When Gather was a team of three scrappy co-founders, we didn't think much about setting a paid time off (PTO) or holiday schedule. If someone needed to take time off, we would communicate it to the team a few days in advance and mark our calendars accordingly.
When hired our first employees, we knew this ad hoc process wouldn't fly.
New hires expect to have a clearly defined PTO and holiday structure. Employees need to be able to coordinate their schedules with other family members. Even though our startup felt too small for that kind of structure, we were their employer and we owed them that structure.
As a founder, the first time you think about your company’s PTO and holiday structure is most likely when you write your first job description. You’ll browse through similar posts and realize that everyone else has a bullet point on the topic.
You might want to quickly pick something and move on. But beware. The second you put a policy down on paper, you’ve defined a key part of your workplace culture for years to come. This decision will have a significant impact on the lives of your employees and determine what kinds of people you attract.
Luckily there are only a few key decisions to make.
Early-stage startups battle to survive. As a founder, you hire people to increase your bandwidth. Employees feel expensive at this stage, so you want them contributing every ounce of their energy toward the business.
However, the key to success with these hires isn’t hours worked, but rather output created.
And for knowledge workers— especially those at startups who make critical decisions— "busyness" is not the goal. You need to create an environment where your employees can maximize their creative output and problem-solving to help you reach your aggressive milestones.
Creating a culture where people don’t take time off leads to burnout which reduces productivity. Ultimately burnout leads to turnover of the employees you worked hard to attract.
At the end of the day, your employees might enjoy working at an early-stage startup, but for them, this is still a job and they’ll leave it if they are burned out.
Unlimited PTO, fancy snacks, beer kegs, you name it— it all came from the startup world trying to find ways to obtain the talent edge.
Startups tend to have cutting-edge perks because these benefits help them compete with larger companies for great people.
As a startup, you're competing for talent, not only with other startups but also with big tech and other well-funded companies. While you may not be able to match a competitor’s salaries, you can make up for it with a more inclusive and flexible work schedule.
Before 2010, there was one main way to do PTO. With a traditional PTO structure, a company sets a certain number of days that an employee can take off each year. Employees schedule vacations and days off accordingly. The majority of companies still use this model. But there are a few variations to it, which include:
First introduced by Netflix, the unlimited PTO model became popular with startups throughout the 2010s. An unlimited PTO policy is a hands-off approach where you trust your employees to take the time they need while also getting their work done.
You hold employees accountable based on their output and contributions, rather than on the number of days they sit in the office or turned on Slack.
But in the past few years, there has been a pushback against unlimited PTO. Critics note that unlimited PTO often creates the reverse effect that it was intended to. Since there is no standard for the number of days off, employees take less vacation, so it doesn’t look like they are abusing the policy.
Mandatory PTO arose to make up for the perceived gaps in unlimited PTO. PTO remains unlimited, but employees are required to cash in a certain amount of days off each year.
Managers and People Ops folks check in throughout the year to ensure that employees are taking their allotted time off.
As with PTO, there is a default way to structure holidays. You can opt for the federal guidelines of the home country where your company is located.
In the United States, the federal holiday schedule includes:
For teams with offices in different countries, it’s common for each office to recognize its own countries' holidays.
But as more companies hire remote employees across the globe, many distributed teams are opting for global holidays.
With global holidays, you select certain holidays that everyone might celebrate worldwide — for instance, Christmas and New Year’s Day — and leave national holidays as days that employees should take off as part of their PTO.
Another option for distributed teams who want to be extra inclusive is to let employees choose their own holidays.
In this setup, every employee has a certain number of “holiday days off” they can set to honor their regional or religious holidays.
A drawback of this policy is that an employee who decides to work on Christmas or another popular holiday is unable to collaborate with others who choose to take it off.
Some companies lump PTO and holidays together in one big package. In this scenario, everyone gets a set number of days off and can apply them to holidays, vacation, or whatever else they want.
Doist, for example, gives its employees 40 days off that they can use for anything.
Here at Gather, we decided on 20 days of PTO and 12 choose-your-own holidays (employees choose their holidays at the beginning of each year).
This plan fits our need to be inclusive for our internationally distributed team and helps ensure that everyone gets the breaks they need from the fast-paced, sometimes stressful environment of an early-stage startup.
Note, there are also some legal implications.
Every country and state has its own specific rules about holidays and paid time off, so be sure to review the requirements in the areas where your employees are based.
If you’re in the United States, you can find state labor laws here.
Once you set a PTO and holiday schedule, it might be hard to amend it. But, like any good People policy, you should revisit it every once in a while to ensure that it's still meeting your company’s and employee’s needs.
Thank you to the following folks for help on this post: