Game Over: The End of Vacations?
Gamification as a term has come to mean a lot of fun ways to get employees engaged in a subject they might not normally care about. The idea is to get an employee to really give 100 percent to their job, which they might do if it was a hobby they’re passionate about but not so much in their sales job. Thing is, there is already gamified-style stratification at work and for better or worse, messing with those systems is a bit like “nerfing” a game system. And nowhere is that more evident when it comes to vacation.

Grinding it Out

The old system worked like this: the longer you worked at a company, the more vacation you earned. Most employees start with two weeks and then make their way up the chain until they reach five or even six weeks. The employee effectively “earned” it through leveling up, with each tier of experience (sometimes broken down in five-year-increments) equating to a level. The subtle message being that the longer you work, the more time you deserve away from work. There’s an implication that tenure equates to advantages, and it’s been a part of work culture for decades. That was the thinking for a while. Then some company executives decided to blow it all up.

For those who have become accustomed to getting a set number of vacation and sick days, unlimited vacation policies require a fundamental change in the way they view paid time off. Instead of looking at it as part of the compensation package—a perk that grows with time invested at the company—taking vacation becomes less of a “benefit” than a necessity for remaining energized and productive.

All Your Vacation Are Belong to Us

The new innovation, so-called “unlimited vacation time” has gotten a lot of traction. In short, there is no sick time, personal time, or vacation time. You take however much you need for however long you need it, with the assumption being that if you take too much time off your performance will suffer and other corrective measures (reviews, quality goals, etc.) will catch any abuses. Sounds great, right?


The problem with the implementation of this policy at existing companies is that it threw out the rules of the game and instituted an entirely new set that leveled the playing field. In gaming terms, imagine if a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that relied on level systems made everyone 0 level and then said levels don’t matter. Benefits that were accrued at 15th-level, like teleportation, were now available to everyone and moreover, the benefits didn’t scale because levels were irrelevant.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

To a newcomer, this is great news. For the “higher level” or more tenured employees? Not so much:

For those who have become accustomed to getting a set number of vacation and sick days, unlimited vacation policies require a fundamental change in the way they view paid time off. Instead of looking at it as part of the compensation package—a perk that grows with time invested at the company taking vacation becomes less of a “benefit” than a necessity for remaining energized and productive. The shift in mindset may be a harder adjustment for more-experienced workers who believe they should be rewarded for their tenure with more paid time off. Millennial employees, on the other hand, don’t see their career paths going that way; they expect to work at many companies over their lifetimes.

In gamification terms, any gamer that plans to move from game to game wants the perks immediately because they may not play the game for the long-term; this discourages players reaching higher levels because the perks for “grinding” to get there have been removed. High-level players, who tend to have the most vested interested in the “game,” do not take kindly to changes that rob them of power, and the tenured employees at Tribune Publishing were no different:

When the company’s CEO announced in November 2014 plans to roll out a “discretionary time off” policy—in which employees would have no more set vacation, holiday or sick days and instead would work with their managers to determine their time off—the staff of the Times and other Tribune papers rebelled, with some threatening to sue. The policy was rescinded less than a week later.

The other problem is that vacation equation is a risk/reward scenario in which the employee balances the risk of looking like a slacker with the amount and frequency of vacation. A tiered structure provided an impartial third-party to reward vacation; an open structure does not, which means the risk may outweigh the reward. In response, companies have upped the risk (Evernote employees lose a cash bonus if they don’t take off an entire week during the year) and the reward (Triggertrap and FullContact offer cash bonuses for taking vacations). The grind to level up has changed, so that means the rules have to change with them.

The old vacation rules were strongly based on competence (tenure), with relatedness and autonomy secondary. The new rules value autonomy most of all, with competence no longer even a factor. But in both cases relatedness matters – your relationship with your boss and coworkers when they see an out of office message yet again – and it seems that third trait was underestimated in the rush to change the workplace vacation game.

It’s important lesson for gamification experts: there are games already being played in every workplace today. Changing the rules is easier for new employees and harder for existing ones.

Join me at the Enterprise Gamification Forum on Wednesday, October 7 to explore this topic further at my session, “From Kids to Kidults: Gamification as We Grow Up (or Don’t)”. Use code “SPK1015” and my name for a 50% discount!

This article was made possible by my amazing patrons. Want more? Join us on Patreon for just $1/month; follow me on FacebookGoogle+LinkedinPinterestTwitter, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution  of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and  Awfully Familiar. Thanks for reading!