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Whatever, I do the vacation I want

Microsoft has switched to discretionary time off (DTO). Instead of budgeted time off (BTO), which gives employees three to five weeks of vacation per year (based on tenure), Microsoft now allows employees to take unlimited paid time off at their own discretion. This sounds generous, but there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch.)

Some sharp-minded employees believe the catch is that Microsoft made this change to save money—not benefit workers. With DTO, Microsoft won’t need to pay for unused vacation days when an employee leaves the company (except for vacation accrued before the policy change). Also, there is growing evidence that employees take less time off when it’s discretionary due to pressure from peers, managers, and/or work culture. Thus, the company spends less money and gets more work, all while appearing to improve benefits. That’s sly, but it’s not the catch.

The catch with DTO is that employees must set their own vacation guidelines. Company policies and management will no longer do this for them. Just as with work-life balance, it would be nice if managers helped employees stay healthy and energized by asking them to work a sustainable number of hours per day, per week, and per year. Unfortunately, typical managers won’t do that. They’d happily have salaried employees work as much as they’re willing. After all, everyone needs different amounts of rest, and some people love working. That leaves work-life balance and vacation planning up to you, and you need a plan.

Eric Aside

For more about being a good manager, read I can manage.

You will have to do it yourself

As I describe in Better learn life balance, you need to decide how you’d like to balance your life and then set appropriate expectations with your manager. Yes, it would be nice if your manager initiated this action and looked after your best interests, but you’re an adult, and your manager doesn’t always know what’s right for you.

You know how much sleep you need to feel rested and sharp (as opposed to irritable and careless). You also know how many consecutive days and weeks you can stay engaged at work (as opposed to withdrawn). Perhaps there’s a time of year when your attention wanders (grey skies or special events). Whatever it is, it’s your responsibility to identify when and how often you need to take a vacation in order to remain attentive at work.

Once you’ve identified the cadence and timing of the vacation time you need, lay those requirements out for your manager and coordinate the timing with your team. “I need a week off every three months.” “I need Monday off every two weeks.” “I need a month off every summer.” Aside from specific events, being flexible about the timing can be helpful to your peers. It’s ideal to align team members’ vacation plans for the year in the first quarter (January–March), well before summer. As with all plans, you can adjust as the year progresses. Taking these steps addresses everything except what your peers and manager expect of you.

Eric Aside

For more about setting clear expectations with your peers, read I expect you to read this.

Respect my authoritah

When people reflect on it, they can often determine the cadence and timing of vacation they need. However, what if it’s too much? What if their team judges commitment by how much they work? What if they’re up for a promotion and must exceed expectations? Get over it—your manager and peers already have.

People barely notice when you’re on vacation for a few weeks and are surprised you’re back so quickly. Consider the most recent two-week vacation a peer took. Did it seem that long? Nope, it probably seems like an afternoon. A busy schedule makes time disappear, and a quiet schedule doesn’t need you. As long as people are prepared for your absence, you can take the vacation you need.

“But my team is understaffed and overcommitted. How can I possibly abandon them now?” Easy. Remind everyone of your planned vacation a few weeks in advance, ensuring you have a backup for each of your responsibilities. Inform partner teams of who’s covering for you, and include that information in your internal out-of-office message. Go on vacation as planned, encourage your teammates to follow your example, and cover for them when they are away. Since you planned your vacation in advance, it should already be accounted for in your estimates. If being away may slip your dates, inform your stakeholders immediately (more in You’re late).

People may barely notice when you’re away, but they sure notice when your work degrades or goes unfinished. Avoiding vacations to show commitment will inevitably lead to loss of focus, drop in quality, irritability, and poor communication. You can be sure your manager will remember those missteps at review time. You’re far better off taking the vacation you need and staying sharp.

Typically, you need roughly three to five weeks of vacation per year, in addition to the usual corporate holidays. That’s why budgeted time off was that long. However, there may be times for health or personal reasons that you need extended time. In that situation, rather than asking for six to 12 weeks of vacation, you should ask for a leave of absence. Leaves for family care or other issues (there are many types) are independent of vacation. Regardless of the type, you aren’t reviewed for time on leave—it’s as if that portion of the year didn’t exist. Speak to your HR representative and manager about what type of leave is right for you.

Eric Aside

For more about leaves of absence, read Some time away.

I know enough to exploit it

It’s true that companies will likely save money over time by switching to discretionary time off. However, their finances should have no bearing on the amount of vacation you decide to take. Consider how often and how long you need to take time off during the year to stay engaged and do your best work. Share that cadence and timing with your team, ideally early in the year, and adjust as needed. Remember that your manager and peers will hardly notice you’re away as long as they planned for your absence, but they will notice if you burn out and get sloppy. If you need extensive time off for a health or personal issue, engage HR and your manager in arranging the appropriate leave of absence.

People who work long hours and never take time off aren’t go-getters. They are irresponsible, selfish fools who inevitably make bad mistakes at inopportune times. When you are working, you should be engaged and sharp, ready to handle whatever happens and support your team. If you’re not, you should be on vacation or leave. Sure, vacations can be fun and invigorating, but remember that they’re also necessary. Now, you can take a vacation whenever you want.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Bob Zasio, David Berg, and Sev Huffman for reviewing the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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