Downtime: Bad for Computers, Essential for Humans

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” —Maya Angelou

When I joined Verica I was told that the policy on vacation time was unlimited PTO. No sick days to be concerned about, no vacation days to count—just let the team know when I needed to vanish. If you assume good intent, this can be a wonderful idea. It could signal that the company values your input regardless of your time at your desk, that they want you to self-select what’s healthy for you, that they trust whoever they hire to be dedicated to their work but also be responsible to those that depend on them. 

On the flip side, it could be an easy out for a company that doesn’t want to include dedicated vacation days as part of employee benefits—keeping employees busy with a stream of work so steady that there’s no time to take off. It’s very easily abused on both sides of the equation. I was a little wary to start a new job with this potentially thorny benefit.

I soon discovered that my supervisor expected me to take at least four weeks off during the year, with a strong emphasis on “at least.” Not only that, but if I wasn’t scheduling any days off, there would be follow-up with direct (and maybe not-so-gentle) prodding to do right by myself. Out of the gate, my manager cared not only that my productivity was high and valuable, but that I was making sure to take care of myself and my family in the process. My one-on-ones have reinforced that cultural norm. If my manager asks me about me, it isn’t as a segue into an evaluation of my work since last sprint. They actually want to know how I am doing. 

Subsequent conversations with our CEO and CTO further reinforced that culture. All the way up the chain they want to know that I am having a good time, that I value my work, that I am being taken care of, and that I am taking care of myself. Given that I’ve been on my team the longest, I wanted to personally make sure that newcomers to the group got that perspective with no BS or concerns that it was just upper management lip service. 

We have a wonderful developer that joined in early August, and since then she has very quickly come up to speed in a fast-moving environment, doing spectacular work in the process. As a team we had been discussing our PTO policy for the Labor Day weekend, and it occurred to me that she may not yet have scheduled any time for herself that wasn’t already covered by the national holiday. It was understandable; she had only been with us about a month at the time. I checked the Out of Office calendar and my suspicions were confirmed: at no point had she scheduled time for herself. It didn’t necessarily mean she had no intention to take time, so I decided to ask her directly.

But not via DM like someone with tact. In our team’s channel. Like a fool.

Nick Hunt-Walker
Hey do you have any planned time off coming up? That’s not already a national holiday?

New Engineer
I’ll be out on Monday but otherwise no

Nick Hunt-Walker
Aight you should fix that

New Engineer 
I potentially will take a few days in October but hadn’t planned anything solid yet

Nick Hunt-Walker 
you should put it on the calendar now. you deserve downtime like everyone else

PTO is a critical pressure-release valve. Better to have the time to get headspace than grind yourself to dust. Research shows that people who take more time off are more productive (and less stressed out) when they are at work. More importantly, I didn’t want her to think that just because she was new she hadn’t earned her downtime. I’ve been a newbie before—in many ways I still am—and I get the desire to prove yourself to your team. You want to show that you’re dedicated and not just trying to take advantage of a sweet deal; to feel internally that you are worthy of your downtime.

If we hire you, you are already worthy. Take your downtime.

Our manager jokingly called me out (in a DM, of course) for my lack of discretion.

cat
lmao Nick putting [her] on blast in the channel

Nick Hunt-Walker

        :eyes:

Nick Hunt-Walker
there was probably a better way to do that but I definitely want to normalize taking your time

cat
public PTO shaming…”wHy ArE yOu ALwAyS hErE?!?!?!?!”

cat

       :laughing:

I deserved that. I think she was happy that others on the team are helping to reinforce those values, not just her. We care about our team, and are not afraid to be bulls in the social glass store when it comes to helping our teammates live better. When we value people’s worth as more than their time spent working, everyone—including the company—is better for it.   

So go ahead, claim your time.

Nicholas Hunt-Walker
Senior Software Engineer

Nicholas Hunt-Walker

Prior to life as an engineer, Nicholas spent 10 years as an astronomer, using
Python to process vast amounts of data from a variety of sky surveys.
Since switching over to software, he’s found his fulfillment in tech
education and involvement with the Seattle Python meetup group, Puget
Sound Programming Python (aka PuPPy). He’s at his best when he’s
teaching others how to do things, and as such has given talks on web
development and building familiarity with cloud infrastructure.


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