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Is unlimited paid leave the answer to agency burnout?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

April 6, 2022 | 9 min read

More agencies are offering their workers unlimited paid time off in an attempt to recruit new talent and protect staff from exhaustion and burnout. How does it work?

hammock in front of a sunset

Some agencies now offer staff unlimited time off from work. Could the idea catch on? / Unsplash

In a competitive talent market, the amount of paid vacation time offered by advertising and marketing agencies to staff has become a key point of distinction. In response, some agency businesses are offering employees as much paid leave as they want.

WPP agency AKQA is the latest to try it and is midway through a pilot unlimited paid leave policy at its New York and Portland studios. Amy Oliver, AKQA’s chief people officer, tells The Drum that the pilot is part of efforts to formalize the flexibility workers gained during lockdown.

“Post-Covid, there were a couple of interesting things that, from an employee perspective, were positives. One of them was that people felt a better sense of flexibility around their own schedules... you’re working from home, you can arrange things the way you need to arrange them for your life.“

With AKQA considering what its hybrid office set-up might look like, and its New York studio in the market for new premises, the time was right for a trial run. “The challenge was, how do we continue to allow employees to feel empowered to take the time they need and create an environment of flexibility?“

The pilot, dubbed ’Flex Time’, began in January and will conclude at the end of the second quarter of the year before rolling out at the agency’s three other US studios.

“It replaces vacation and personal time,“ explains Oliver. “People still have sick leave, they still have leaves of absence and all those other things.

“You’re changing the focus from schedules to outcomes – to a focus on performance expectations while not worrying too much about the schedule.“

London-based agency Elvis has had unlimited leave since 2020, after a year-long trial. Fellow Next Fifteen agency Archetype also offers unlimited vacation time.

Chief executive officer Tanya Brookfield explains. “After you’ve passed a three-month probation, you can take unlimited holiday within the year.“

Elvis still has some “controls“ in place around leave – namely, that staff need to make certain they’re not leaving their immediate colleagues short-staffed and that it doesn’t affect performance. The agency still monitors days taken, which Brookfield says is to make sure it can plan accordingly and so that it can nudge people to take enough holiday.

“If your work is suffering, or you’re not meeting those expectations, or somebody on your team is suffering, then we have a conversation about it,“ she says, but otherwise “there’s no catch“.

Some agencies put more concrete rules in place. US agency Barbarian offers staff ’Flex PTO’, a scheme with unlimited paid leave throughout the year but that caps staff from taking more than 10 working days off at a time.

AKQA’s pilot has adopted “best practice“ with a similar recommendation to not take more than 10 days, though Oliver says it’s not a hard rule. “We’re not saying you can’t, it’s not in the policy.“

At digital and PR agency Golin, staff across its entire global network have had unlimited paid leave since 2016. There, it’s part of a wider flexible working offer. Group HR director Rebecca Hall says: “It’s about trusting people to manage their own time as best they can. It isn’t about taking six weeks off over the summer and dumping all your work with your colleagues. It’s about talking as a team about how you are going to take advantage of it so you can all benefit.“

Unlimited benefits

Exhaustion at work is a major issue for agencies and workers, and paid leave is one of the most effective tools businesses have to make modern working life more bearable. According to Indeed, the number of companies offering the policy rose 178% between 2015-19.

“There has been more of a focus – and rightly so – on self-care and mental health, and time away is an important part of that,“ says Oliver.

The pandemic put that issue into sharp relief, but many agencies saw workers, who were faced with a lack of destinations and worries over job security, reluctant to take vacation days they already had on offer.

“You’d think that everyone wants to take a holiday, but in our sector it can be a bit of a struggle to take time off,“ says Hall.

Committing not just to the existing vacation allowance, but encouraging staff to go over it, might be a way to get employees to take more time away from work.

“During lockdown, people were taking no holidays,“ says Brookfield. “In addition to unlimited holidays, we also requested that people were logging at least two days a month off. We appreciated they couldn’t go anywhere, but simply from the perspective of de-stressing, stepping away from your computer and getting outside. Lockdown drove a lot of paranoia about work and people were a little bit frightened, so they were tending to focus on work more than anything else. That wasn’t healthy either.“

Furthermore, Hall says it has helped ease the crunch around Christmas, when staff who hadn’t taken their contractual leave throughout the year would previously end up booking it in the same few weeks, leaving the agency short-handed.

Recruitment aid

Offering unlimited leave has proven to be a powerful recruiting tactic for some agencies. “It’s really popular – a real selling point,“ says Hall.

Brookfield says the policy is “incredibly positive“ from a recruitment perspective too. “We’re trying to build a business that treats people well. It’s all about how the people in the office feel,“ she says, and ensuring that staff aren’t “fucking miserable“ working for the agency.

More flexibility around vacation time has clear benefits for workers who find it hard to fit life around their career – parents and carers, for example. However, Oliver recommends that agencies don’t label the policy for a specific group of staff, lest they put others off using it.

“I do believe there are certain categories of employees that this will be super helpful for, but there are all sorts of opportunities for other employees. The reality is you don’t know what people are managing at home or outside of work.“

Trust

While the policy can put more power in the hands of staff, some companies have found staff taking even less time off than they did before.

The BBC has previously reported that workers at some British firms were “anxious“ about being seen to take too much time off and consequently being penalized by bosses or impacting the workload of their colleagues.

Brookfield and Hall point out that their unlimited policies function on top of existing paid leave allowances, meaning that staff have an existing norm to refer back to.

Hall says: “The contractual [leave] comes first. If you don’t have that contractual base to give someone guidance, then people won’t even take the contractual leave, they won’t even take the bare minimum. We didn’t want to fall into that trap.“

In contrast, the studios involved in AKQA’s pilot have committed totally to the flexible leave regime. “People aren’t going to lose any accrued vacation in the US, where [leave] rolls over every year,“ says Oliver. “But at this point in these pilot studios, they’re only using Flex Time.“

Far from meaning absent teams or missing colleagues, Hall says the agency has seen staff take just a few days each year in addition to the minimum of 25.

“I’d say the most anyone takes [extra] is about 10 days. For most people, it was an average of four or five days. Very few people haven’t taken any.“

Brookfield says the policy is an expression of her agency’s trust in its staff. “The whole thing, for me, comes down to whether you are culturally setting yourselves up to be a place that is respectful of each other’s time. Do you treat each other like adults? Do you treat each other with respect? Because the unlimited holiday is not a big deal, quite frankly. It’s just introducing an element of choice.“

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