing more days around those holidays so including the 23rd, 26th, and 30th of January for those who weren’t planning to take the whole time off?

    9. Struggling Along*

      “Light PTO” – This would be my preference too (although I can’t understand completely people who don’t want to do this). I’m a working parent with a spouse who travels frequently and often has to work late nights. Being remote and the ability to take “light PTO” means our family gets to spend A LOT more time together through the year (for example it allows me a travel day to travel with my spouse and then I can work from wherever we are) and we are able to see our families more often. It also means I don’t run out of actual PTO when we can find time to both take time off fully discontented. But my situation is fairly unique and would not apply to a lot of people.

      My husband and I were talking a lot about this week. He works in a very unique industry and technically gets 15 days vacation as well as “comp days” because he works a lot of weekend and overtime. I was advocating that his small company should move to an unlimited system because either he 1) needs to be at work because things need to be done and there isn’t a chance for anyone to be OOO or he and his coworkers are traveling or 2) there really isn’t any work to be done. I think the suggestion would blow is managers mind through.

    10. LCH*

      agree. i sort of did this during the pandemic solely because i didn’t actually have enough work to do at home for a full day (i was only home for 3 months since my job really can’t be done remotely). so i’d work, do some personal hobbies, check email, clean up around the house, check email. but if i was in a job where a lot of it was computer based, i would definitely travel more doing PT days or answering emails or something.

    11. midhart90*

      I’m on the other end of the spectrum. To me, knowing that I’m expected to be reachable impairs my ability to fully enjoy my time off, even if I am ultimately not interrupted. (And if I do have to jump on meetings, calls, etc. I’d argue that it’s not really a day off anymore at that point.) I’d much rather have a set number of days I can take with communications completely blacked out than a slightly larger number of “soft” days.

      I agree with the previous poster that you need to make your stance on being reachable while on PTO explicitly clear during the interview process (as in you need to come right out and say “we generally remain reachable even when out of the office” and not just a vague “we work flexibly”). Some people thrive under this arrangement; others shudder at the mere mention of it.

    12. Joielle*

      Yeah, I would love this too – and it’s basically what I currently have. I can work remotely on vacation and just not deduct those hours from my PTO bank. It works well for me because I generally don’t vacation in remote areas, and I honestly prefer to keep an eye on what’s happening at work. I only do significant work if there’s something seriously urgent, which is quite rare. But being willing to answer a few emails a day to keep projects moving means I can take a lot more vacation time (and do a lot less prep work for each vacation) than if I insisted on being completely unreachable. I know some people would end up burnt out that way, but everyone is different – I’ve been doing it my entire career and am very happy with my current work-life balance.

      I will say that it definitely requires a whole team and managers who TRULY understand that you’re not fully working, you’re not going to be very responsive, and you’re mostly not doing non-urgent tasks. Everyone really needs to be on the same page about that.

    13. DataSci*

      That would be job-leavingly bad for me.

      I want to be able to completely recharge when I’m on vacation. And I’m willing to have less “vacation” (not none!) to do that, because if I’m in meetings and answering emails then I’m not on vacation. And it doesn’t even have to be “I want to be hiking and literally unable to be contacted” or “I want to be eight timezones away”, it can just be “I want to not have to think about work for a week”. So no, an extra week of “vacation” at the price of not actually having a single day to myself without checking in at work? No thanks.

  2. Darcy*

    Could you have a policy that specified “x” amount of completely out of contact PTO and unlimited amount of “light remote work” pto.

    1. NeutralJanet*

      Yes, that sounds like the best compromise here–most of the time when I’ve taken time off, I wouldn’t mind doing a little work, but it’s also good and valuable to have some time to disconnect entirely, not to mention that there are some types of leave where it really might not be possible to be available at all.

    2. Save Bandit*

      I think this is the best solution. Presented clearly in this way, everyone will be able to function based on their own comfort level, and feel fine about it knowing that they’re operating within the clear guidelines.

    3. SkyePilot*

      Was thinking something along these lines and I would so appreciate that, even working at a “bigger” company. Maybe something like 10 days totally logged off PTO but unlimited “flex” PTO.

      Another thing my SMB company does (about 200 domestic employees) is offer unlimited sick leave, but that extends to your family too. Sick kid? Stay home. Spouse needs support? Stay home. There is a bit of an expectation that if you are staying home because someone else is sick that you check in, but otherwise it’s nice to not have to worry about running out of sick days with a toddler who is perpetually coming down with the daycare crud.

    4. Super Duper*

      Yes! This policy would actually work really well for me (I wish my company did it!), but I’d be very unhappy to take a job that promised “unlimited PTO” only to find out that it really means something else. It’s the clarity upfront that makes the difference. And I think it’s important to set a week or two of PTO as truly unplugged time away and gently enforce that, otherwise people will get burned out.

    5. Sweet 'N Lower*

      Came here to comment the same thing! I would love a hybrid PTO policy like that. There are certain times I want to completely unplug (vacations, Christmas, family emergencies, etc), and I would be frustrated with an unlimited PTO policy that still required me to be thinking about work during those times. At the same time, there are plenty more situations where I would be totally fine with half-working if it meant I could get more time off.

      In my ideal situation, the company would also specify exactly what half-working means so that I wouldn’t have to guess whether I was doing “enough.” Required to answer emails and handle emergencies but it’s okay to ignore everything else? Required to work at least 2 hours spread throughout the day? Just tell me so I don’t have to stress.

    6. Anne of Green Gables*

      I think one thing to keep in mind is that not all vacations mean you can be partially working. I go to a cabin in the woods with my family every year, there is no internet connectivity, nothing for a hotspot to connect to, nothing. And extremely spotty cell phone service. I could not do any work while there even if I wanted to.

  3. Rachel in Minneapolis*

    My favorite days off of work are out at a remote cabin in the State Park. There’s no cell service or electricity so no option to answer emails. I like to take 2 work days + 2 weekend days for these trips about three times a year. And then I usually take a regular week off late December.

    Our staff team is only seven people. Because these are planned days off, I have coworkers briefed on current clients/projects. I schedule my trips around my busy days. my coworkers cover for me and I cover for them.

    1. Gnome*

      Yes, this can definitely work!

      Related is the idea that, if someone left,ntheyd be able to do a certain amount of prep and then he gone. What would the company do? Probably get the bare minimum done with others covering and/or hire a temp to help while hiring for that specialist job. This can guide an approach to time off. If Joe is going to be out for three weeks on vacation, for surgery, or whatever, then you can prioritize accordingly. This works when everyone gets to take this type of time off because everyone pitches in for each other’s absences.

      Note, this is NOT about kids, parenting, or maternity leave! Anyone can find themselves with a need or desire for extended leave for medical reasons… or just a couple weeks off for a family reunion in a foreign country. If you frame it that way, it will seem more equitable than just thinking about maternity leave.

    2. Gnome*

      I think this is a great way to handle it. You can unplug but it’s not a horrible burden because you plan ahead.

  4. hola my peeps*

    I have a fair amount of vacation time – 6 weeks – but it’s very difficult to use that much and still maintain productivity. What I do is unplug completely for 2 weeks of vacation a year – I go no contact and it’s good for my mental health. I take the other 4 weeks off but stay somewhat connected so the important work gets completed and I’m not always scrambling to catch up.

    All that to say – I’m cool with that trade off. There are other people in my office who would lose their minds if they were contacted while off.

    1. Rosemary*

      This is what I would like. I have about 3.5 weeks vacation where I CAN go full no contact… but I would be happy to have less “no contact” time if it meant I got more time overall. (I am not interested in unlimited time off, as I fear I would end up using less than I do now)

    2. sacados*

      Yeah and I think being super clear about it is the important thing.
      Like, you can have a flexible PTO policy but ask that people be totally clear about their contactability or not. That’s kind of how my current team operates, when we put in for vacation we sort of classify it as either “working remotely,” “reachable if urgent” or “pretend I’m dead.”

      So you can say “Hey boss I want to take June 1-10 off and be totally unreachable, any problems with that?” And then if boss is like “Hmm, well there’s a big deliverable coming in on the 3rd that we’d really want you to review” then you have the choice to offer to log in briefly that day and look at it, or maybe say “ok then how about I take off the 5-15 instead” or whatever.
      As long as there’s real transparency I think that kind of thing can work really well.

  5. Colette*

    My first thought is that you have to have people who can do the job while someone else is away. Not all leave is planned; if someone quit or got injured or sick, you’d be in trouble.

    I think you need to make leave available to everyone, even if it’s an inconvenance. That means that any employee should be able to take a week (or two, ideally) without checking email or being reachable, and that you should come up with a plan for longer leaves (parental/maternity, illness, family illness, etc.).

    It might help to figure out the bare minimum for every role. For example, if you think about money, you may not need to reconcile receipts against the company credit card every week, but you do need to have a plan to pay everyone on time – so you need to cross-train on doing payroll, but not necessarily the whole role. The person covering IT may need to be able to set up a new computer if one dies, but doesn’t need to install non-essential patches or create new accounts. Figure out what you have to be able to do every week, and train other people on those tasks.

    1. Colette*

      Oh, and make sure everyone has a solid, up-to-date document on how to do their job. I know many people hate doing those, but they’ll save you if someone unexpectedly leaves.

      1. Laney Boggs*

        Adjacent to my team (basically on my team) is a 3-person operations team. Each person covers half of the other two’s duties – so when A is out B covers responsibility 1&2, while C covers 3&4. While I’ve been there, none have taken an extended baby/emergency leave, just vacations, so I’m sure it would need work for an extended time (or a temp! That’s what they’re for right?) But it works well

      2. librarianmom*

        Excellent advice! I would add that having an annual review of coverage/documentation and a review before an employee leaves would be good.

      3. megaboo*

        Or get cross trained. I am firmly in the no contact during vacation camp (and I get in certain situations that you can’t do that), but I would prefer not to be the ONLY point person for something.

        1. Colette*

          Cross-training isn’t a substitute for documentation, especially when someone doesn’t do something often. It’s not unusual for someone to get sick while someone else is on vacation, for example.

    2. Ace in the Hole*

      Yes, cross training is key.

      I work at a fairly small (approx 30 employee) organization, which gives all employees a minimum 38 days PTO during which we are completely hands off. If my boss calls me by mistake on a day off and I actually pick up the phone, he apologizes for bothering me.

    3. Sharon*

      THIS. Small businesses are vulnerable when they can’t function without all hands on deck. If you can’t survive while someone is on vacation, you are certainly going to have business continuity issues if they leave the company. You’re also quite open to fraud and other sketchy activity if certain duties are only touched by one person- and not just payroll.

      1. Emma*

        Right – I work in a small financial services company and as such, we have to make sure that nobody has broad enough access/knowledge of processes to be able to commit a fraud on their own.

        I guess this probably contributes to the careful planning that management have done re cross-training (you do need documentation too, of course!) which means that absences are generally fine. We’re less than 20 people, we get the typical 5 weeks annual leave plus separate sick leave, parental leave etc, so there’s usually at least one person off for some reason or another. Good planning means that if Jane is off then each of the other members of her team picks up one or two of her tasks, it’s a manageable amount of extra work, some lower priority jobs might get deferred but there’s no huge disruption.

        Really long term absences are still a challenge – we had a colleague who was off sick for a year at one point and that led to a lot of overtime; when another colleague was on maternity leave management decided her work could fall by the wayside until she got back; we’ve also hired people on short-term contracts if we know we’re going to have a big gap to fill. But realistically you have to have backup plans, and covering for people who are off is a normal part of business that has to be factored into decisions about how much staff capacity the organisation needs.

    4. Dancing Donkey*

      This is great advice. I work at a tiny company and just took a 3-month paid family leave. I’m the only person in my role, so I started preparing weeks in advance, wrote up a lot of documentation, and had multiple meetings with my boss and teammates to plan for my leave. My boss pitched in significantly on the day-to-day work, so the teammate who primarily covered for me wasn’t expected to do two jobs. They focused on short-term and time-sensitive work, and strategic projects were postponed until I came back. It was a busy time for my team but it all worked out.

    5. consultinerd*

      It’s easy to say “invest in cross-training and documentation” but in consulting/professional services, which OP is in, it’s not uncommon for deep subject matter expertise, technical knowhow, and/or institutional knowledge to be the difference between being invaluable and useless. It’s massively harder to build real redundancy in these kind of capabilities than “oh, two people should know how to submit the TPS reports”–if they were easy to learn, your clients wouldn’t be spending big bucks retaining consultants with those skills!

      Not to say documentation and cross-training aren’t valuable and shouldn’t be a consistent priority for a lot of reasons. They should! But they can’t always substitute for having the right expert pay direct attention to a problem.

    6. Public Sector Manager*

      This is HUGE! When I worked at a public agency with a small legal department (me and two other attorneys), work was never reassigned during vacations. After my first year in the office, I decided to take a 2-week vacation. At that point, this was my first real vacation in the 6 years I had been practicing law. The month before my vacation, I was working 10-12 hour days and some time over the weekend just to get done everything that I could anticipate coming up during my vacation. My work actually never called me during vacation, which was nice. But when I got back, I had 2 weeks of work on top of my desk, which resulted in 10-12 hour days plus some weekends for the next 4 weeks just to dig out from the pile.

      It was such an exhausting experience I didn’t take another long vacation during the rest of my time there. Fast forward 3 1/2 years later, between never getting a break and a terrible boss, I left.

  6. bee*

    I’m in a union so I have a LOT of PTO compared to many Americans (21 vacation, 12 sick, 18 paid holidays) but since I’m a department of one, coverage is definitely the biggest roadblock to actually taking it. I think that what would really be helpful is waaaaay more cross-training than feels necessary. Right now, I have one person who can sort of do half my job, but it’s a big burden on them and I still have a ton of stuff to sort through when they’re back — I would love it if like, 3-5 people had at least a baseline understanding of what I do, so it could be more spread out among them without overwhelming any one person. As it is, I can’t really take more than a week off at a time, and it’s hard to enjoy it because I know it’s going to be a disaster when I get back.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Yes! Crosstraining is critical. Anyone could be hit by a bus/win the lottery at any time, so all businesses and teams should be thinking “What if [each person] dropped off the face of the earth tonight?” You may have to face that, and being prepared for it is the cost of resiliency. Or you can just hope that nothing bad ever happens to your business, and see how that goes. And you might get lucky, but you won’t know until it’s too late.

      1. Rosie*

        Ha, I used to work for a company where a dozen or so employees had a lottery pool, and when the head of risk found out he put it on the risk register. OTT (haven’t won yet, of course) but he was also right; the lot of them will quit instantly when they win!

    2. WellRed*

      18 paid holidays? I’m so curious as to the less obvious ones I’m gonna go googling.

      1. bee*

        I don’t mind saying! I work at a Jewish university, so we get slightly fewer federal holidays, but we have time off for pretty much every Jewish holiday — I basically don’t work a full week in October this year.

      2. Ace in the Hole*

        We get 14 paid holidays at my org: New Years, Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln’s birthday, Presidents Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving and the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and one extra floating holiday.

    3. Smithy*

      I was living outside of the US – so I had even more PTO than that, but was the only fundraiser for a nonprofit. In my particular case there were some major language barriers to cross training anyone (a key reason I was hired was because the bulk of my work was done in English which was a langue very few other staff had high proficiency in let alone being fluent).

      However, even if that had not been the case – fundraising is very often quite different from what nonprofit programmatic staff do and the time taken to cross train and keep anyone current would have been so cumbersome that hiring another fundraiser would have made more sense. Which for that organization and many other small organizations really just wasn’t needed.

      My approach to PTO therefore was to mix using time for long weekends where it was easier to totally unplug with taking longer vacations where I did spot work. Not ideal for many and I’m sure why many people do ultimately want to be at bigger places.

  7. SJP xo*

    I work in a small business, only 4 people and while im admin it’s fairly niche in knowledge. We are offered the UK standard of 28 days (including bank holidays) and I think that’s fair, and personally I entirely disconnect from work when I take holiday but I only take like 5 days (or 7 days including the weekend) which isn’t that long to be off with clients that can generally wait

    For any longer length of time I’d try and log in occasionally or ask my boss to call me with queries

    1. LDN Layabout*

      To be fair, that’s not UK standard, that’s the statutory minimum. Average in the UK including bank holidays is 33.5.

      1. londonedit*

        Yeah, I get 25 days plus 8 bank holidays and the time in between Christmas and New Year, so about 37 days in total (though I don’t count bank holidays as part of my allowance as you can’t choose when to take those!)

        I also entirely disconnect from work when I’m on holiday, unless there’s some sort of totally unforeseen emergency. The way it’s always worked in every job I’ve had is that there’s at least some element of cross-training, and/or you have colleagues who are willing to move a couple of things on for you while you’re away. It’s very common for people in the UK to take a two-week holiday at some point in the year (often in the summer) so it’s normal and expected that for a couple of weeks you might have three or four of Jane’s tasks to shift on a bit while she’s away (in my case, as an editor, it’d be ‘I’ve lined up a proofreader for Trends in Llama Training – the proofs are expected in on Tuesday 25th, could you send them on to the proofreader and the author for me when they’re in?’ or something like that – not actual in-depth work but a couple of quick admin tasks just to keep things moving through the process). And then of course when you’re away, your colleagues will do the same. In my line of work it’s a mix between making sure you get things off your desk so they won’t be in the way until you get back, and asking a colleague to do a couple of things while you’re off.

        The only time I tend to take a whole two weeks off is over Christmas, because the office is closed for one week anyway and it’s a good way of getting 10 days off work for only 4/5 days out of my holiday allowance, but I also take a few week-long breaks or long weekends throughout the year, adding the rest of the week on to a bank holiday weekend or whatever – we’re allowed to take over 5 days into the next calendar year, but those have to be used by the end of March, so most people take most of their annual leave during the calendar year.

        1. Storm in a teacup*

          I have exactly the same leave as Londonexit and a similar approach to how I use it. It’s interesting as I work for an American firm and I’ve noticed a number of our global team or those who’ve come to our uk offices from global are more likely to check emails etc whilst off than the Europeans (still including myself in that!).
          I think this is partly a cultural thing and partly about level of seniority.
          I was off for 2 weeks recently and checked my emails once as I knew that there may be some urgent stuff landing I may have needed to forward on. However my director needed to work a couple of half days during their leave to deliver an urgent, time sensitive project that no one else could have done.

        2. Tumbleweed*

          “though I don’t count bank holidays as part of my allowance as you can’t choose when to take those!”

          Honestly I think allowing them to be included in stat minimum makes it sound like the UK is a lot better for min holiday requirements then it actually is but it is worth knowing that if you don’t work a mon-fri full work week you do still get the bank holidays and you can choose to take them when you want (more or less) because it would drop you below minimum if you just didn’t take them cause you were already off – particularly relevant if you don’t work Mondays. (They also acumlate during maternity leave the same as normal holidays I believe?)

          1. GythaOgden*

            Yup. We’ve just transitioned to a new dedicated facilities organisation within the NHS (though not gone anywhere physically). Before we changed hands from our previous trust, we just took it for granted we’d get the bank holidays off and didn’t record them on any timesheets.

            After the changeover, however, we now have to book them out as part of our leave, and the leave hours we have include the 9 bank holidays we have during this leave year (April-March — the extra one is the Queen’s Jubilee, and I’ve engineered myself a six-day weekend by taking the following Monday and Tuesday off). It’s mainly because the facilities organisation obviously keeps staff on hand at hospitals and other clinics, and those working hours don’t conform to normal ‘business’ days.

            So it makes TOTAL sense from a holistic perspective to phrase it that way to make sure those who do work BHs get the same time off as those who don’t.

    2. Excel-sior*

      I think, like most people in the UK, if I’ve got just a day off for chilling out, with no solid plans, I’m happy for my colleagues in my team to ask me a quick, simple question (remind me where i can find file x, who do i contact for issue z, etc). But nothing big, nothing involving dealing with other teams.

      If i have something planned, i am off the radar.

      1. GythaOgden*

        Same here. I posted the other day about our franking machine not respecting my AL days and my colleague quickly checking with me for advice if necessary, but my supervisor has made it absolutely clear that she won’t bother us on our days off and we won’t bother her. Many of my office-based colleagues who now work from home had a line in their signature about not being expected to check emails after hours. We are public sector (NHS) so I think that plays a part in a reasonable working culture, but my husband worked for a small biz and he found that more collegiate than working for a larger private company.

        I recently had to rewrite the franking machine manual in plain English (seriously, the instruction sheet that came with it was written by someone who had obviously never had to use one!) so I’m rather glad that I can think about moving on.

    3. Media Monkey*

      also in the UK. i get 25 days paid holiday plus an additional 2 between xmas and new year (not guaranteed but normally given). plus 8 bank holidays on top. we almost always take 10 days-2 weeks holiday in the summer (as do most people) and i would only expect to be contacted in an emergency (or in the case of one old boss, to ask where the plans for last year for client x are saved on the system – that would be in “client x/ 2021/ plans” ffs). it’s considered generally that if you contact someone on holiday it is literally as a last resort for time sensitive info that no one else knows.

  8. EmNYC*

    I think what you need is clear rules. A lot of Americans don’t take their PTO because of various pressures, but one of them is the sense that it’s essentially impossible to do while maintaining quality of work. Flexible work that trusts people to manage their own work helps with a lot of that. I’m visiting family later this month while still working and I’m grateful for that flexibility. It’s not the same thing as “PTO” though. You shouldn’t call it that. Paid time off is TIME OFF. Sometimes you should put up an OOO. People burn out. The notion that you never take time fully away from work is not healthy and also makes me think your business(es) are not run well.

    What OP describes is about 85% of the way there in terms of what’s fair/right. Everyone deserves actual, real breaks.

  9. NoDramaLlama*

    One thing I would advocate for (because I do any time it comes up) is to make sure part-time staff have access to PTO. In my experience, small companies/orgs often have part-time staff and frequently seem to tout the flexibility of a schedule over giving accrued PTO (which really doesn’t help so much when you’re truly sick or you have duties or caregiving outside of work…or just need to take a day and don’t have the energy to make up the work time later).

    It sounds like you might already be doing that (if you have PT staff), but from experience I know sometimes PT staff get forgotten when upper management is advocating for staff benefits, so just my two cents! It sounds like you’re doing a great thing though!

    1. Cmdrshpard*

      My employer had part time staff and gives them all the same benefits on a prorated basis. If you are 50% part time you get 50% of the total time off for full time employees, 30% part time you get 30% of days etc… Same for other benefits like insurance i believe work 50% employers pays 50% of what they normally pay for full time employees etc…
      To me that seems fair.

      1. Sarah*

        Ugh I WISH I had that option! I transitioned from full-time in-office to part-time (50%) remote after I came back from maternity leave with my first child in June 2020 (she was born 5 weeks before the pandemic hit New York). At the time, it seemed AMAZING that my boss basically didn’t care when/how I got hours in, as long as I was getting work done. However, two years into it now, I definitely am feeling burnt out and wish I had a little more support. I don’t really mind not accruing actual PTO – I am pretty happy being a “light check-in” person if I want to take a single day, or sacrificing a week of pay if we want to go away, but what kills me is not getting paid for holidays. I end up just working on a lot of holidays (especially ones that I get off and my husband doesn’t), just to not have a full day’s work to try to make up. With a toddler at home, it’s hard enough getting my standard 4 hours in, anything extra means working in the evening.

  10. Dr. BOM*

    So there’s probably no easy solution, but if it were me, here’s how I’d approach things.

    1. For each team member, identify the tasks for which they have sole responsibility.
    2. Then, group them using the “Eisenhower method” – i.e. classify every task as urgent/not urgent and important/not important. In this case, “urgent” is best defined as “needs to happen within the timeline of this person’s leave.”
    3. Take the tasks that are both urgent and important and cross-train other team members. Make sure the task is fully documented.
    4. In the case of things needing someone’s authority / approval to go forward, identify backup decision makers.

    This does a few things: first off, it reduces your dependence on any one member of your team. This is good not just for allowing your team members to disconnect, it also covers scenarios like illness, death, or even people leaving the job. Secondly, it ensures that your team members can properly disconnect from work, allowing them to enjoy their time off and prevent burnout, which will make for a better team/

    If at all possible, try to encourage a culture of minimum leave time per year. This will ensure that you don’t find yourselves becoming overdependent on people who may risk burning themselves out and means that your “unlimited PTO” doesn’t become “no PTO” in practice.

    1. Reality Check*

      I like this, especially #4. If only 1 person is authorized to do certain things, deputize someone in their absence.

    2. Lab Boss*

      I’ve never heard it called the “Eisenhower Method” but that 2×2 classification can also be very enlightening when you look at what goes in Box 4: Things that are urgent but not important. ID’ing the tasks that add stress and interrupt timelines even though they’re not important (and eliminating them or finding a way to make them less urgent) makes the job less stressful across the board, and even more so when someone is on leave.

    3. fluffy*

      The previous company I was at instituted a policy when they went unlimited PTO: every employee was required to take off *at least* one week per quarter.

      I changed jobs a few months ago to another place with unlimited PTO and I’m holing myself to that requirement. So far it’s working out pretty well for me.

  11. Dust Bunny*

    You have to have enough staff. If you have enough staff to cover while everyone’s there but not enough if someone is out, then you don’t have enough staff. The last small business at which I worked had exactly enough people (some full-time and some part-time, but the part-timers were mostly in school or had other obligations so they weren’t as available) to run if everyone was there but it was virtually impossible to get days off because then we didn’t have enough staff or the right availability of staff to cover all shifts. Also, we had to call around and get someone to fill in for us, which was a) crap policy and b) not really possible given the reasons above. I hated that place. (Remote work wasn’t possible, so we had to have people in the building.)

    So if having one person out makes you either noticeably short-staffed, or if the staff you do have aren’t available enough to cover your hours, you’re understaffed.

    1. DeeBeeDubz*

      Came here to say something similar! Cross-training and proper staffing is key. I know that a lot of small businesses are running on tight budgets, but for the long term health of your staff and the company at large you need to build in redundancies. These will save you during unexpected absences or extended absences and will also make it possible for regular PTO to be used for ordinary situations like vacations, long weekends, etc.

    2. Oh yeah...*

      This. About 20 years ago, I was in a meeting discussing hiring and workload. Someone very cogently pointed out that given the 21 days of PTO, paid federal holidays, and sick leave at, say, one day a month, each person really only works 4 days a week. If you calculate workloads as if everyone works 5 days a week 52 weeks a year, you are DEFINITELY understaffed.

      1. TechWorker*

        This reminds me of a meeting with a team from another site (I am U.K. based, they were another country, not US). The meeting was to review their project plans because my team was seen as generally doing good project management. We plan based on everyone working .83 of the year based on holiday/sick leave, and asked them what their plan was for this – the response was that of course they don’t factor in PTO – and they seemed – proud (?!!) – to say this…

    3. ScruffyInternHerder*


      A small firm I worked for operated on this level of staffing – if our administrative assistant was out, unexpected or not, whoever got to the phone first was in charge of answering it, for example. AP stayed in her inbox instead of being processed (where a 10 day turnaround material discount is a thing…this is not cool). You’d think that this “On the Edge of Utter Chaos” model would have improved after three completely unexpected deaths of employees, but it absolutely did not.

    4. Anon Pleez*

      I strongly agree with this in principle, especially from the employee’s perspective, but if you have a limited budget as a small business, adding another person affects the salary you can offer everyone. I have a role that I’d like to support with a PT staff person–but if I can grow my salary cost for the company by $50k this year, that means that I can’t also give a significant raise to the person who has been doing so much over the past year that we need to get them support.

      (And please, don’t give me something like “if you can’t afford hire another person you can’t afford to have a business.” If this kind of thing were easy, everyone would do it.)

      1. Dust Bunny*

        The effect on your staff is the same, though: If one person is out, everyone is strapped. That it’s not easy doesn’t mean it can be disregarded.

        The places I worked were great if you were an owner/partner–their jobs “mattered” enough to get coverage–but the rest of us couldn’t get a morning off without having to jump through flaming hoops. In this instance, the wages weren’t livable so I wasn’t going to stay, anyway, but if pay had been lowish-but-workable I’d have stayed longer if management had been more accommodating on PTO. Having to find my own substitute out of a pool of people who couldn’t be available** was absurd and insulting.

        **We also weren’t allowed to accrue overtime, so it pretty much had to be a part-time person, most of whose schedules were already locked in by school or family obligations. Yes, this was the kind of place that made you get a doctor’s note for minor illnesses but also didn’t offer benefits.

        1. Anon Pleez*

          Hmmm… It makes a difference in this example whether this is a job that requires coverage or if it’s more task-oriented. If it’s a situation with exempt employees who have to complete a task in a certain time frame, there is still a lot of work but more flexibility.

          Still, there are lots of small businesses where the owner is trying to grow enough to pay themselves at all, and there just isn’t extra money to hire more staff yet. Hopefully management tries to make up for it by treating people as they’d want to be treated.

  12. childcareisexpensive*

    Parental Leave –

    My company was subject to FMLA, but offered less than ideal maternity leave (no paternity leave). I ended up exhausting my entire PTO balance and a little unpaid time to get 12-weeks off.

    Please consider applying the unlimited PTO with “light responsiveness” to your parental leave policy. After the first 2-weeks of recovery, I was 100% able to respond to emails, by the end of the first month, I could have kept the majority of my tasks under control and was honestly board.

    If I had the option for a reduced workload for 3-6 months with WFH that would have been very attractive as a new parent and likely less disruptive/costly to a small employer.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      I’m impressed that you could have done your job one month postpartum! I could not have. I was getting four hours of sleep per night, and I felt like I spent all my waking hours breastfeeding. One month out, I was still basically braindead and struggling to find time to shower regularly. (To be fair, I drafted a brief one week after the baby was born, and it turned out fine but the experience was very rough.)

      So OP, it just goes to show you that people’s experiences are different—and new parents won’t necessarily know ahead of time what their experiences will be like.

      1. childcareisexpensive*

        Very true. I was more thinking in the vein of generous benefits – a lot of big companies are offering 4-6 months 100% paid off. This could be something OP could work in.

        Also, unfortunately, since OP is not subject to FMLA, the answer could be zero days off, and termination if they don’t come back “soon enough”. Given that option, even the less than ideal scenario of WFH with a newborn is better than going back full-time after a week or two.

    2. Sarah*

      I actually agree with you, to an extent. I am eternally grateful that I live in New York and work for a large-enough company to be eligible for New York’s Paid Family Leave program, so I was off for 16 weeks with my daughter (6 weeks of disability, 10 weeks of paid leave at 60% of my pay), but I was checking emails just to clear them out at least once a week for almost the whole time, and by the last 2 weeks, I was texting my coworker to try to get up-t0-speed before my return. This time, I’ll have 18 or 20 weeks total (PFL is increased to 12 weeks now, and I may end up with 2 additional weeks of disability) after my twins are born, and although I only work part-time, I have greater responsibility. While no one is telling me I need to check in, I know I’ll feel like I want/need to, just to have an eye on how my (incredibly needy) client is holding up. Granted, had my old boss not botched many things, a former coworker would still be working with me, and SHE would be covering the client, so I’d be less worried, but unfortunately she has left the company, and the person who will be covering for me, although lovely, is very much in over her head.

    3. Ruby*

      Be careful, if you (generic “you”) are being paid with a shor-term disability policy, you are not allowed to do any work.

    4. GythaOgden*

      Not pregnancy, but cancer. I think my husband found his office more supportive of him as an employee when he was really ill and paid him in full for his sick leave the first time he was off (an operation to remove a cancerous organ). When the cancer came back, he continued to work as much as he could, his boss paid his treatment days at first, then when he was signed off basically for the rest of his life, he was on statutory sick pay (SSP) for six months then, although he couldn’t come back to the office more than one day a week if that, they kept him on the books, paid a small holiday pay allowance in the hopes that he would, and hired a temp. Sadly, he died about four months after his last day of actual work.

      I suspect a larger company might have been better about more than SSP at the beginning of his time off, but that would have run out and I don’t think they’d have had that personal connection to him to keep him on the books when it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to come back. Reading my public sector handbook, we get six months full pay, then six months half pay (at my level of service – it accrues at one month full, one month half per year worked), but at that point they would be questioning whether the employee should retire altogether.

      In the UK we’re good about AL, but not as good at sick leave. It’s dependent on the company — many larger companies do pay sick leave for a reasonable time, and it’s unconnected to AL/holiday/vacation, but smaller businesses piggyback on the government for SSP for six months. Hubby wouldn’t get the occasional day off for a bug paid like I would, but as I said, he DID get a lot more grace from his boss than I would if I’d been off for over a year like he was. I owe his boss a lot of gratitude for simply keeping him going with as much kindness as he could afford to give, and try to put work (landscaping, general trades) their way if I possibly can. It hasn’t been easy for any of us but it was really heartening to see how a small business could be much more flexible than a larger one.

      1. GythaOgden*

        To make it clear, hubby wasn’t a manual labourer. He was office manager…in an office of about three plus his boss.

    5. kittybutton*

      I absolutely did not want to work and would have found it frankly pretty crippling if my employer had expected me to be checking in and keeping things moving along. I also don’t think this can really be compared to checking in while on vacation. In that case, you’re keeping things moving while out for a week or two. But taking that approach when out for over a month really wouldn’t work.

  13. BugSwallowersAnonymous*

    This doesn’t address vacation or parental leave, but if preventing burnout is a key concern, could you move to a 4 day work week for everyone?

  14. fluffhead*

    Everyone will need to take time off at some point in their life to care for themselves, a new child, or a relative. Having paid leave has not been shown to negatively impact small businesses. In most cases, when an employee needs family or medical leave, if their employer doesn’t offer it, they either leave their job or take it unpaid. In many cases, workers will leave a company without a paid leave policy in advance of a major life event, like trying to conceive, in order to ensure that they have paid leave. The best thing you can do it advocate for paid family and medical leave policies in your state and at the federal level. Under current state programs that exist, small businesses have been helped tremendously with employee retention.

  15. zebra*

    Not to bring this to a dark place, but you also need to make sure your company is “bus-proof” — if someone gets hit by a bus tomorrow, are there others who can figure out what they’re working on and pick it up? By making sure all duties are cross-trained to a certain extent, that will help in case of the bus scenario AND make it easier for folks to take vacation knowing that things won’t blow up while they’re gone. Depending on your group you can either make it a more casual affair or actually assign out everyone to be cross-trained in particular areas or for particular people, so that you can make it a somewhat fair distribution and the same people don’t always end up “volunteering” to cover when needed.

    You could also have everyone devote some time to documenting processes and writing how-tos, so that if you do ever need to hire temps or have someone cover something they’re not specifically trained in already, you won’t have to start from zero every time. I guess none of this is specifically about leave policies but they’re definitely things that can make it easier for people to take the leave once they have it.

      1. zebra*

        That is a much more positive spin on the same concept, I will start using that!

    1. Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?*

      Almost two years ago, early in the panini, I took my DH to the ER for severe pain in the middle of the night. He works for a small-ish business, but one that has never had great policies around PTO. Thankfully, I went to school with his CEO, and my dad is friends with the COO, so they were easily notified and had no issue with him being out. However, his immediate supervisor kept calling – I finally answered it and said, “he’s septic, nearly unconscious from pain, and heading to surgery right now. You have to figure it out.” He is okay, but was hospitalized for several days before needing to recover at home for two weeks on VERY light duties.

      We are all replaceable. Our workplaces have to be prepared if something happens.

    2. Nora*

      I call this “alien-proof” as in, what if a staff person got abducted by aliens. Not as grim as getting hit by a bus but I don’t like the lottery example because imo if you win the lottery and no longer need to work you should still give 2 weeks notice!

  16. benny*

    I feel like the “we give a lot of PTO but mostly people stayed in touch on most vacations” is more a trade-off, but “how do we handle people going on maternity leave for months straight” is more like “how do I absorb a cost.”

    I guess the thing is that if you want to be able to support someone leaving and not answering emails for four months straight, separately from whether you are legally required to support that, then what you’d have to do is plan ahead and make sure there’s enough cross-training that everyone can get support?

    In OP’s shoes I would probably start by making up a Training Matrix and making sure at least two people were competent to do every business task, or look at what it would take to get there.

    People can leave whenever they want, so building resilience against people taking off for months would also be a big step towards being able to absorb someone quitting and having a gap until a replacement is hired, but I’d avoid putting “maternity leave” and “people quitting” right next to each other, just from a “morale-impact of the message” perspective.

  17. Niniel*

    I would love a combination of Dr. Blom and BugSwallowers Anonymous.

    In addition to a 4 day work week, I think it would be a good idea, if possible, to close from Christmas to New Year’s day and give everyone that week off, assuming you’re in a business that CAN do this of course. And be sure to be able to flex that week to cover other religious holidays as necessary.

    For everyone else, I think that guaranteeing everyone 2 weeks of completely off PTO would be fantastic in addition to all of the above. And then after that, 4 to 6 weeks of minimal check-in time would be lovely.

    As for FMLA or maternity leave, I like the idea of 3 months FMLA and then minimal check-in time for 3 months after that.

    1. Ashley*

      The holiday closure can be really tough for the accounting folks in small business trying to get the year end stuff ready to roll. I have worked places it was made clear accounting people could not take off the full week.

      1. Niniel*

        Oh, really? I had no idea. Thank you for sharing. Might explain why my 2 employers (both small businesses) haven’t done that then.

      2. Public Sector Manager*

        My wife’s work is more than 50 employees, but her branch is not and each branch has their own accounting department. While they close the week between Christmas and New Year’s, to make that happen, staff not in accounting performs basic functions for accounting and serving as accounting’s personal assistants. It’s totally insane! Otherwise, accounting would have to come in that week.

  18. MK*

    Make sure that PTO isn’t unfairly burdening the rest of the staff. If someone is off work, that should mean that their work (at least the bulk of it) doesn’t get done, or is done by a temp. Otherwise you aren’t actually giving them time off, you are just forcing their coworkers to work in their place.

    1. Karia*

      The flip side of which is that there needs to be actual coverage, because if taking a week off means having to do 4 weeks work in 3, most people will just stop taking time off. And that’s detrimental to people’s mental health.

      1. Rocket*

        This has happened to me so many times! As the accountant on staff, my busy period is so different from everyone else on staff. So when my bosses think they’re being kind in closing the office for a week at the end of the year or a (to them) random week in the summer, they’re just making my life crazy!

      2. Texan In Exile*

        Penultimate last straw to my quitting at the F100: I was the only person in my group who did The Thing That Was Required Every Month. To take a vacation last summer, I had to cram a month’s worth of work into two weeks so everything was ready before I left. I had no backup.

        1. Karia*

          I had an absurd situation where I had a really important (booked months in advance) medical appointment and an important meeting due on the same day. None of my solutions – cross training, re-scheduling, handling it remotely – were accepted, so I just had to travel several hours that day to make it work. It was one of my final straws.

    2. Tumbleweed*

      As long as it’s not ‘one person now does two people’s jobs’ and the tasks are split up between other people burdening the rest of the staff somewhat is probably fine given they get the same in return when they are off. Otherwise someone takes 2 weeks off and then…what plays catch-up for a couple of months afterwards (or before)? That’s not really going to work and that assumes their work can be left not done without inconveniencing everyone else even more. Temps don’t really work for every job but I guess good solution when they do

      1. Karia*

        That was always the trap I was in. Yes, theoretically I could take time off. But I’d spend weeks before and after catching up.

  19. Former Retail Lifer*

    I’m a property manager and the only person in the office at my location. There are people at other sites in my city that can step in here and there and cover the office, but there’s not anyone else who can do my full job when I’m on PTO or cover me for 8 hours a day for 5 days in a row. I have to plan PTO carefully around monthly deadlines (the 1st to the 10th are out due to financial reporting deadlines, and the last couple days of the month are also out due to other deadlines). I have to ensure that everything is wrapped up as much as possible before I go, that the person covering me knows when tours and move-ins are scheduled so they can plan to be here, and, for the rest of the time, they just monitor emails and voicemails for me from their own site. I always have a LOT to catch up on when I return. I have a reasonable amount of PTO, but it has to be planned in advance to find someone to cover me and planned around deadlines. I knew this was the case when I accepted this position. LW, offer what PTO you can but ensure everyone knows that, due to the size of your business, that it needs to be scheduled in advance to ensure basic functions are covered.

  20. Turanga Leela*

    Unlimited PTO in a small business often winds up pressuring people to come in. People don’t know how many days they can take off without looking bad, so they err on the side of fewer days. Unplugging aside—and I do think it’s important to let people unplug—having a vacation policy where people get a certain number of days that build up over time allows them to take time off guilt-free. It sounds like you haven’t had any problems with unlimited PTO at your company, but it’s worth being aware of.

    Allowing flexibility around partial days, flexed hours, and remote work can help compensate for less actual time off. It sounds like you’re doing that.

    Unfortunately, for new parents or people with serious medical issues… there’s not really a way around long-term leave. For people taking parental leave, you can ask them to finish big projects before the baby arrives, and maybe cross-train a colleague or an intern to keep things in maintenance mode or handle emergencies during the leave. You might be able to scale back that person’s department for the duration of the leave, or in some cases, the leave might provide the impetus to hire a new staff member, to cover the absence in the short term and build the business in the long term. For some jobs, you might be able to contract out some of the work during the leave. I’m thinking about if your general counsel or CPA is out, for instance; you might be able to hire a local firm to handle your basic needs during that time.

    I have two children, and I took eight weeks of leave for the first and twelve for the second. Going any lower than that is really a struggle, and new parents are not going to be super productive during that “fourth trimester” anyway. (That’s true even if the person has a stay-at-home spouse—the sleep deprivation hits both parents.) Offering less leave than that is a recipe for losing your employees when they have kids.

    1. SM*

      When my husband’s company switched from a standard PTO structure of so many weeks off per year to an unlimited PTO structure, they issued an email that outlined the use of it. One of the things I really liked in that email was they stated that they expected people to use, on average, 6 weeks of vacation per year. This gave them permission to take advantage of the benefit rather than not knowing how much they could really take and ending up taking less than they did in the old program.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        That’s very helpful. As I think about it, it would also be good to put out a calendar of formal office closure days. It sounds obvious, but sometimes in small, informal businesses, there’s real confusion about whether people are expected to come in on MLK Day, the day after Thanksgiving, and so on.

      2. GythaOgden*

        Six weeks is good. That’s generous, even for the UK. (I’m on 29 days plus bank holidays, just short of that mark but I definitely sacrifice pay for holiday for being in the public sector, and BHs are not moveable feasts for me.)

  21. LDN Layabout*

    As a childless person myself, I’m particularly sensitive to wanting policies in which single and/or childless employees aren’t going to disproportionally bear the burden of covering for people with families.

    I’d say part of your answer lies in the question: you need to have a leave policy that takes into account family or loved ones and not just children, when it comes to caretaking responsibilities. People resent covering for others less if they know the same grace is extended to them.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      And caring for oneself counts. So the childless person who covers for people on caretaking leave should get the same grace and opportunity to take a 2 week vacation in the woods as if they had a sick grandmother.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        I think it’s possible to say that a) caring for yourself counts, and b) it’s important to take vacations, without necessarily equating the two types of leave. A company should try to make room for employees to take vacations, especially if the company is worried about burnout. But a long vacation isn’t urgent in the same way that family or medical leave is—and I’m defining family or medical leave broadly here, to include caring for family, a close friend, or your own medical situation. So it’s possible that a small company really can’t regularly accommodate two-week fully unplugged vacations, but at the same time it has to figure out how to function if someone has back surgery, or has a baby, or has to care for a parent who has had a stroke, because there’s just no way around those things.

        1. LDN Layabout*

          Yeah, there’s something very distasteful to me around equating someone going on holiday with someone taking leave to care for a sick relative or dealing with their own illnesses.

          Sometimes things will be unequal, but still equitable.

      2. DataSci*

        No, this isn’t quite right.

        Because that takes you down the path of saying “You used all your PTO this year caring for your sick grandmother, so you have none to spend on taking a vacation”. Sleepless nights sitting in a hospital and lounging on the beach to recharge aren’t even remotely equivalent.

  22. lindsay weir*

    I used to work for a tiiiny start up (I was the first full-time employee) who had an ‘unltimited PTO policy as long as all your work gets done’… which it *never* is, especially at a tiny company. Having a policy like this means companies can get away with not having the structures in place which allow people to take proper time off without absolutely everything being done – I actually just ended up feeling guilted into never taking holidays and robbed of my ‘official’ 4-5 weeks off (I’m in the UK). If you’re in the US, an unlimited policy might be more generous in comparison to the far more limited PTO allowances you guys tend to get. I agree with other commenters that a hybrid policy would be good – X amount of weeks of fully disconnected vacation, but with additional remote work/part-time flexibility made available to employees who know they have to be available at X times of day.

    1. Media Monkey*

      i have heard that companies (also in the UK) who give unlimited holidays tend to find people take fewer days than if they had an allowance. i would appreciate an expectation as the person above said that 6 weeks was expected to be how much you would take. however would that be any different to having that as an allowance?

  23. AVP*

    Just chiming in here with one example from a tiny company. We’re ~10 people, and I’m in a key role that generally needs to be covered if I’m out for more than a week. We work with clients directly and no one else here does what I do.

    When I had a baby last year, they offered me six weeks at first (paid). I countered that I would need at least 12 weeks, because I knew I couldn’t get childcare in my area before that. We eventually ended with 6 weeks fully paid, six weeks 50% paid – so 12 weeks 75% paid all-in-all. They did hire a contractor to cover my role, so they were out that money minus the little bit they saved on me.

    However, having that contractor allowed them to maintain my usual clients and add 1-2 more, so overall it was worth the spend. Beyond that, they have my loyalty and showed the other women on staff that they were safe to plan to stay at the company through their future pregnancies, which has already led to less turnover. And right now, minimizing turnover is a top-top goal, so well done on our CEO’s part.

    1. AVP*

      Re: PTO. We also have “unlimited,” it doesn’t accrue, frankly we’re just so small it doesn’t make sense to have someone track days and this is is a simple way to handle that.

      We hire extremely selectively for people who are responsible and will get their work done in a reasonable timeframe, and it’s been fine. If we see people not taking vacations or working late night or weekends, we check in and gently suggest they take their time off, or see if they need some support.

      I put unlimited in quotes up above because my impression is that these are never truly unlimited. We have an internal target (around 4 weeks annually) and if someone started going too far beyond that I’d be looking into whether they were really getting their work done or leaning too heavily on colleagues for coverage, but it hasn’t happened yet.

      1. lindsay weir*

        Are the employees all aware that ‘unlimited’ actually means ‘up to 4 weeks’? In my experience unlimited policies lead to people taking off less time than they’re entitled to (which I think is a bad thing) but if people were to take it at face value and take as much as they really want, I’ve often wondered how that would be handled. FWIW, in my opinion 4 weeks isn’t enough to be calling people’s productivity into question

        1. AVP*

          When we hire people we usually say something like “we really recommend that you take one week per quarter!” and then poke them if they haven’t been scheduling time. So I think we do a pretty good job of getting people to use it.

      2. Texan In Exile*

        I worked at a Big Company years ago and I tracked my own vacation, as did everyone else. I never heard that it was a problem.

    2. JustKnope*

      You make a really important point! Looking solely at short term costs like covering the contractor plus your salary isn’t the full picture; staff retention and morale, plus the ability to keep your business strong in the meantime, is totally worth the extra money in the end. More employers would benefit from a big picture perspective like this.

  24. SomebodyElse*

    I think, OP, you are on the right track with flexibility. I actually don’t see anything wrong with any of the scenarios that you described in the letter, including people taking working PTO. The only thing I’d suggest is to stress and model that that they can take ‘unplugged’ PTO and that’s perfectly acceptable and encouraged.

    For the question about the longer periods of leave (such as maternity and STD equivalent) I’d think about a strategy for doing this. This is where contract and/or temp workers start to make sense. It may be hard to backfill for a higher level manager, but it would probably work out to have existing employees take once step forward, so to speak, then backfill the lower/more junior roles with a temp. There are agencies that specialize in technical more advanced temp roles and you may have luck finding someone advanced in their career looking for a short term role. This would just add to your allowable flexibility. Tap into some of your relevant professional organizations who might be able to connect you with people who are looking for short term or flexible work.

    To be clear all of this would add to your budget and salary expense, but it could pay off in the long run if/when you expand, need to replace an employee, or cover leave in the future. It also has the advantage of offering experience to existing employees that can translate into succession planning.

    The only other thing I’d say is be willing and able to treat employees as individuals and be conscious of the one bad apple trap. If you have one person abuse the flexibility then deal with that one person vs. removing the flexibility for all. And remember some people seek out small employers because it is more flexible.

  25. Jareth*

    I work at a company with fewer than 20 people, and I’m the only admin. I’m sick as often as twice a month, and that doesn’t count as a break by any means so I also take my allotted 10 days of vacation. We keep our benchmarks tight (1 or 2 day responses) so that when I’m out, we have room to let things wait. If I’m out for more than two days, the boss or a part-time admin can cover the urgent and the basic. This won’t work for all industries, but I’d recommend adjusting both staff and client benchmarks to decrease urgency and stress.

  26. Tough balance*

    I have a small business with 2 part-time employees. I have a great part-time employee who went on her second maternity leave. I hired the second employee to help while she was gone, but we needed that third person to add that flexibility we were missing. Now that she is back, she doesn’t have daycare. She does has family that helps out and we schedule her time around when that is and nap times. That means I have to be flexible. But there are days when I need her more than that and she is flexible. I was nervous about it, but both us were super committed to making it work and honestly, it has gone way better than I thought it would. I think the biggest thing I have learned was that we both had to go in wanting to make it work and both communicating a ton.

    As for time off, we have an electronic calendar that they put down their availability. Since they are both part-time, I work around what they are available. It did mean there was a week where neither of them were on during spring break. Both had really important things to be doing. I managed without them, but was very happy to have them back.

    My situation is different because they are both part time and not full time.

  27. Plant_Mama*

    In my current small office of 5 people, we get unlimited PTO but it’s definitely frowned upon to use it. Three weeks ago I took a Monday off and I was going to take next Monday off as well and they instantly were like “oh wow that’s a lot of time back to back”….it’s one day? Me not being here one day will not affect productivity. They also expect you to be readily available during your PTO. I hate it, I’m looking for a new job ASAP. I know everyone is different but I personally would never take a job where you were expected to answer work questions during your time off.

    1. lindsay weir*

      Same, it’s so important to me that time off is *time off*. I think people get an ego boost from feeling completely indispensable, but in my industry there is absolutely no one whose absence would result in the company folding or people dying, so it just creates a really unhealthy, competitive culture.

    2. K-Sarah-Sarah*

      I don’t get it. Being available to work on PTO…isn’t really PTO. I’d hate that too.

    3. AVP*

      That is wild! Have you (or any coworkers) tried to take a full week off for a vacation? What happened if so?

      1. Plant_Mama*

        Yes! My boss just got back from two weeks “off” and he emailed me nearly every day to see how things were going! I don’t get it.

    4. Koalafied*

      Agreed. If I have to be available then I’m not on vacation, plain and simple. Even if it’s just a random single day off – maybe even more so, from the perspective of how little burden it would place on others to have them wait one lousy business day for an answer to their question.

    5. Teapot Wrangler*

      Wow! You definitely do need a different job – two individual days off in the space of a month is not something that should ever attract comment

  28. Kaiko*

    Echoing what others have said about cross-training and training manuals, but also keep a roster of temp agencies with viable placement sand/or contract workers you know who can step into the role of needed. I have done plenty of short-term contracts, and you’d be surprised at how many contractors have plenty of experience in whatever field you’re in, but no interest in permanent/full time.

  29. Goose*

    I work for a larger org. that has unlimited PTO, but recently implemented a policy where everyone needs to take off at least two days per quarter. I like this because it encourages both long vacations and taking breaks throughout the year.

  30. Katie*

    If financial burden is not an issue, perhaps hire a few more people. That way when people are on PTO it will not be as much of a burden when they are out.
    Then cross train, cross train, cross train. Even if you hire more people, cross training is a must.

    I also recommend not have unlimited PTO. Studies have shown that unlimited PTO actually limits the amount of PTO someone actually takes. A generous PTO package should be offered (and perhaps a separate generous leave process).

  31. Karia*

    Caveat; everyone is different. But I would never really relax in this scenario. I’ve also been in the situation of working for small businesses where I was the only one who could do my job. I never felt like I could take real leave and cycled through burnout every few years.

    I would recommend cross training on essential tasks so that people can take real holidays. Additionally, that way it’s less of an issue if an employee gets sick or leaves.

    1. TimeTravlR*

      Cross-training is so critical. People can plan PTO all they want but sometimes life steps in and all are plans are out the window. I always said, What happens if I get hit by a bus? Who will cover the basic tasks until they can get someone? And, importantly, how will people know what needs done… but that’s a whole ‘nother post!

  32. Liz*

    It’s harder in a small company when there’s not a lot of overlap between roles, but is there any scope for cross training the most urgent tasks that need to be covered for each role? It doesn’t have to be full on duplication but if, for each role, you can identify the top 2 things that generally must be covered, or would have negative consequences if the person in the role was fully unplugged, and then do some cross training that might help. It would also have the benefit of preventing things from falling apart if an employee quits or had to go on extended emergency leave. Additionally, there might be some career development benefits for your employees. I’ve seen this done even in very small companies.

    Additionally, yes, I like the idea of having say a PTO policy of say X weeks where no contact is required or assumed (you can further specify it that, except in an emergency X amount of notice is needed) and then X days or weeks where “emergency availability” is required. But it should be a true emergency.

  33. Betty*

    I work for a small business (<10 people). I started working there because I completely burnt out in my previous career (academia). I'm therefore extremely protective of my time off and try to avoid boundary creep with working vs. personal time. I also had a baby while working there (during the pandemic, so with all the childcare unavailability that implies), for which I got 1 week of parental leave, 8 weeks of disability, and used vacation to make up the difference to take a full 12 weeks. Although we're small company, there is some overlap in projects/roles such that it isn't the case that one person being out ever means there's no one to cover X.

    Things that I think work well at my employer, given all of that:
    + Unlimited sick time, which includes medical appointments for myself and my kid
    + Openness to flexing hours/WFH as a way to cover other personal/family time (so e.g., I took a trip to see out of state family, and officially took 4 days of vacation for my full-week trip to reflect that I was working ~2 hours a day to stay in the loop on urgent projects)
    + In addition to 'vacation' days (that we're supposed to take as whole days) we all get 5 PTO days that can be taken as half days– again, I feel like this is fair to everyone as a way to handle "off but also kinda still working" time. (e.g., I've taken half days for "it's a nice day in the middle of the week, let's go to the zoo for the morning and then I'll be back for afternoon meetings")

  34. Combinatorialist*

    I think you need to do a few things:

    1. For each job, figure out what must get covered by someone else for a 1 week absence, 2 week absence, 1 month absence, and 3 month absence. Things not in this category can either wait (if it isn’t going to make the person’s workload unmanageable when they return) or just get skipped for the time period. If the person makes a weekly TPS report, can you just survive with missing a few? Not everything needs to be done all the time.
    2. Cross train on the stuff that needs to be covered on short absences.
    3. Create streamlined processes for training a temp on what needs to be covered on the long absences. This might be Bob is out for 3 months for a medical issue. Alice does the hard parts of her job and Bob’s job and a temp is hired for the easy parts of both jobs. It would be best if Alice could be appropriately compensated for having a harder job (like with money).
    4. Structure people’s jobs so they aren’t running at 100% all the time so there is slack for when they need to cover. Like their jobs should be 80% the normal stuff, 20% long-term, low priority projects that get dropped when they need to cover.

  35. TimeTravlR*

    Appropriately, I just read this on social media: Give new hires two weeks PTO before they start to allow them to take time off and recharge between jobs. I think the tradeoff would likely be that they will believe you truly have their interests at heart and not just the company’s. Coupled with some of the ideas you have, OP, it could be a great formula for longevity.

    1. Just a different redhead*

      Man that’s great. Personally I’d take it even if it were unpaid if it meant that the insurance and whatever else didn’t require acrobatics to fill the gap.

  36. K-Sarah-Sarah*

    1. Coverage so people feel that they actually can take leave without business grinding to a halt.

    2. Paid. Parental. Leave.

  37. Atalanta0jess*

    There is a really fabulous creator on TikTok named Madeline_pendleton, who runs a successful small business, and has unlimited leave, as well as MANY other egalitarian and supportive workplace policies. She talks a lot about how her business works, and it’s well worth the time to hear about her approach.

  38. Chief Bottle Washer*

    I currently have 30 days PTO and I’m considering a job with “unlimited” PTO, and I’m totally worried that really means I’ll lose time off because of pressure to not be out so much.

    1. Decidedly Me*

      I took a little over 30 days last year with my company’s unlimited policy. Ask the job you’re considering if there is a required minimum and the average time people in the team you’ll be on tend to take.

    2. Reluctant Manager*

      Start as you mean to go on. It’s not great to take a 2-week vacation in the first 3 months, but start letting your boss know when you’ll be out for half days or a day here and there, and at 3 months you can start talking about a week or so a few months out–this is all planned, not sick/othercare time or a doctor’s appointment here and there. It’s much easier to maintain a pattern that you establish early than try to peel yourself out of the office after 2 hectic years. Same with office contact–don’t answer emails on nights/weekends/PTO and people won’t expect it from you.

      Depends on company culture, or course!

  39. Hiring Mgr*

    Regardless of company size (i’ve worked at 5 person startups, 10K enterprises and in between), IMO unlimited PTO where there are no separate buckets for sick time, etc is the best overall policy.

    Unlimited has its detractors, and the name isn’t really accurate – to me it’s more about maximum flexibility.

    The best use of it is when it’s combined with a mandatory 3 weeks off

  40. JumpAround*

    Just popping in to say that your leave policy sounds great as long as it’s not perceived as a problem for people who do want to truly unplug. I personally would be one of those people. I absolutely hate when my time off (whether vacation or just off hours) gets commandeered by coworkers, so I’d rather work/be available during specific hours and be able to turn off other times. My sister on the other hand will happily be available almost 24/7 and have more flexibility in her day to day. She’s better at turning off than I am.

    As long as you’re equitable about the PTO or the flexibility and never approve PTO based on parental status I think you’re fine. I’d also check in if you notice someone isn’t taking advantage of it but their team is. It may be that they feel they must cover or are getting pressure (whether intended or not) from their team to allow provide coverage.

  41. justabot*

    One thing that helps is being flexible on things like doctor’s appointments, dentist, a hair cut, etc. Don’t make people take a half day of PTO to run out for an appointment. That helps save vacation days, etc.

    1. JustKnope*

      Yes, this. My mom always had to take a half day if she had to take one of us to the doctor or go herself, no matter how short the appt was. That’s so demoralizing.

      1. JustKnope*

        And it really emphasizes the flip side of that: she was working way more than 40 hours for them. So if they couldn’t let her have two hours for a doctor’s appointment in a week where she was already pulling 10 hour days… ugh.

  42. Nick*

    I am not a fan of asking people to work on their time off. At all. It is an abuse of an earned benefit and is literally stealing from employees. They have already earned the time off and anything extra is demanding they work for free. But I guess that only applies in an accrued PTO policy and not an unlimited PTO policy. Still, you are robbing people of the opportunity to truly embrace vacation planning if there are restrictions on where they can go and what they can do because they have to be reachable and expected to spend part of the day working. If you do end up going the route where you want some access to them on vacation, you need to operate under hours of PTO instead of days of PTO, so that they can bill for time worked and time off separately. This way, you would not be stealing their earned benefits or their time.

    I would examine your business processes and look at how every position’s duties can be split among other personnel and then plan and train the workforce accordingly. It would mean there is a limit to the number of people that can be off at the same time, but that is extremely common. A lot of places do not actually plan for time off and so never cross train different roles. They just get mad at employees who ask for time off and treat them like they are part owners in the company or like they are slaves that should be grateful to even have a job. When the reality it was managements poor planning that caused the problem.

  43. PX*

    Going to echo a lot of the comments others have already mentioned:
    – handbooks and crosstraining so that you dont have really important single points of failure (this is just good planning anyway)
    – differentiating between what is *actually* essential to get done while someone is out, vs what can wait (you’d be surprised how people dont really know the difference between these)
    – based on the above, I’d also add: expectation management and realistic timelines – both when someone is out, but also in general. if the timeline for things can be 5 days vs 2 days, set the 5 day expectation early to buy yourself buffer in times when you will *really* need it.
    – finally, like Kaiko said – consider building up a pool of *regular*/known contractors or temps who can cover when needed. You said its hard to train for specialist skills – but this is where having a contact with a local temp agency can be valuable. If you know what kind of skills you would need, you can try and see if you can find people with those skills who would be interested in doing contract/short term work. This is probably better for long term coverage (eg maternity leave) but no reason you cant prepare or plan ahead for this. For example if you are having a particularly busy period, you could have them on as extra help when needed.

  44. Koalafied*

    There are a few things you need a really clear grasp of to handle this well:

    1) What does each employee do, and how long do different tasks actually take to complete?

    2) Which of their tasks are mission-critical or legally mandated, and which can the business survive not getting done for a couple of weeks? For instance, you have to run payroll every week and file your taxes on time, but the business would survive going two weeks with no social media posts if a lack of coverage for that task was the only thing standing between an employee and a proper chance to disconnect for a vacation.

    3) Are there any mission-critical or legally mandated tasks primarily owned by one person but straightforward/basic enough that another team member could be cross-trained on and expected to cover during the primary owner’s vacation?

    Use the above information to help your employees create vacation plans that outline 1) what they will do before they’re gone or after they’re back, 2) what another team member will cover in their absence, and 3) what team members should know is not going to get done/be available during this time. Culturally, normalize the idea that it’s OK for people to take vacation even if they can’t ensure that 100% of their job continues to get done exactly as if they weren’t on vacation.

    For #3, temps are also an option, but cross-training is better for a lot of reasons – even though it does increase the burden on your staff to cover during occasional vacations, it also frees them to take vacation themselves so most won’t mind the trade-off, it’s cheaper for the business, it’s usually easier to cross-train someone who already knows the business than a completely naive temp, and cross-training/cross-covering is a really effective way to prevent fraud and creates a stronger impetus for documentation to be kept up-to-date than “some abstract future date you might leave and this would help us train your replacement.”

  45. River Otter*

    A colleague’s former company had an interesting policy that might be adaptable for you–

    They had some number days of vacation that were limited. Those days were supposed to be used for true vacations, meaning, stuff that you wanted to do bc it’s fun, and the intention was for employees to recharge. They had a separate bucket of time that was unlimited for other stuff, which could include doctor’s appointments.

    As an example of how this worked, said colleague went to his boss to ask for a day of vacation to go to a family wedding. Boss asked if it was something he really wanted to go to. Colleague said no, not really, we’re only going bc it’s family. Boss said, that’s not a vacation, so we’ll put that day in the second bucket.

    (I didn’t ask how sick time was handled.)

    Adapting this to your business, maybe give a limited number of vacation days, which accrue and carry over, where there is no expectation of doing work. Give unlimited days of partial work expected–either bc they go in for half a day and leave for an appointment or bc they don’t go in but still do some work. For planned time off, they have to decided before they leave which they are taking. If there is company initiated contact during a vacation, such as for an emergency, then that vacation can be re-categorized as a partial-work-expected day.

    I would give unlimited sick time with no expectation of work. If somebody is recovering from something at home and they want to do some work bc they are bored out of their mind, then that would be allowed, just not expected.

  46. Formerly Ella Vader*

    This is relevant to me because I work for a very small organization. For example, over my time here, we’ve almost never had two people who could run payroll. Sometimes we had a junior person who could collect the timesheets and set it up, with the senior person coming back from vacation in time to push the button, or doing the final steps while on vacation. Other situations, the person doing payroll just planned their time off to not include the day/days that payroll deadlines loomed.

    I appreciate that you’re being proactive about this, since it’s easy for anyone with history of unstable employment or unhealthy work environments to slip into habits of wanting to be indispensable. And of course it’s hard for the people at the top to model shutting off on vacation/weekends or leaving work to the newly-crosstrained, because the consequences of their absence can be much different than the consequences for more junior people.

    I’m thinking that parts of the solution, in an organization where there is an intent to respect workers and not exploit them, are
    – encourage everyone to develop documentation for how to do parts of their jobs
    – encourage everyone to delegate parts of their jobs for even short breaks (a day of medical appointments, a week of fieldwork or conference attendance) because it’s good for other people to learn new tasks and this will help identify which things can easily be covered.
    – pay attention to whether there are parts of your job you can leave undone for a day or two, and other parts you can delegate if absent, and then talk about why you’re doing that when you have a planned absence
    – think specifically about what would be a problem if someone were unreachable for a month but you had budget for a temp hire. If the invoicing person were in the hospital, the receptionist could do the basic accounts-receivable tasks with support from the big boss, and you could hire a temp receptionist. But that would go better if there was some documentation and training – not just for the receptionist, but for the big boss.
    – once you’ve started all these processes, you have a better sense of what the weak points would be if you had a parental leave or LTD, or a long-term accommodation such as someone able to work part-time remote but not able to work full-time in the office.
    – also once you’ve started these processes, you can start having conversations with people about what they’d prefer in terms of time to recharge or travel or whatever. Maybe some people really want two weeks unplugged but think the company either needs them available or will have them on the layoff list. Maybe others would have a better quality of life if they could spend all of August at the cottage without great internet, but responding to client calls as needed. Maybe the person anticipating a mat leave would really like to be out of reach for a week while pregnant but hesitates to ask for it in case it’s an additional burden, and you could point out that actually it’s better for the company to “test-drive” the coverage plan.
    – Another thing I just thought of – I hate it when well-meaning co-workers stop copying me on emails because I’m off this week. If I want to have the whole email trail so I can engage when I’m back at work or intervene when it’s going wrong without me, I need to be disciplined enough to *not* intervene unless absolutely necessary. And for me, that means not checking the messages often.

  47. hmmm*

    OP regardless of what you decide, I’m thrilled that you are even asking this question! You seem to really care about your employees and doing what’s right for everyone and your business.

  48. Louise*

    Having worked at a small company where cross training was fairly limited, I had a rule where two co-workers could call while I was out – the owner and the the office manager. This helped limit the unimportant, and I was someone whose calls they took while they were out because I was responsible with calling about urgent important things only. I was high level so 100% disconnecting was rare, but I did pick a few vacations where phones calls weren’t possible.
    One culture piece is making sick leave available and usable and not making people work while sick, or again for the most urgent things being able to debrief someone easily if you have an unexpected absence. Also, the flexible schedule is even more important for those that can’t truly disconnect but make the expectations clear on responsiveness during core hours.
    All that said the amount of work that went into prepping for vacation was exhausting but the only way to limit the vacation interruptions and it is in the long list of reasons why I switched companies.

  49. Ihaveaheadache*

    Maybe a little tangential, but I would be careful about allowing working on PTO if that PTO involves being in another country. If you are doing any work over a 6 week period in Germany, that may require a work visa as well as effect your taxes here in the US and require paying taxes in Germany. Obviously a lot of people break these laws but there are laws around this.

  50. DeeBeeDubz*

    Perhaps I am outside the norm but on principle I am never ever available to do anything work related while I am on PTO. It is called Paid Time Off for a reason. If I am expected to be available to answer work questions then it’s not truly time off and if it’s not time off then it should not be coming out of my PTO balance. My work does not allow me to do 1 hour paid, plus 7 PTO hours in a day, so I check out completely.

    Knowing that, I set an auto-reply saying I am unavailable until [date] and all emails will be responded to no earlier than that day. I provide an alternate contact for urgent situations (with my boss’s and that contact’s agreement) and I remove my work email app from my phone. I adjust my notifications so all colleagues who call automatically go to voicemail. I don’t mess around,but I am also crystal clear on that with my employer and they support me unplugging. Not all my colleagues are as zealous as I am but if I know someone is off, I do everything I can to work through an issue without their help.

  51. Free Meerkats*

    Crosstrain, crosstrain, crosstrain.

    There shouldn’t be anyone in your organization who is the only one who knows how to do their job. It like will be that if Person A is hit by the proverbial bus, Person B does X part of their job, Person C does Y, and Person D does Z. But someone knows how to do every part of anyone else’s job.

  52. christine crang*

    On the family leave/parental leave component: in Canada, all employers are legally required to allow their employees to take maternity/parental leave of up to 18 months (used to be 12 months, and that’s still more common) and hold their jobs for them during that time (that’s the total for a person who is pregnant, gives birth, and then takes the parental leave — it’s a little more complicated when parents split the leave or for other family structures). The government pays the employee a stipend during this period at employment insurance rates. Because it is such a firm social norm that almost everyone who has a baby takes a year, even small organizations make this work and limited term parental leave postings are common. I think the really hard thing about covering parental leave in the US is that you folks take such SHORT leaves! It’s really impractical to bring someone external in to fill the spot for just a couple months.

    Larger organizations and those with serious commitments to gender equality and social justice (or those that just want to do a good job of retaining women and parents in general in the workforce) may choose to pay parents a top-up during their leave time, usually with accompanying rules about how long the employee must stay on after the leave. My tiny organization with a staff of 6 did this when I had my son. It cost them about 20k and bought them my genuine loyalty and commitment to the role for at least the next several years. They’ve never had an employee with young children before but between this policy, a fair vacation allotment of 4 weeks/year, and a general attitude of flexibility and family friendliness when I need to take my kid to a Dr’s appointment or bring him along to an online meeting because hes’ home sick, I would never consider leaving before I’m done building my family and all my kids are through their kindergarten years.

  53. Gnome*

    I would reconsider thinking of this as being about parental roles or maternity leave AT ALL. I have seen more middle aged men out for extended periods than women for giving childbirth in my tenure. I’m sure that’s just me, but ANYONE can have an issue that requires a lengthy absence, just like anyone can quit with little notice. So I’d suggest starting there.

    If Joe needs to have surgery and will be out for a month to recover, what would you do? Hopefully, something like ask him to make notes on stuff that can be passed off fairly easily, consider what can be worked ahead or wrapped up, figure out what the bare essentials are, and figure out if you need a temp or your team can help cover that. And then you’d all pull together so Joe can have a good recovery… and you’d avoid resentment because when Jim throws out his back next year (sorry, Jim!) Joe will help with that. So it’s a team culture of “we take care of each other.”

    The same holds true for family stuff and smaller stuff like vacations. You plan ahead, postpone and prioritize as needed, and go from there. Sure, the ability to have “light PTO” could be good. But that will be highly detrimental to some people and if that’s the standard, then you could actually end up discriminating (e.g. against people from foreign countries who want to visit family in weird time zones once a year) or just having folks who get burnt out.

    So I really encourage you to consider that this is a working-with-people issue, not a working with moms or parents issue.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      This is a really good way of putting it. I have young kids so I tend to see this through the lens of parental leave, but I’ve had at least two colleagues who were out for months due to accidents/major surgery, and I had one colleague who took several weeks off after a parent died (to deal with selling a house and so on). People can go years without taking long leave, but eventually, almost everyone needs it.

  54. Beth*

    I can see how this system works–personally, I’d be fine with spending some time on emails and calls if it meant being able to travel significantly more! Being able to take a 6 week trip sounds incredible.

    But I think it’s also important to insist on at least 1-2 weeks a year for each of your employees where they are truly disconnected. That would mean staffing and cross-training more so you have coverage, and I know that’s not always easy especially when you’re working on a small scale and hiring even 1 extra person is a big increase in costs. But it does a lot of good! It means your employees are significantly more protected from burnout, for one. And if someone leaves suddenly (which happens–people get another opportunity, or have a medical emergency, or have a family emergency they need to be a caregiver for), you already have the flexibility and experience in place to cover their role. You get a sporadic second pair of eyes on whatever someone is working on when they go on leave, which can be useful to catch any quality issues that might be going on. If you enter a crunch period, you’re already staffed with a little ease in the system, so you can accommodate the workload without driving anyone up the wall. Those things are worth a lot.

  55. Tuppence*

    Personally I’d advocate for a generous leave policy rather than “unlimited”, since “unlimited” in practice tends to favour the employer. I would also introduce flexibility into the policy so that, if “lightly plugged-in” works for people and their roles, there’s an option to do, say a week of “half-days” (thereby using only 2.5 days’ leave for a 5-day vacation – where the half day would be a light daily check-in of a couple of hours to respond to emails or whatever, not actually four full hours’ work). That flexibility would still enable people who really need fully-unplugged time to just take the 5 days, guilt-free, but also allows those who want to stretch out their leave time and don’t mind making the compromise.

    The key to any option is to build a culture that ACTIVELY ENCOURAGES people to disconnect and recharge from their roles – in whatever way works for them. If there’s the slightest *hint* that not fully disconnecting will get you viewed as “virtuous” or “hard-working” or a “team player”, it erodes the wellbeing benefits of whatever the policy is.

    Have separate buckets for sick days and vacation days. Sick days are for emergencies (and yes, I’m including “just a bad cold” as an emergency); vacation days are for rest and recharging. People should expect to use their entire vacation entitlement, but most people wouldn’t expect to use their entire sick leave entitlement every year, it’s there “just in case”.

    Also, have sufficient cover. BUDGET for the cost of one person’s worth of productivity to be salary+5%, because that’s how the actual cost will average out if, say, one in five employees needs to take an extended leave each year (adjust according to data-driven assumptions of how many staff might need an extended leave).

    1. DataSci*

      I really like this compromise – let people who don’t mind working a couple hours a day call it a half-day on vacation, but still allow people who want to fully check out to have a true vacation. Just make sure it’s clear which is which, so people in the “fully checked out” camp don’t feel pressured to check in, or penalized after the fact for not doing so.

      “Sick leave is for emergencies” – what about routine doctor visits? I don’t want to have to use vacation time to go to the eye doctor, or take my kid to the dentist.

      1. Tuppence*

        Yes, routine doctor visits would normally be sick leave too (or in the UK, for anyone in a salaried position they are often just given, and/or you would flex your hours – start/finish a bit later to make up the time)

        1. Tuppence*

          (my main point really was that an illness which requires taking time off work shouldn’t impact the time available for actual vacation)

  56. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Cross training – cross training – cross training. Even if it’s “Joe will do all of the steps of payroll up to the point of pushing the final button, and then Sally can log in from the cabin, check it for 15 minutes and approve.” I tend not to mind quick requests from colleagues when I’m off, but wouldn’t want to be responsible for actually doing the work.

  57. HannahS*

    You may need to hire more people than you think. If you don’t want a leave to disproportionately affect any team members, then you need to have enough team members to absorb, say, 20% extra work each. The alternative would be to hire temporary employees to cover leave for longer, predictable leaves–like if someone tells you they’re taking X amount of time for parental leave or medical treatment.

    Here are my personal thoughts: If I have to double my workload because a colleague is out sick, it means working at a much faster pace, eating while working or not at all, and working 30 minutes-2 hours overtime, and only doing the most essential functions of my job. Our work is time sensitive, so it can’t be scaled down when someone is away. I don’t mind doing that once in a while, or even for a week if someone is on vacation. (I mean, I DO mind, but I understand that it’s necessary, and I take vacations, too.) But I once was in that situation for several weeks in a row (two colleagues had deaths in their family) and it was so exhausting. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay working like that, even though my supervisors were really nice people.

    It would have helped if someone else could have been brought in to back-fill, even if they hadn’t been able to fully replace my colleagues. If someone had been able to take over even 60% of their work, I could have more easily taken over the remaining 40%, instead of 100-200%. I’m not eligible for overtime pay/bonuses, but that would have been great, too.

    The other thing is, it’s SUPER important to me that my extra work can be done from home. While parents are the most obvious group that have time-sensitive after-hours responsibilities, other employees might, too. I hate working from home at 11:00 at night, but I’m more willing to do that than I am to be physically at work at 5:30.

  58. irene adler*

    I work at a small business (12 people).

    We make it work by posting a multi-year calendar for employees to schedule when they are out. We put in all vacations, out of office appointments, off for medical, etc. but no one has to specify -other than the name and that they are off that day. Very low tech; it’s a calendar in SharePoint that opens up to anyone who logs into the SharePoint system.

    Sure, sometimes it’s tricky as everyone is a key person. Cross training helps. Advanced planning is another key that helps make things work.

    Folks can put in the days they want off-as far in advance as they’d like (yep, folks are already booking for Dec 2022 and for summer 2023). We have a rule that no more than two can take the same day off. And limit time-off stretches to 2 weeks max. Everyone is good about abiding by these rules.

    However, exceptions can be made! One lady was traveling to P.I. so needed 4 entire weeks. AND two additional people signed up for leave during this time (such that we’d have 3 people out on some days). All this was granted because the advanced notice allowed manufacturing to plan for fewer people and delayed some tasks.

    We’re expected to keep on top of our tasks so if someone wants to take tomorrow off, it’s okay. Don’t have to ask weeks in advance. Just put it into the calendar so folks know. Right now, two employees have very ill loved ones, so there are a lot of unexpected absences. They let management know which of their tasks need attention while they are out.
    We’re also very flexible as to start and end times and coming in at odd hours to get something done- if one’s personal schedule requires one to be elsewhere during the work day.

    NOTE: while we also have 5 weeks of leave time per year, that is waived under certain circumstances.
    Example: one employee had cancer (and eventually passed away from it). He was making it to work maybe 3 days of every 5. When he ran out of accrued leave time, he still received a FULL paycheck (yes, he showed me the checks). No, he did not go into negative leave time. Management did this because it was the right thing to do.

    Eventually he went on disability. At that time, management made sure to keep his health insurance paid up. There were hiccups with the health insurance (several times they sent the employee the bills, claiming he was no longer covered). Management got on the phone -each time- and raised hell.

    So consider special circumstances when you set up policy.

  59. Been There Done That*

    Please, please, please let your staff unplug. Not being to totally unplug on vacation is one of the reasons I am retiring earlier than I thought I would.

  60. SJ (they/them)*

    Something a small nonprofit I work with has done is offer unlimited PTO for medical appointments (including travel time to and from, appointments for children or other dependents, and so on), while vacation, sick time and paid personal leave have a generous cap but a cap does exist for those.

    Our thought process was that truly unlimited policies put the burden on the employee to decide “how sick is sick enough” or “can I really unplug all the way on vacation” etc. So sick time, vacation time and personal time have a pool, but if you have a medical appointment you just tell us when you’ll be out and that it’s for a medical appointment and it won’t count towards any of those.

  61. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    It’s important that you’re staying competitive with the businesses in your area and the work force you wish to attract. This usually will mean a more generous policy that you would initially consider offering. However, there can be ways to make it work:

    1. Limit the amount of consecutive time off. You might allow up to 1 or 2 weeks off at a time so that the overall team isn’t overly burdened by lengthy absences. Of course exceptions need to be made for medical and family leave.

    2. If you are going to have a leaner PTO policy, consider allowing for a more flexible schedule. Certain roles allow for this better than others, but every little bit certainly helps.

    3. Consider framing roles with PTO contingency plans. That way, when any one person is out, the rest of the team can easily determine what needs to be taken care of during their absence and what could wait for their return. This also helps to keep to much from piling up on the employee, making their return awful.

    4. Consider outsourcing tedious functions. It’s tempting to keep everything in house as a means of controlling costs, but I find that it often causes the opposite. As workloads balloon up, so does your payroll and employee headcount. Whereas certain outsourced functions can be much more predictable in costing making it easier to budget and offer competitive wages/benefits for your team.

  62. Lauren*

    You need a contractor option for every position. That back up is great for when someone leaves or hit by a bus. As a small business, the one way to keep employees for longer than 2 years is through amazing PTO.

    4 weeks PTO – 3 weeks and 1 week at xmas to nyears off for everyone.
    12 weeks at 100% paid.

    Women especially will jump at this chance even if they are years away from having kids or its the option to have another and not be unpaid. Do this and get your contractors waiting in the wings per position. Your contractor can be 20 hrs a week to keep costs low with the other bits shuffled or just wait to the next week. 3 months goes by fast.

  63. Thursdaycomment*

    There is a quote attributed to Lee Iacocca (edited for length), “Over the years, many executives have said to me with pride: ‘Boy, I worked so hard last year that I didn’t take any vacation.’ I always feel like responding, “… You mean to tell me you can take responsibility for an eighty-million-dollar project and you can’t plan two weeks out of the year to have some fun?” Even the CEO of the Chrysler Corporation understood the need to unplug! It doesn’t matter who you are in your organization, you have the right to not be on the clock during vacation/PTO/etc. No one is that indispensable.

  64. Avril Ludgateau*

    Controversial take: unless your small office is in emergency medicine, and the only provider of emergency services in like a 50 mile radius in a remote and inaccessible region, really asses how important getting such-and-such done by May 6th rather than May 13th is. The truth is, as much as many of us take pride in our work (as we should), most of the time it isn’t life or death. It simply isn’t. Most of aren’t in possession of nuclear launch codes, or the only cardiac surgeon who can perform an emergency surgery on an 18-week-old fetus in utero, or the only dialysis tech in a town populated solely by CKD patients. That’s no disrespect to the nature of anybody’s work, but it’s an attempt to give us some perspective on time off. Most of the time, for most of our jobs, you can be proactive and get ahead of critical, set-in-stone deadlines to leave some “dead time” (I forget the term) between projects. Or, the project simply can take a little longer, and it isn’t the end of the world. Or somebody else can fill in – either as a temp hire, or as a teammate who fills in to cover just the absolute essentials in your absence.

    And if you truly are in an industry where things are matters of life and death, redundancy is not an option, it is a requirement. “Lean staffing” is a blight, but doubly so when business owners have somehow absorbed the message that leaving all the weight on the shoulders of the one IT guy (for example) is the “most efficient approach”. Cross train, hire temps if/when needed, hire the maximum amount of people you can afford to (NOT “the minimum amount of people you can bear to”), even if this means that sometimes there will be periods where Benny and Joon are slightly less busy than if you only hired Benny or Joon.

    And – fuck it, I’m gonna say it, I’m already expecting eyerolls so I may as well lean in – if there’s a set period where a ton of people are consistently requesting off? Instead of setting it up as a competition with all sorts of rules about who gets priority, consider if it’s possible to just… Close, or simply take it easier, for the day (or week). Without docking pay. (Or conversely if it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to stay open, give people proper incentive to come in. No, not pizza.)

    (I agree with all the people saying crosstrain and standardize/document processes, by the way.)

  65. Mary Ellen*

    This is why we need a fully socialized government program for family and medical leave.

    That said, as a small business owner (17 EEs currently), we have been able to offer paid 3 months paid parental leave from the beginning through a combo of extended PTO and disability insurance. We make it work by spreading the work load across multiple people, not just one. We can usually bring in a little contract support but a full replacement would generally not be sustainable for us.

    The bigger we get, the easier it is to absorb for sure.

      1. Mary Ellen*

        No, but it would mean I didn’t have to directly pay 2 people to do a job when only one can actually do it at that time.

  66. Mary Ellen*

    Hiring experienced contractors as 1:1 replacements in our line of work would be cost prohibitive and very disruptive to our workflows. It makes more sense to use it as a cross training/upskilling opportunity.

  67. Siege*

    I haven’t read the comments so this may be a duplicate of something someone else has said.

    I am a communications department of one on a staff of 12. We have three staffers who are classified as “administrative support” though they all have specific job duties that are not staff support (for example, one is our finance manager). One of the support people is specifically being trained to back me up on the basics of my role, and the other two will be trained to back up the other two departments, which are both larger than mine. The goal of the training is that my colleague will be able to handle our routine communications if I’m out for vacation or medical leave. She can’t issue a press release, pitch stories to media, or create legislative materials, but she can send out our weekly events email and make basic updates to our website, as well as sort and filter comms requests and handle some other specific routine tasks. It’s enough to get me a week of vacation as long as nothing crisis-level happens.

    Additionally, my boss is both generous and understanding about time off. While I haven’t had plans to fly to Kazakhstan and be out of touch on the other side of the world, I have taken vacation time with the explicit information that if something crisis-level boiled over, I might need to cut that vacation short and we would work it out later. Because I haven’t so far spent a lot of time/money on elaborate trips, that works for me – we’re a pretty reactive organization by necessity, so we don’t always get the luxury of deciding when to swing into action. On the other hand, the last time one of our locals declared a surprise action while I was on vacation, my boss insisted that I did not need to be called and worked through how the local could engage the media, so that’s useful. My boss has also been my designated backup for things that were in process during my vacation, as well.

    So I think that judicious cross-training with an expectation that you’d like to meet X bare minimum rather than fully capable and operational duplicate could help, especially if you are willing to negotiate with your staff when things may rise to the point of needing their attention. I am fully, fully in favor of taking a vacation to entirely unplug, and I didn’t feel as relaxed on the vacation where I was looking for a couple of time-sensitive work emails that didn’t come in when I expected due to miscommunication with the vendor, so that may not always be an option for your worker, but having dropped dead in a conference room one day, I can totally vouch for a backup-lite system to keep the organization going while your staff takes time off. We were able to maintain our regular communications and get a couple of time-sensitive projects done while I took uninterrupted medical leave for a month because we had someone trained to be my lite backup. I think there’s a lot of focus on real duplication, and that might be something you need, but you might want to consider whether there’s a way to give the essential duties to someone as a backup and get through that time.

  68. Zee*

    At a previous job at a non-profit org with an extremely tight budget and only 2 staff… We fortunately never had to cover an extended absence. However, when my coworker would go on vacation, we hired one of our long-term volunteers for 12 hours a week to cover her duties that couldn’t be put off (I also would cover some, but thankfully not too significant an amount got piled on me). When I went on vacation, nobody covered my work, because I didn’t have the same kind of urgency in my duties (my role was project-based with hard deadlines, but not daily phone calls that had to be returned right away, and I just scheduled around the projects). That was kind of frustrating – having to front-load a bunch of work and have a pile to come back to means I wasn’t *really* getting a break from my workload. As a result I only once took a full week off over 3 years and opted for a lot of 3-day weekends instead.

    At another org that was still small but not quite as small… when someone went on maternity leave, they got paid through short-term disability insurance that the org provided as one of their benefits. The org wasn’t paying them their usual salary, so that money went towards hiring a temp. I think this was a pretty good solution… but obviously works best for pre-planned, extended absences only. They still had to cross-train another permanent employee on some things that the temp wouldn’t have the authority to do.

  69. Reluctant Manager*

    Fellow child-free small-business owner! We have unlimited PTO in part because I don’t want the hassle of tracking it as a benefit. There are some people whom I need to badger to take vacation, and there’s one who alerted us within 4 months of taking the job that she’s planning almost 6 weeks of PTO related to a side business in the first year! It’s hard to manage the disparity. These are not jobs that can be cross-trained; there may be 5 people in the country at any time who could do the job after extensive training. We’ve hired more freelance and support staff to help the overcommitted, but we get maybe 50% of the benefit of their work because someone then has to train and manage them.

    -I try to make it a point to ask everyone in every 1:1 what their PTO plans are to set the expectation that they will use their PTO.
    -I do not assume that people will check their Slack or email on PTO; if there’s something urgent (very rarely) I or someone else senior may text.
    -For brief appointments during the day, people should just reschedule any meetings and mark themselves out on their personal calendars. For a half day, same as the above but let your team know in advance. For a day or more, all of the above plus mark it on the company calendar plus post for the company and close clients that you will be out.
    -We found that disability insurance was not that expensive, so it forms the backbone of our maternity leave. 6 weeks: disability + 40% salary = 100%. 6-8 weeks: 40% salary. 8-12 weeks: Unpaid leave. This has worked for us so far. It’s set up for “if you have given birth”; there’s a lesser amount for “if your partner has given birth.” I know that this is not the full set of options, but a) we have fewer than 10 people and b) this is not set in stone and we will consider revising if the situation arises.

    For plugged-in expectations, I use the scheduling functions on Outlook/Slack/texts so that even if I send a message outside work hours, staff doesn’t have the expectation that they will reply.

    THAT SAID. I have one very high performer who has not been able to take even a weekend off for over a year. We have grown enough that I am finally able to hire someone for half of their job, still knowing that we will fill part of the freed-up time with new projects. They are devoted to the company and our clients, and I don’t take that for granted… and yet because I know they’re always working, I might answer an email from them on the weekend.

    1. Ailsa McNonagon*

      It kind of sounds like you DO take them for granted- why on earth would you let an employee get to the point where they’re working 365 days a year? That’s the quickest way to burn-out I can think of…

      You say that you don’t assume your employees will answer when they’re on leave but I bet they do- it sounds like you’ve not explicitly told them not to, and combined with seeing colleagues working every hour God sends, if I worked for you I’d feel like I needed to be visibly working all the time. The CEO of the organisation I work in has an email footer which explicitly states ‘I often reply to emails outside business hours. This does not mean I expect a response before the next working day- please don’t feel obliged to reply immediately’ and that’s been really helpful in preventing staff from feeling like they have to be available 24/7.

      1. Reluctant Manager*

        >You say that you don’t assume your employees will answer when they’re on leave but I bet they do- it sounds like you’ve not explicitly told them not to, and combined with seeing colleagues working every hour God sends, if I worked for you I’d feel like I needed to be visibly working all the time.

        I’m not sure why you’d assume that, because they don’t. Our outlier doesn’t email anyone but me outside work hours because they don’t want replies and ruin their concentration. And I don’t know why you’d assume I take them for granted! We have tried something about every quarter to make their workload more manageable, including replacing problem staff and hiring several highly skilled part-time and contract workers.

        I’m sharing here what I experience as a small business owner– one who yes, has room for improvement, but is pretty proud of the good parts of our business.

        1. Reluctant Manager*

          Rereading–I *have* told them explicitly not to, and when people say they plan to take PTO I tell them I’m glad they’re modeling that for their colleagues. For the most part, no one gets email overnight or on the weekend. It sounds like you have a mental picture from some other place that doesn’t match this situation.

  70. Katrine Fonsmark*

    I didn’t see this mentioned anywhere, but are all employees exempt? Because if any are non-exempt, wouldn’t they need to be getting paid for any hours worked during their supposed PTO?

      1. OP*

        At my last job (the main one I was talking about here), everyone was exempt and salaried except for a few hourly, part-time interns who are all in college, and who could do work remotely and we never pushed back on any schedule requests they had.

  71. Richard Hershberger*

    I have worked for a solo practitioner for over twelve years now. We have never once discussed how much PTO I have. It is quite literally the unlimited PTO situation that is so open to abuse. It works for us, but this is because we are on the same page. He has never refused me time off, and I have never made an unreasonable request. At this point if it is something like leaving early to pick up the kids, I just let him know a few days ahead of time. Same with taking a long weekend. Really it is a full week before we have a real discussion about it. It helps that we don’t really have unexpected crunch times.

  72. Bugalugs*

    I like the hybrid system some people have mentioned. For me though you could hire another person that their job is a jack of all trades. They know how to do basically everything or have a couple people like that. There are people, myself included, that would enjoy jobs like that not just doing one thing. Now obviously if you have anything really specialized that’s not going to work great. But the day to day they can jump in and help where-ever is needed and through vacations, sick days etc. They can fill in for whomever is out.

  73. Hillary*

    It’s hard in consulting/professional services because the consultant is the product. At the end of the day, the client needs a person to provide the service, and they may look elsewhere if you can’t provide it.

    You may need two policies – one for the consultants and a different one for everyone else. Everyone who isn’t selling themselves, bringing in business, and generating billable hours (all three) must be able to disconnect 100% when they go out, and you as the leader are responsible for building a culture where they have support to take their time away. That can be temp coverage, accepting no coverage, or a consultant covering payroll processing etc. one week.

    On the consulting side, the connectivity you’re used to is part of the gig. Really talk with your consultants and partner together to meet everyone’s needs. Maybe you shut down the week of July 4th or between Christmas and New Years (paid, not taking peoples’ vacation time) so everyone has to disconnect for a week. Create alignment so everyone is using the same messaging with clients. Plan the year and make sure you’re not taking more business than your billable team can handle with their projected schedules. If someone knows they’re taking an international trip plan gigs accordingly. Then when stuff happens support each other. In the long term everyone’s needs balance out.

    1. OP*

      Most of our consulting work was project-based vs. billable hours, but yeah, you’re right. Because of how technical the industry was, we only had a few people doing consulting work (with more junior-level employees doing supporting work). Project-based worked is easier to manage because you can plan project schedules around planned vacations, planned parental leave, etc. We did a lot besides consulting, including some agency-type marketing work (since knowledge in the industry was so specialized) and a trade publication. I think the hardest roles to deal with being out were account managers and editorial staff who produced content for the company or clients on a daily basis. We also only had one salesperson. These employees’ knowledge was specialized so temp workers couldn’t replace them, and their work was on-going, not project-based, so at least some of their workload would have to be picked up by someone who had similar expertise.

  74. Everybody Got Reverse Polarity*

    My advice would be more along the lines of what NOT to do. My spouse worked for a not-for-profit professional association that was comprised of the executive and legal staff (they worked on the 3rd floor) and other exempt staff who managed other functions of the organization (on the 2nd floor). My spouse was a manager on the 2nd floor. This organization prided itself on wildly generous benefits and leave policies… things like having so many personal and vacation days that staff had to get creative to use them all; extremely flexible working hours; etc. But this created conflicts. People started questioning why Bob thinks he can just roll into the office at 10 am and leave by 3 pm (because the policy said if you worked 4 hours it was considered a day of work, that’s why), and why Barbara thinks she can just take 8 weeks off (because she had 8 weeks of vacation built up, that’s why). Naturally, someone would complain, leading the 3rd-floor executives to realize TOO LATE that their overly generous policies had caused coverage issues. Invariably, they would increase the minimum workday or reduce vacation days or otherwise trim those generous benefits in a flurry of angry emails to “2nd floor.” Of course, my spouse’s staff would be angry at HIM about the changes, even though he had no input on or advance warning of the changes handed down from On High.

    Be sure you have carefully considered the consequences of, say, too many people being out of the office at once, or that your policies clarify what’s within the bounds of reasonable use. Staff feel resentful if/when you have to cut those nice benefits back or establish new rules about them, especially if you don’t give them any input. It doesn’t matter if those benefits still are more generous than what they’ll find elsewhere.

    1. OP*

      I totally agree on this being a possibility if it’s a free-for-all. That’s why everyone still had to request PTO even though it was unlimited. Then if there was a conflict (too many people off at the same time, usually), we’d try to work out a solution, like see if anyone had flexibility to move their PTO a few days or something. Hard black and white rules would have made my life easier, but seem silly in practicality, at least to me. I just tried to be a Reasonable Person at all times.

  75. Just a Manager*

    I personally wouldn’t work at a place with “unlimited PTO.” There’s no contract. That basically means that you have to ask for permission each time. With accumulated PTO, I have a right to use it or cash it out if I see fit.. If someone is happy with it and feels it works without subtle pressure, that’s all good.

  76. Cascadia*

    For maternity/paternity/family leave – I’d consider adopting what some states have already adopted. I’m currently pregnant and in Washington state where we get up to 12 weeks, paid out by the state at a pro-rated level of our salary. All employers have to pay into this as part of taxes, as do all employees in washington state. EVERY employee is eligible, regardless of size of business, as I understand it. There are other states that are adopting this as well. In my opinion, this is the bare minimum of what is needed for a new parent. I would highly highly recommend you adopt paid leave for 12 weeks for any new parents. You can follow what WA state does if you want to exactly. This is a good starting place. I get that it will be hard to have someone out for 3 months, but honestly, it’s inhumane to ask someone who just had a baby to come back to work earlier – and their leave should be paid. This is what every other country in the developed world provides. In fact, most places provide much much more. In Canada, you can take a year off for the birth of a child. Hire a temp and consider it the cost of doing business. Especially if you clearly state the policy, you should get lots of notice (months!) in order to prepare for the leave, and for the employee to document and prepare to be out. Do not expect ANY work while they are out.

    1. OP*

      All leave was paid (including the few instances we had of parental/long-term sick leave). That was never in question. It wasn’t really about being unwilling to allocate money or resources either, aside from the fact that we weren’t large enough to always have extra, very well-trained employees to pick up the slack of losing someone for awhile. If temp workers worked for most of our positions, that would be the perfect solution – it just woudn’t except for a few overhead type roles, like our accountant or office manager. I think if it had happened again when the company was a bit larger, we probably would have proactively hired someone new and had them start training while the other person was there, and then when the other person returned, we’d rebalance again – so the person who was on leave might not have come back to the exact same job/clients, but it would be the same level position doing something similar and of course at the same pay rate.

  77. TiredAmoeba*

    I would love to have a kind of hybrid leave where there’s low contact leave and no contact leave. We actually have kind of a version of this in my office where for 4 hours, everyone is allowed to turn off their phones, IM and emails and no response is expected or required. During that period the only person available communication wise is the supervisor and they triage any requests into “Ask them tomorrow” or “I’ll handle it”.

  78. The Rural Juror*

    I worked for a small company for about 7 years (8 employees). We got 12 vacation days a year, but there was an unspoken rule that you never needed to count half days. There were times when I would go to the office for about 3 hours on a Friday morning, then leave to drive to see family for a long weekend. It worked out for me to miss heavy morning traffic, but also that I could save those vacation days for other trips.

    We also didn’t count leaving a little but here or there for appointments, haircuts, quick errands, picking up kids, etc. It all was kind of a wash because there were times where we needed to stay late a bit for deadlines. Everyone liked that there was a balance. We also had good communication because no one made you feel naughty for going to the post office before it closed at 4:30.

    The only parental leave that happened for anyone during my tenure there was for 2 different men. They took 2 weeks each after their children were born, then had a lot of flexibility to work from home for another month or so. There were 2 of us that were able to help cover for them, but I will say it was a little rough. Both of those men had roles where they supervised field work. That meant either having to double-time your work in the field to help cover, or (in my case) being out of the office a lot more than usual to help cover in the field. For those 2 weeks, I really had to prioritize my work. I wish they could have had longer to be at home with their family, but it wasn’t sustainable in our particular situation.

  79. Boof*

    I was able to take 3 months paid maternity leave (in usa! Some states are starting to help cover this!) and i actually really enjoyed doing a little bit of low pressure, time insensitive stuff; get through emails, read up on some topics, make sure various things were renewed etc. but one of the nice things was that it felt totally optional

  80. Not that hard*

    I always find that when people say they can’t cross train they just don’t want to take the time and effort to actually do it. I’ve worked in small businesses with mandated leave in my country. People just knew each others jobs and got along well enough by doing the most important things and letting the rest wait until the person got back from leave.

    1. OP*

      This is how it worked in practice and it all go pretty well. But we also only had one or two times in the long time I was there in which someone needed longer leave. It’s one thing to have people cross-trained so they can cover for each other’s time off — it’s another to have someone pick up someone else’s burden for months at a time. I posted this question to see what suggestions everyone had for such a scenario.

  81. Shorts shorts shorts*

    If someone’s just had a baby they really need to be able to unplug completely. They’ve just been handed a tiny, needy human that demands 24/7 attention. Just finding time to eat and shower in the first few months is often a challenge.
    In non-US western countries the right to a set amount of legislated paid vacation days is the norm, and paid and/or unpaid parental leave as well. Extended periods of parental leave are an extra burden on businesses for sure, but the size of the business doesn’t change the fact that new parents should be able to spend time bonding with their new child. Coming from a country where this is the norm I find it difficult to imagine a situation where only some people are entitled to parental leave.

    1. OP*

      I agree completely. I’m also sometimes just stumped on the practical ways small businesses can actually deal with these situations in practice, and posed the question to see what ideas people had. I’m a liberal person who agrees on many of the things employees deserve but don’t always get in the US — but having spent my whole career at small places, I’m just out here tryin’ to have the business survive and protect my people. If we can’t stay in business, people lose their jobs and that’s bad. I strongly believe that more social services should come from the government and not people’s jobs (and yes, I’m totally fine with higher taxes), particularly healthcare and also childcare (yes, like government-funded daycare). I’m married and don’t have kids, but I just think that taking care of people (including but not limited to children, sick people and people unable to care for themselves) should be the collective burden of our entire society, and therefore be tax-funded.

  82. Teapot Wrangler*

    I’d suggest setting a minimum number of days that are absolutely unreachable annual leave, ideally taken consecutively. I’d go for at least a week although I understand the norm is that finance people have to take one two week holiday a year, no logging in for compliance purposes so you could try that. I think that a week or two without any contact with or thought of work is really important to unwind and I’d be worried about burning out without that. I would find the ‘light’ annual leave useful for travel or things where you don’t really want to have time off e.g. staying with someone because they’re ill and need someone in the house in case of emergencies.
    I’m in the UK so take all of this with a 25-30 days of annual leave plus bank holidays pinch of salt!

    Having read so many questions on this site, I’d also make sure your sick days are up to scratch – smaller firms seem to have fewer than is deemed necessary quite often. (I’d say at least two or three weeks per year assuming you’re not using them up on doctor’s appointments or your kid being sick which don’t ‘count’ over here)

    1. OP*

      Sick days weren’t really separate from PTO. If you were sick, you were sick. If you were too sick to come into the office and still wanted to do some work (truly the employee’s choice, usually so their work didn’t pile up too much), they could and if they couldn’t, they didn’t.

  83. Ailsa McNonagon*

    I’m British and find this American culture of never being allowed to unplug from your job utterly bizarre. If you’re off work you’re off work- no two ways about it. I’ll work when I’m being paid to work and when I’m not, I don’t. Unlimited PTO sounds like you never really get an actual break- you can go on holiday but you’re still expected to be working, and only if you get your leave agreed in the first place!

    If you’re offering unlimited holidays, you need to actually honour that- when people are on leave they’re NOT to do any work. If that’s not possible, can you make X number of leave days protected, so that people know they’ve got leave time where there’s not the weird expectation that they’ll be working whilst on holiday? So if you offer 25 days per year of leave, 5 of those days are no-contact.

    From what I understand from American friends ‘unlimited PTO’ is just a way to make sure no one ever takes time off. Maybe you could just offer really meaningful and robust leave instead (I’ve seen other commenters referring to their 12 days of annual leave as ‘generous’, and all I can say is WOW. Americans, you are being ripped off!)

    1. OP*

      It was unlimited PTO with a caveat – more like 2-3 weeks full PTO, extra paid holidays and unlimited flex time? And I think what you said about the unlimited PTO in the US was true when it first came about at tech companies, but the last few years in particular have changed that. More companies are offering it, and many younger employees are demanding it. With the workforce being skewed (for once) in favor of employees vs. employers, it’s not really possible to have a real fake unlimited PTO policy anymore. I personally think the fairest way to do unlimited PTO is to include a mandatory leave policy of two weeks-plus – as in, every employee HAS to take off at least two weeks every year. If everyone HAS to take some, I think people will feel like it’s OK to take more.

  84. OP*

    Hi all – OP here. Thanks so much for your input. I wanted to add a couple things. The last job I had, a company with less than 25 employees, was a consulting company and agency in a very technical B2B industry. The learning curve for the industry was high. Hiring a temp for many positions just wouldn’t work. (An example: One of the services we had was managing the social media accounts for clients, and we had a couple of social media account managers who handled a few clients each. Learning the technology and that client’s products took a lot of time, and even someone experienced in social media generally would need a lot of training to learn the industry jargon to produce content. Hiring a temp for two weeks, or even several months (for a maternity/sick leave) would just not actually be that helpful because of the knowledge required. Hiring lots of extra help to make sure that one account manager always had capacity to cover an extra client for an extended period of time, or something, would have made the service unprofitable and therefore something we had to discontinue (which maybe that was what should have happened, if the clients weren’t willing to pay more.)

    I totally get everything most commenters are saying and don’t disagree. I didn’t write this in the spirit of trying to defend companies that don’t want to spend resources or hire enough people, which I don’t think was the case for us, truly. I wrote it as someone who was a manager who genuinely wanted to be as generous as possible with employees, respect what they needed and deserved, but also still try to be profitable enough to compensate employees well and stay in business. At a small company, balancing all these things seemed really hard, and I wanted to see what the hive mind had to say with all of these things in mind. The best solution I came up with was the unlimited PTO, and a focus on the idea that employees knew how to best manage their own time. People did take lots of time off, and requests were very seldom denied (even if they were, we typically came up with an alternate solution, like – could you shift your time off request by a few days so there’s enough coverage, or could we supplement your more expensive plane ticket for you to fly after work that day instead of the morning of, or whatever.) We also purposefully had 1/2 day Fridays, all year, and I tried to allocate extra holiday days when the whole company was shut down, like Wednesday-Friday off at Thanksgiving, and 2-3 days off at 4th of July when most people had only one or two days. It was actually easier to tell clients that the whole company was off for a certain period of time — due to its nature, the industry was one in which work definitely slowed around major holidays and in later summer.

    I agree with the idea of being extremely transparent about how it worked, and I think we did accomplish that pretty well. I was concerned, though, that by doing so we were inadvertently discriminating against certain types of people (or risking not hiring a diverse-enough workforce, which I wholeheartedly believe is fundamentally good for an organization), such as those with a chronic health problem or who was in the time of their life where they would need parental leave, single parents, etc. The type of employees who were most on board with the way it worked, I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to discover, was either childless people in their 20s, or partnered people with kids who were 8+ already or didn’t otherwise have a significant caretaking burden. People could definitely take off “no-contact” PTO as well – but it was easiest for that to be a week or less at a time. It was written into the policies that a 2-3 week no-contact PTO should only be requested every few years due to the unavoidable burden it would put on someone’s teammates. I would say a typical person would take maybe one or two weeks total (often spread out) of no-contact PTO, and an additional 4 weeks in remote/partial contact work. One year I spent six weeks in Europe and worked remotely, probably 1/2 time was work. I checked email/messages and did some work every day so no one had to cover for me, but also didn’t take on any extra projects that would fill up the rest of my time. Other people did similar stuff, though it was more likely to be working from the beach or mountains or something. When you were out of the office, you would put it on a company-wide calendar and say what your availability was like “John – out of office. Available for emergenices only via phone call) or (Stacy – working remotely half-time. On Slack, email, etc.).

    Most of what I wrote in was about my previous job, where I was very high in management for a very long time, but not the owner. Now I own my own very small business with just a few employees, with whom I’m very transparent about finances. There’s only three of us so we just keep each other posted on our schedules and work whenever we want, essentially. My main goal as an entrepreneur is to make enough money to be able to pay anyone I employ at 10-20% over market rate, treat them very well and have them for a long time.

  85. Mourning mammoths*

    I think the mindset shift that needs to happen, for business of all sizes, is this: if you don’t have staff who can fill in when someone is out, then that piece of the work doesn’t get done, and that’s fine. The business can either find a way to work around that, or take a break. This is probably the reason why counties in Europe seem to shut down for a month each summer.

  86. foolofgrace*

    Hire a sort of “permanent temp” who would rotate thru the teams learning the ropes and be available for coverages.. You’d have to find something for them to do after the initial few months but you’d have coverage.

  87. PM*

    I work at a nonprofit & we wanted to give people more vacation days, but couldn’t really swing it with such a small staff. So we have more office holidays, where the entire office is closed– including the last eight calendar days of the year. There are only three months of the year where the office is open all 20 business days.

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