While most workers in Boulder County are toiling away their weekly 40 hours, living for a midsummer, two-week paid break, increasing numbers of employees are enjoying the possibility of unlimited vacation.

More local companies than ever are looking to unlimited leave policies to boost productivity, reduce turnover and prevent burnout. Policies are in place in at least half a dozen businesses, big and small, but particularly prevalent within the thriving startup community.

“It’s kind of the new approach to work,” said Dave DuPont, CEO of Boulder tech company TeamSnap. “I want people to be making things happen, not punching a timeclock.

“Life is not only about work.”

A practice startups endorse

It’s not known exactly how many companies offer unlimited vacation in the U.S.

A 2015 survey of 450 businesses from global HR consultant firm Mercer found that more than one in 10 offer unlimited vacation, at least to executives.

A recent employee benefits survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found a slightly lower figure: approximately 4 percent of businesses with unlimited paid time off.

Though no similar data exists on the local level, the number is likely higher due to the preponderance of tech startups, which have been early adopters of flexible leave policies.

“I think the majority of the smaller tech companies in Boulder and Denver are doing it,” said Sarah Innocenzi, vice president of people at Boulder advertising tech firm Sovrn.

Sovrn itself has a flexibly leave policy, in place since 2013, but Innocenzi was quick to clarify that didn’t mean unlimited.

“We still require a formal request for time off, we require manager approval, and the managers make sure employees keep time off reasonable.”

Innocenzi said the practice was widespread enough around Boulder’s tech community that it no longer presented an advantage in hiring.

“It’s not one of those unique perks that’s going to make people come to one company over another — at least among startups.”

Large companies embrace rarely

Among larger, more traditional companies, the practice is still rare.

GE made headlines in 2015 when it became one of the country’s largest companies to offer unpaid vacation time to 30,000 full-time, salaried employees — about 43 percent of its workforce.

Dozens of local workers — GE maintains operations in Longmont, Boulder and Broomfield — are eligible for what the company calls “permissive leave.”

“It’s definitely been a positive factor in both hiring and retention,” said Christina Root, human resources manager for GE’s oil and gas division in Longmont.

“I know for me personally, the flexibility allows me to be the best in all aspects of my life — a better spouse, a better mother, and a better worker.”

Root said it took awhile for employees to adjust to the freedom. At first, many of stuck to the traditional leave structure, taking no more than the 10 or 15 days they’d earned based on tenure.

Today, Root has no idea how much time they take. Nor does anyone else at GE — the company doesn’t track it. But she is sure it’s being utilized.

“I haven’t heard or seen any instances where people don’t take time off.”

Americans as workaholics

That would make GE employees unique among their peers. American workers are notorious for putting in longer hours and more days than their counterparts around the world — a problem that’s increased in recent years.

Not only are fewer U.S. workers entitled to paid vacation from employers, those who do get paid to take time off are increasingly leaving days on the table.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report that 76 percent of private sector employees get paid vacation, down from 82 percent in 1993.

On average, workers with one year of tenure receive 10 days paid vacation. Those with five years of experience receive 14 days and those with 10 and 20 years in get 17 and 20 days, respectively.

But more than half of Americans (55 percent) didn’t take all their available paid vacation days in 2015, according to U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off.

Workers took 16 days of vacation in 2014, on average, down from 20 in 1992.

Even at companies with unlimited vacation, it can be hard to pry people away from their desks.

Kickstarter axed its take-all-you-want leave policy after it found workers were actually taking less time away.

The 2015 Mercer survey revealed that employees at firms with unlimited vacation take the same time off as they were allotted previously under a standard plan.

“Certain people have a strong sense of responsibility and will burn themselves to a frazzle,” said TeamSnap’s DuPont, who implemented his company’s no-limits policy shortly after its 2009 founding.

Unlimited, unbooked

TeamSnap does not track time off. Managers are instead encouraged to make sure their subordinates are refreshing themselves with days away.

“If you don’t actively encourage people to take breaks, you could fry people,” DuPont said. “Vacations refresh people, recharge their brains and increase their output.”

Portland-based Cloudability, which has an office in Boulder, takes a top-down approach to enforcing leave for its 80 employees.

“I got my entire executive team to book at least a two-week continuous break on the calendar by the end of January,” said CEO Mat Ellis. “That way, people can see their bosses making it a priority and follow suit.

“We’re trying to lead by example.”

A defined goal like Cloudability’s is a good way to go about flexible leave, said Kendra Prospero, CEO of Boulder recruiting firm Turning the Corner.

“Unless there are really clear guidelines, employees end up not taking vacation,” Prospero said. “You have to be really specific in your goals to get everybody to move toward the same place.”

She’s also seen companies being hurt by employees that accrue vacation and cash it out when they leave, costing the businesses thousands.

“Almost everybody ends up losing” with unlimited vacation policies, she said. “We’re not a huge fan of it.”

Trust in employees

What workers really want, she said, is more flexibility in their working week.

She often recommends companies establish “core hours” where employees should aim for physical presence at the office, allowing a portion of work to be done remotely at workers’ leisure.

“People are already working on the weekends, checking emails first thing in the morning or late at night,” she said. “In a traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday setting, they end up feeling like they’re getting taken advantage of.”

DuPont and Ellis say their respective companies are dedicated to that type of flexibility, and that unlimited vacation is a reflection of the culture that already exists.

Ellis originally thought Cloudability’s policy would result in month-long trips to Hawaii, but instead it’s translated to shorter workweeks for many, like his HR director who takes off almost every Friday.

The perk has been incredibly popular. In a recent survey, only three employees said they’d prefer going back to the standard allotment of paid leave.

TeamSnap’s DuPont said his company uses the measure as sort of a reverse recruiting tool, hiring employees who perform well under a looser structure.

“Unlimited vacation is just an element of a philosophy of work that comes down to trusting people,” he said. “We don’t care when you work or where you are.

“We trust the right guys are doing the right thing to move the company forward.”

Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, castles@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/shayshinecastle

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