The Flip Side of Seductive Startup Work Perks

Did anyone consider that unlimited vacations, the illusion of flexibility, and a laid back culture might not be the best idea after all?

By Kathryn Khalvati

What the Millennial wants, the Millennial gets.

For the tech-equipped millennial workforce, the 9-to-5 workday just won’t do. Flexibility is currently the most sought after job benefit by the Generation Y, and startups are bribing them into their arms with mouth-watering perks like flexible hours and unlimited vacation time.

However, a recent survey showed that a majority of American workers reported feeling overworked and a quarter said they regularly work after the standard workday is done.

In other words, something is not adding up between the increased amount of workplace flexibility and an overworked millennial generation. Perhaps the freedom that millennials are demanding and that startup life is supplying is not entirely in favor of a work-life balance as most presume. In fact, a closer look at the dynamics of two increasingly popular work perks–unlimited vacation time and the flex workday–shows that asking less of employees can actually lead them to working more.

Unlimited Vacation Time is Not Your Friend

Championed by large tech companies and small startups alike, unlimited time off is arguably one of the most prized perks offered. On-demand vacation sounds like the ultimate contribution to a work-life balance and the most generous gift an employer can bestow upon a restless millennials. But who’s really reaping the benefits?

Studies show that Americans do not fully utilize their vacation days, with an all-time low use in the past four decades. A 2014 Glassdoor survey found that the average American employee only takes half of their days off, and 61% work during vacation days. So while the prospect of endless vacation days may feel mentally soothing, research is telling us that you’re most probably not going to take advantage of it–at all.

The ambiguity of the policy is another red flag for this fantasy-like perk. A set amount of vacation days gives workers an idea of what their companies consider a reasonable amount of vacation time. Without this expectation, employees may take fewer days off to make sure they do not cross over any unspoken boundaries and to prevent the risk of losing the opportunity for a promotion. Take Kickstarter, for example, which had to retract its unlimited vacation policy because its workers felt less entitled to their vacations and began to burn out.

And while granting unlimited vacation time may seem like the ultimate act of generosity by the employer, companies are actually cashing in on the policy. Employers can save around $2000 per employee by not having to pay for unused vacation days.

The Flex Hour

The startup world is quickly doing away with the traditional 9-5 work structure by offering employees the chance to determine their own start and departure times. As long as you have a laptop, 4G, and a cellphone, you can call the shots on when you plug in your hours. Millennials, who believe their active and ambitious lifestyles necessitate mobility, see this work perk as a godsend.

Enter research with the buzzkill on so-thought answer to overbearing work schedules: studies show that a flexible schedule can often lead to working a good 7.5 hours more per week.

Why is this the case? First, we must acknowledge the cultural revolution that is the startup world, which is notorious for a round-the-clock work culture that romanticizes all-night coding sessions and heroizes the insane work ethic of tech gods like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. A tech company may offer flexibility, but if the work culture fails to set the tone for a work-life balance and is just another fast-paced, volatile (albeit exciting) firm that is sucked in by the ways of Silicon Valley, there is still an immense pressure to be on call at all times. Sure, you may come to the office one hour late one day and leave early another, but you’ll also probably be Slacking a co-worker about a website bug at 11pm tonight and answering a flurry of emails on Sunday.

But the high-intensity tendencies of the tech world are not only to be blamed. As argued in the book ‘What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend‘ by Laura Vanderkam, many employees lack the self-discipline to establish clear boundaries between work and home life and have a hard time finishing nonemergency work tasks in standard working hours. Others feed off of a sense of self-importance they gain when working late hours or on weekends.

Be Careful What You Wish For

All in all, millennials may want to rethink which jobs perks they prioritize in order to to achieve a work-life balance. At first thought flexibility in the form of unlimited vacation time and flexible work schedules may seem to contribute to healthier work habits. In practice such perks are hard to utilize when not internalized by company cultures. And sadly, the American bias to sacrifice play for extra work and the challenges of self-managing time and responsibilities are also not in one’s favor. No blanket statements can be made here since different perks work for different people. Just a forewarning to think twice before falling prey to the tempting notion of “flexibility” offered by the startup world.

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