We tried unlimited holiday and now we’re sacking it off

UK agency Unknown offered its staff an experiment in unlimited leave and, as it happens, the policy didn’t work. As more businesses consider removing caps on paid leave allowances, founder Ollie Scott shares his agency’s experience.

When we began again as a creative recruitment business growing in a post-Covid world, we wanted to offer everything our competitors weren’t so that we could access the best possible people.

Mental health? Let’s offer group and individual therapy.

Fitness? Let’s give everyone ClassPass.

Flexibility? Let’s offer the 3:2 hybrid thing.

Holiday? Errr… whatever you want. Let’s go with unlimited.

And that’s where the problem started. We found unlimited holiday just didn’t work. But before I say why… what did we want from it? Trust to be felt by our employees. Rest to be taken. Families and loved ones to be seen.

And overall, a bunch of happy, healthy, high-performing humans that looked forward to resting and working.

We wanted everyone to step off the magic roundabout to go and see things; meet people; alter their perceptions.

Did that happen? Not really, no. Here’s why: it’s anxiety-inducing. Humans are different. Especially the new people joining your culture. How can you expect them to know the right amount of holiday if you don’t tell them?

Imagine being a newbie in a business wanting to make the right impression. You’re probably going to try to make it through the first six months with minimal breaks to send the right message to your peers. Especially when there are no figures to go by what’s acceptable. You might be exhausted, but no one has set you a reasonable amount of rest time.

High performers don’t always lead by example.

In every business, there is an operator who seems to just go and go. It’s heralded by the rest of the business as impressive. Deep down, you know they need a break more than anyone else. But they rarely step away. Even when they do, you get a random Slack message at 9 pm during their 2-day break to Paris.

Some of the best people figure out that they’re sprinters, not endurance athletes. And, for a sprinter to be any good, they need rest.

Do we actually mean unlimited? No. There’s no possible way that we mean unlimited. What would we be left with if we did and everyone took us seriously? I can’t even think of something smart where that would ever make sense. Perhaps a travel agent?

So, if we don’t mean it why are we saying it?

Tokenization is something we’re used to.

If your grandmother gave you twenty pounds or dollars to go to the pub with, how often would you come back with change? Ok, sometimes you would, but when you got the money, you felt like you owned something, so you spent it.

But imagine if your lovely grandmother gave you a signed empty check. What amount would you feel comfortable taking?

‘I wonder what she can afford for me to spend. Does she still get a pension? Did she ever? Has she restocked the hobnobs? Oh god. I’m just going to stay in.’

Without a measurable set of tokens to spend, you’re left in this guilt-stricken choice paralysis of ‘how much is too much?’

So, what are we doing next?

We’re offering everyone in the business 32 days, plus bank holidays. I wish I could tell you mathematically why we picked that number, but I can’t.

Though someone wrote to me on LinkedIn and said he’d worked out that with weekends and bank holidays, it means we’ll be working 80% and resting 20%. The good ol’ Pareto principle, eh?

I’ve no idea what’ll happen here, but as always, if we over-communicate, remain accountable, set ourselves a healthy amount of time off each quarter, and try to hit the 32 days, I think we’ll all be better off.