Unlimited? More like unhappy, unactionable, unaccessible

Dhruv Saxena

It’s Friday morning and you’re poring over a project idea with your team — but it all feels stale. On that note, your colleagues look tired, the energy is dismal. Where’s the #FridayFeeling?! You ask your team, and after a beat, someone says “I feel like I’m burning out”. Others chime in — they’re feeling frustrated, they’ve lost energy, they want to take time off but feel guilty about it. Your mind flashes back to when you heartily introduced unlimited leaves to tackle this very problem and build a happy workplace. Where’s the “happy” in the workplace now?

Here’s where the problem lies 

If you wouldn’t throw money on the street and call it “charitable giving”, then you shouldn’t throw vacation days and call it “generous”. An unlimited leave policy seems to be all the right things — generous, freeing, trusting.

But without a delivery mechanism to back it, it’s just another promise. How would a team member know they aren’t committing a workplace crime by taking a week off when their team is working its collective butt off? Heck, how would you know?

Unlimited leave is often brought in to make sure team members get work done while also signalling that their time isn’t being micromanaged. What happens, though, is exactly what you’re trying to avoid — team members who don’t take time off become the benchmark for hard work.

“Take whatever time you need as long as work gets done” is insidiously replaced by “work 24/7 and feel guilty about breaks” as the new proxy for hard work. 

Here’s how we fixed it 

Pause allows for an unlimited leave policy that upends the “absence of a policy” status quo. By clearly communicating the policy and the expectations around it, you can encourage time off — like at least 6 days off every quarter.

When you set a minimum number, team members can plan time off without waiting until they’re on the edge. They’re also setting a precedent for guilty or hesitant teammates, and that’s great news for good workplace culture.

You can also set unlimited allowances for leave types that aren’t the norm but should be, such as cramps or menstrual leave, investment days to grow while at work, and burnout time-off. These parameters do more than signal to your team that you care about them — they prove it in black and white. 

What’s the business outcome after putting in all this work, you ask? One word: Retention. Happier employers stick with you for longer. And that’s that on that.

Behind the scenes 

We pride ourselves on making software obvious. That involves building thoughtfully and doing all the heavy lifting so that, for our users, using Pause is a breeze. Here’s a glimpse at the principles that guided us and how we made the Unlimited Leaves Policy feature a no-brainer. 

Create clear guidelines for unlimited leave policies with Pause, a leave management and team planning tool.

Start them off with a few defaults

Starting out, we wanted to see how our customers would use unlimited leaves. We were a bit disappointed to find that nobody could make sense of the feature despite the buzz.

Determined to change things, we started off our next set of beta customers with some defaults — burnout, cramps and investment days, for example. They could’ve opted out of these defaults easily, but most embraced and kept them. We finally began seeing the feature being used to its full potential.  

What did this teach us? Well, a lesson obvious in hindsight — expecting all your product’s benefits to be immediately clear to your users is a fool’s errand. It’s better to start them off with some defaults so they see value in what you’re offering.

P.S.: Setting defaults is an ethical tightrope that’s easy to fall off, so be careful. What starts out as a way to help users get the most out of your product can spiral into tricks and dark patterns that only help the product makers at the cost of the customer. You don’t want to be that jerk who tricks their customers, do you?

Don’t penalise good actors to keep occasional bad actors in check

What a crap world it would be if everyone was thrown in the slammer just to keep bad guys in check, right? Unfortunately, that’s the sort of mental model a lot of enterprise software operates with — restrict the good actors to prevent the bad ones from causing a wreck. That’s pretty drastic. So why not think of software in the context of the real world? Here’s what that looked like for us. 

We made parental leaves unlimited. 

This was a point of contention that we debated to death, and a hard left from conventional capped parental leave days that some beta customers shifting from other tools also asked for.

Our thought process was this: Defining the number of parental leaves made sense. Dedicating an actual software workflow to it? Not so much. Why? Because parental leave is a rare occurrence, and a situation where employees exploit this leave type will need multiple people—applicants, approvers, teammates, admins, HRs—colluding.

If that seems highly likely in the organisation a customer runs, then they’ve got 99 problems but a parental leave glitch ain’t one.

Read more on how we built Pause

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