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Managing unlimited PTO in a post-pandemic world

How to manage your team vacation calendar and support your team

Jennifer Dennard, June 29, 2021

Have you checked your team calendar lately? If your team is anything like ours, everyone is taking vacation time.

While the pandemic isn't over, increasing vaccination rates in the US combined with being stuck at home for many months have caused a veritable boom in PTO.

Unfortunately, more team vacation doesn’t always translate to feeling more relaxed. With unlimited vacation policies, teams can feel caught between encouraging other teammates to take vacation days and being overwhelmed trying to continue meeting deadlines and goals. Not to mention, when someone takes PTO, they return to overloaded inboxes, Slack messages, and more that almost make them wish they hadn’t left at all.

In part, this is why unlimited time off gets a bad reputation (for not being used): it never feels like the right time to take PTO because the team is never prepared, leading to fewer days off and more burnout. Or, in some cases, a few teammates take time off, but others don’t — leading to uneven distribution of PTO and the seeds of resentment.

Limited PTO policies are set up as the panacea — limited days mean it’s easier to plan around and encourage the team to take time off in a way that doesn’t impact team operations. But a limited time off policy is exactly that — limited.

What if having an unlimited PTO policy isn’t the problem? What if the problem is how your team communicates and collaborates together? At Range, we have an unlimited PTO policy and invest in several aspects of communication and planning that empower our team to take vacation without impacting team operations and without feeling overwhelmed when they get back. Cheers to work-life balance!

Here’s a quick overview of what we’ll cover:

  1. How to share vacation schedules
  2. How to plan around vacations
  3. How to stay in sync while offline

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Use a team vacation calendar to coordinate PTO

A key issue with small teams is that if everyone takes vacation at the same time, work completely stops or someone is left trying to keep it all afloat. While unlimited policies mean you can’t restrict the overall number of days a teammate takes, you can set up policies for asking for approval and how to share when folks are planning days off.

At Range, we have a team vacation calendar that we use to keep track of who is out of the office when. If a teammate is planning to be offline for a day or two, no big deal. For more than that, we ask for advance notice, so other teammates are aware and can plan around it. For especially hectic times, we’ve used a spreadsheet to track vacation and ensure that no one team is left without any resources for a week.

Regardless of your company's specific vacation policy, consider creating a vacation calendar and including it in your employee handbook.

Tip: Shared calendars are great for overviews, but it’s easy to forget who is out on different days, which can lead to surprise delays or confusion. We also use Range to track OOO, so we get reminded who is or will be OOO in the next few days.

Take PTO into account during sprint planning

One of the reasons vacation can cause tension on teams is if the team plans don’t take vacation schedules into account. Instead, during your sprint planning, pull up the team calendar to see who will be out, and use that to determine how much you can get done that sprint. For instance, let’s say you have a ten-person team, but five people are out for two days in a two-week sprint. Then, that’s really like having nine people for that sprint, which means you’ll need to adjust planning accordingly.

It’s even useful to adjust plans on a longer-term basis as well, e.g., during quarterly planning. I know our team travels more during the summer, and that’s something we take into account when making launch plans in the summer. It’s important to incorporate vacation plans into longer-term planning because it helps set reasonable expectations with senior leaders. If vacation is only considered at sprint planning, then leaders aren’t going to understand delays or missed deadlines. An easy way to do this is to add a recurring topic to planning meetings called “Team Bandwidth” — that way no one has to raise it as a problem, it’s just part of the discussion.

Be intentional about information flow when people return from PTO

The most difficult part about having lots of vacations is keeping the team moving. The expectation shouldn't be that the team can get the same amount done as usual — there are fewer people. Expecting the same results with fewer people is a recipe for a vacation burnout cycle as the team works too hard, then takes vacation, and then works too hard again. Your teammates' work-life balance is vital.

Instead, the goal is to keep information and work flowing even as different teammates are in and out of the office. Similar to companies where teammates take shifts, the key to success is information flow. If each teammate can easily get up to speed with what happened while they were out, then it’s easier for them to get back to work and being effective.

Tip: Focusing on effective information flow is key for teams taking vacation, but it’s also true for teams that work across timezones or in remote environments where access to information is the key to being able to act autonomously.

Because some teammates are offline, this information flow has to happen asynchronously. If information is only shared in meetings, then there is going to be missed communications and delays as different folks are online on different days. There are a few key ways to share information asynchronously — you’re likely familiar with most of these, but you’ll want to be intentional about investing in them during a time like this post-pandemic summer.

Share daily asynchronous check-ins

Check-ins are simple status updates that teammates share every day or every few days. Check-ins keep the team in the loop about what’s happening right now — not what was planned to happen, but what teammates are actually working on and where they left off. These check-ins provide valuable information to other teammates getting caught up and trying to figure out where to help out.

To do check-ins effectively, consider a simple structured update like standups — what did you yesterday, what are you doing today, and where are you blocked. Structured updates are an easy and lightweight way for teammates to share regularly. Make sure to include links to relevant docs or products that support your team’s work, like Jira or GitHub.

For teammates catching up after PTO, it’s important that check-ins are summarized either by the tool or by individuals writing quick re-caps at the end of the week. If you’re interested in getting started with check-ins, we’re biased, but we think Range is the best check-in tool.

Develop project specs and trackers

If your team is working on different projects, make sure to have a comprehensive project doc that gets updated regularly. It might include an overview, links to relevant products, and current status about what’s happening.

Project management trackers like Jira or Asana are also a great way to see what’s been done and what remains, but they can be hard to get an overall sense of what’s happening.

Consider asking the team to share weekly updates on their project either in a doc or a tool, so folks can easily see what’s going on. At Range, we use our objective tracker and Check-ins to share high-level project updates, so when a teammate comes back from vacation they can easily see where a project left off. And when they’re ready, they can click through to Asana, GitHub, Google Docs, or Jira to see more detail.

Simplify distribution of meeting notes

Missing a meeting can make it feel like you’re out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on. Documenting meeting notes is a great way to keep track of discussion, decisions, and actions for attendees, and notes are invaluable for folks who missed a meeting or are OOO.

Note-taking can feel like a chore, but meeting notes are incredibly important in providing a consistent stream of information that builds team alignment, especially when people are taking turns being out of office.

With meeting notes, it’s important to document the topics discussed, the purpose of the discussion, any highlights, and a decision. Make sure to make notes accessible to teammates, so they can read through and get caught up easily. At Range, we use the Range meeting facilitation tool for all team meetings, so notes are automatically shared with the right folks, even those who are OOO.

Enjoy your vacation

Once you’ve established a foundation of communication, it becomes easier for teammates to take time off without disrupting team operations and without burning out the rest of the team. Plus, vacations become more fun and energizing. Instead of dreading a return to the office, teammates know they’ll be able to get caught up and back to work quickly rather than trudge through their swamped inbox.

That means you can focus on what you need to do to enjoy your vacation. At Range, we recommend teammates set an OOO event on their calendar, remove Slack from their phones, and do anything else they need to turn off.

And while shifting more communication to async tools might sound a bit daunting, tools like Range can help make it easy for teams and managers to get started quickly. We don’t have to lose our unlimited PTO, we just have to be intentional about how we work to support it.

Now, enjoy your vacation!

Learn how to manage your team vacation calendar with Range
Managing unlimited PTO in a post-pandemic world
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