No, really, your boss wants you to take vacation — now

Companies’ latest memo to workers: Take a vacation already!

After several challenging months on the job during the coronavirus pandemic, businesses want workers to use their paid time off to stave off burnout and avoid a year-end vacation crunch. But with travel disruptions scuttling many summer trips—not to mention employees’ stress about working from home for the first time—fewer workers appear to be claiming vacation time this year.

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Workers at roughly 3,000 companies tracked by human-resources software company Zenefits, a subsidiary of YourPeople Inc., submitted approximately 63,000 requests to take vacation in April and May. By comparison, about 120,000 requests were submitted during the same time last year. Data from Namely, an HR software startup, shows a similar trend, finding that employees at 1,300 midsize firms used 14% less paid time off in May 2020 than they did in May 2019.

Zenefits data also showed a relatively low level of time-off requests for July and August, but the company noted that more workers may still make plans as the summer progresses.

“The last few months, it’s been hard for people to take the time off because they can’t go anywhere,” says Robby Kwok, senior vice president for people at Slack Technologies Inc.

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Many companies’ vacation-time policies amount to “use it or lose it,” so workers choosing not to take time off are essentially working for free. Greg Coppedge, an IT specialist in Delaware, took time off at the last minute to avoid that scenario. He had planned travels to compete in an esports tournaments in Atlanta in March and another in Colombia in June. With both trips canceled because of the coronavirus, Mr. Coppedge opted to take time off and spend it at home with his girlfriend because his vacation would have expired at the end of June.

“I don’t really have anything else to do, and I can’t cash it out,” Mr. Coppedge says.

Matt Reed says he wasn’t able to use all his days off before they expired June 30, the end of the fiscal year for Brookdale Community College in Middletown, N.J., where he is a vice president. Since the coronavirus shut down campuses in the spring, he tried taking a day off to relax near home but says he wasn’t able to stay offline during a demanding time at work.

“The fact that I have a job I can do from home is a blessing, but it requires rethinking what a vacation means,” Mr. Reed says. “When everything has to be done remotely, there’s a lot of things that come through the chain for approval. So, if I step away, nothing gets approved that day.”

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Many employers are pushing people to take time off to avoid burnout, but there’s a fiscal reason for bosses’ vacation enthusiasm too. Unused vacation time is logged as an accounting liability on corporate balance sheets, so companies notice when it adds up, says Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“It’s getting pretty painful,” Mr. Cappelli says of the liabilities. Some leaders may also sense slipping productivity, as remote work continues into the summer, he adds, prompting them to suggest employees take a break now.

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Having clarity about work expectations could relax employees’ tensions around taking time off. Workers at Ultimate Software Group, Inc. and Kronos Inc., which recently merged, began submitting many more time-off requests after the company announced in May that offices would stay closed through Labor Day, says David Almeda, the company’s chief people officer.

Nevertheless, some still feel that taking a vacation is tantamount to slacking off. Affirm Inc., a San Francisco-based consumer-lending company, made Memorial Day a four-day weekend so that employees could truly unwind, says Jude Komuves, the chief people officer. Within her team at the company, she also circulated a public sign-up sheet for workers to choose a day in May they would take off. The form helped people feel that taking time off was socially acceptable, she says.

Some workers feel that taking vacation is selfish this year, Ms. Komuves said. The sign-up sheet “had a powerful effect,” she said. “It wasn’t just them taking time off. It was a team obligation.”

Mr. Kwok, the Slack executive, says he noticed staffers have been less interested in taking off time during the pandemic. He said one concern is that everybody will want to use their time all at once if there’s a drop in Covid-19 cases and people feel safer to travel, putting Slack’s management in a bind.

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“I think it’s possible later this year when shelter-in-place gets lifted, we might see a surge in people taking PTO,” Mr. Kwok says. “The last thing I would want to do is say, ‘Hey everyone, I know you all want to go on vacation, but only 10% can go.’”

The pandemic has led some companies to rethink their vacation policies. Madwell LLC, a Brooklyn-based creative agency, shifted to an unlimited-vacation policy after the onset of the pandemic, says Michelle Miller, director of people and culture. The change was meant to address workers’ reluctance to take time off and recharge and also to alleviate fears of losing paid time off during illness or to care for a loved one, she adds.

Ms. Miller says the company had previously mulled the change, but the pandemic accelerated it. “We don’t want people saving their vacation time for a moment that wouldn’t come,” she says.

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