3 controversial ways to encourage employees to use more PTO

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As we start looking beyond quarantine and slowly move into the new normal, it's time we seriously question how we've been promoting PTO in our organizations.

By now, we all know the stats. More than half of Americans either don't use all of their PTO (55%) or feel guilty about taking it (54%). COVID has further depressed this behavior as limited vacation options and a fear of job loss has caused employees to shy away from PTO. Naturally, this is generating concerns around loss days and higher PTO liability across organizations of all sizes, leaving companies scrambling to make temporary modifications to their policies to hedge the potential downside.

But ask yourself, when's the last time you took an objective look at your PTO policy? We've been given the opportunity to reassess how we've been promoting the use of PTO. Temporary patches and quick fixes are a missed opportunity to reboot and reintroduce a better version of PTO. A version that truly reduces burn out, increases job satisfaction, and maybe even promotes financial wellness. It's possible if you're willing to challenge traditional thinking and get a little creative.

Fire "Use it or Lose it"

I don't know anyone that likes Use it or Lose it. Employees don't take kindly to forfeiting time they've earned, and employers don't like having to manage the influx of complaints and last minute year end requests. The statistics support that notion. Only an estimated 23% of companies have Use it or Lose it anymore.

But I get it. It's worked as a tool to limit PTO liability and force employees to take time off for some businesses. But if you're one of the 23% that still invokes this policy, I would challenge you to ask yourself if there's a better way to accomplish your objectives. Is there a "carrot" that will work better than the "stick" you've been waving? An approach that accomplishes the same goals without souring your company culture and negatively positioning you against your competitor?

There is. And some companies are already doing it by getting creative and leveraging new technologies. If you don't already, get to know your company's natural business cycle and create a PTO outreach plan for your employees where you nudge them throughout the year to take leave during times that are less disruptive to workflow. You can automate the outreach by working with your tech team to schedule emails via a service provider like MailChimp. If you'd like a turn-key solution, look into one of the new HR Tech startups focusing on PTO to help you plan, automate and encourage leave.

Rethink your unlimited vacation

A recent study by Namely, found that on average employees with unlimited PTO take less time off (13 days) than employees with traditional policies (15 days).

Take this opportunity to examine and weigh your unlimited policy against your company's values. Does your company culture genuinely encourage employees to take meaningful time off? Does your company value employee happiness and well-being? Do your managers reward results over hours clocked? Do you nurture trust and goodwill by empowering employees with the responsibility to manage their own leave?

If the answer to one or more of these is "no," I encourage you to connect with stakeholders and better align your policy with your culture. Maybe an unlimited plan isn't the right choice. That's ok. You might find your culture is a better fit with a traditional policy. One where employees know exactly how much leave they're getting and feel more comfortable taking it.

If you answered "yes" a lot, then the success of your unlimited plan may come down to your ability to communicate the boundaries of the plan. Sometimes the specifics of these boundaries are ambiguous. Leading to employees taking too much or not enough time off because they don't know where to draw the line between acceptable and excessive. Make things clear and communicate it often.

Offer PTO payouts

It seems crazy to suggest cashing out PTO given the current state of the economy. But bare with me. You don't have to pay out 100% of the bank. Offer employees the ability to cash out a portion of their accrued PTO. You can offer this quarterly, monthly or ad hock if you can afford it. A few days converted into cash could help an employee gain a little peace of mind during these difficult times and would go a long way towards establishing goodwill and company loyalty.

Don't be afraid to get creative and buck the status quo. If there was ever a time to challenge conventional thinking and make improvements, it's now. The future of work depends on us having the courage and foresight to reset and do better.

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