Unlimited paid leave sounds too good to be true – because it is

For Steph Marshall, a huge part of her hated writing that headline and this article. But she went ahead and did it anyway. Here's a cautionary tale on unlimited paid leave.

Unlimited leave should work – employees should be able to manage their time based on their own productivity and output. Desk time for the sake of it is ridiculous, and we should incentivise people to work when and how it works for them. Companies that are trialling these arrangements should be applauded for being brave enough to try something different to protect their most important asset.

But having worked for several years at an Aussie start-up in Los Angeles that offered this exact approach, I can say from direct experience that the reality is more difficult than the catchy headline. In practice, unlimited leave was weighed down in complexity, and ultimately led to an imbalanced outcome between individuals and departments. Rather than build culture, it had a corrosive effect that led to resentment and frustration. There were several reasons for this:

  • Not all managers see eye-to-eye on leave. This isn’t a criticism, just a difference in approach. And it’s a driving reason behind why HR policies are still important – it keeps the system fair for all. If your manager is output-focused, teams are encouraged to live their best life and take leave as much as possible. But if another manager subscribes to a different, perhaps more traditional approach, your leave might be more scrutinised.
  • You might work in a team of ten people who all have a similar skillset to you, so the other 9 can easily cover your work during a two-month holiday. But if you are a solo specialist, and therefore someone who can’t be covered for, you might struggle to justify 2-3 weeks. And have to pick up the slack when your return.
  • In exchange for the generous leave policy, you might feel obligated to make yourself more available than usual. In my case, I didn’t travel without my work laptop over 2 years. As someone who genuinely needs to disconnect from time to time, this ended up being a pretty shitty trade off for an extra week or two of holidays a year.
  • While it may depend on contract specifics, the absence of fixed annual leave as part of your remuneration package could also mean that you’re not entitled to a final leave pay out at the end of your employment.

As a team, we spoke at length about everyone’s preferences for unlimited leave, and while there were various opinions, I was genuinely surprised that the preference was for the good ol’ 4 weeks a year (myself included). With hindsight, it makes sense – you earn those 4 weeks, and they are yours to do with as you please.

At the risk of being cliché, everyday working flexibility goes so much further than a flashy leave policy. At my current workplace, we encourage flexibility across the board – whether this be your working location or hours, because we know that seeing your kid’s soccer game on a Wednesday arvo or being able to take a PT session at 9AM on Fridays is going to help you be more present and happier at work. I am currently writing this piece from Bangkok, as I am working remotely from Asia for the next few months. There are guardrails to this arrangement, but these are critically important to ensure I know what it is expected of me, and our team and clients can be assured this won’t impact the quality of my output.

Finally, I think there’s so much to be said about an unprompted early afternoon or day off following a busy period, in the lead up to a long weekend, or to reward great work. Nothing is more joyful than an all-staffer Slack message encouraging everyone to knock off earlier and go enjoy the sunshine.

How we work will continue to evolve, so no policy or benefit should be set in stone. We should continue to evaluate what makes the most sense for our teams and remain flexible to change, but also be realistic about what’s going to deliver the fairest outcome for everyone.


SPEED’s head of performance and analytics, Steph Marshall


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